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Say Cheese: Meet Caroline Ross

Caroline Ross at Rick's Wine & Gourmet. (Domenica Marchetti)

This is the second in a series of Q & As with the folks behind the counter at area cheese shops and cheese departments of local supermarkets and grocery stores. Today’s featured cheesemonger is Caroline Ross, general manager of Rick’s Wine & Gourmet in Alexandria.

Q. How long have you been at Rick’s, and what do you do in your capacity as general manager?

A. I have worked at Rick's for seven years. I came to work here after I had back surgery after spending 20-plus years as a restaurant chef. I was executive chef of La Bergerie (in Old Town) when I herniated a disk, and my husband encouraged me to try something different. As general manager, I oversee all the day-to-day operations of the store. I order all the food, the wine, and I employ an extraordinary staff to take care of the rest.

Q. Where did you grow up, and what was your exposure to cheese as a child?

A. I grew up all over the world, and my parents were wonderful cooks. We were exposed to many different cuisines, especially when we lived in Beirut, a very international city. We enjoyed Lebanese food, Chinese food (my mother grew up in China), Japanese food (my father was stationed in Japan), French food (Lebanon was a French colony and my parents lived in Versaille in the '50s), Italian food (lots of Italians in Lebanon). A favorite cheese memory from my childhood is when we moved back to the States and my father introduced us to Liederkranz cheese. It was the American version of Limburger. I haven't been able to find it since the '80s. A big company bought them out and allowed the culture to die. My father used to take it out of the refrigerator on Sunday morning and put it on the window sill in the kitchen to "ripen." At the end of Sunday dinner, we would have cheese instead of dessert. My sisters and I loved it. My brother would get up and leave the table.

Q. How many cheeses does Rick’s carry, and how often does the selection change?

A. We normally have 70-plus cheeses in the case, in addition to Edward's ham and sausages, Broadbent bacon, paté from Trois Petite Couchons and Fabrique Délices, prosciutto, Serrano ham and more. Since the focus of the wine part of the store is France, the cheese focus is also France. But we have cheeses from many other European countries as well, and many artisanal cheeses from the U.S.

Q. When we met recently, you mentioned that Humboldt Fog was your "epiphany" cheese. Can you tell us what it was about that particular cheese that struck you as special?

A. I had Humboldt Fog for the first time 10 years ago I was at a friend's house for dinner and she had it on the cheese plate. I had never a goat cheese of that character, with the wonderful bloomy rind covering ash and the unctuous ribbon of aged cheese that surrounds the creamy center. I think I ate three-fourth of the piece that was there before I stopped myself.

Q. How do you choose which cheeses to carry at Rick’s? Can you talk about a couple of your own favorites?

A. I choose the cheese that we carry, but all the staff has input. Obviously, Humboldt Fog is one of my favorites, but also at the top of the list is Epoisses, the king of French cheeses. It is a creamy cow's milk cheese from Burgundy, with a rind washed with Marc de Bourgogne, which is brandy distilled from leftover grape skins, pips and stems. Epoisses goes perfectly with pinot noir, of which we have one or two (152 to be exact). Another favorite, when I can get it, is Saxon Green Fields, a raw cow's milk cheese from Wisconsin. All of the milk that goes into the cheese's production comes from a single herd of cattle and the farm has been owned by the same family since the 1850s. The first time I got the cheese it was date-stamped 010107. These people work hard! When you're a cheese maker it is 24/7/365, and you don't get to sleep in on New Year's Day.

Q. What cheeses are favorites among your customers? Are they adventurous, or do they tend to steer clear of the so-called "stinky"or more assertive cheeses?

A. Our clientele is very knowledgeable and willing to experiment. Everyone is looking for the perfect pairing, whether it be Epoisses with a Gevrey Chambertin or Grafton Village cheddar with an India Pale Ale. Our best-selling cheese is d'Affinois, a rich, creamy cheese from France. While it is an industrial cheese, as opposed to an artisanal cheese, it is delicious and very versatile.

Q. You just returned from the Fancy Food Show in New York. Any cheeses that especially impressed you? What new cheeses can customers expect to see at Rick’s in the coming months?

A. I spoke with two of my cheese purveyors at the show about the Nettle Meadow fromage blanc with lavender honey. It was wonderful and could be a breakfast cheese or a dessert cheese. We also discussed the Bermuda Triangle, which is a triangle version of Humboldt Fog. The upcoming months have my thoughts turning to fall and cooler weather, and mountain cheeses from France and Switzerland. We stock Appenzeller, Comté, Raclette and Vacherin in the cooler months. We have Gruyère year round, but the other melting cheeses are saved for fondue season. We are also waiting for the seasonal release of Grayson from Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, Va. It should be out in a few weeks.

-- Domenica Marchetti
(Follow me on Twitter.)

By The Food Section  |  July 6, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Say Cheese  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, Say Cheese, cheese  
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Next: Beer: More weighty thoughts on calories


Thankfully for us few, they're selling Leiderkrantz again! DCI Cheese Company. Sounds like you have a great job!

Posted by: AngelicaB12 | July 7, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

But what's so special about Humboldt Fog-- c'mon now, there are hundreds and hundreds of varieties of cheese!

Posted by: AngelicaB12 | July 7, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Many thanks for your comments, AngelicaB12, and for the tip on Liederkranz. As for Humboldt Fog, you are right, there are countless wonderful cheeses, but we all have those we like best and I can certainly understand Caroline's affection for Humboldt Fog. What are your favorites? I'd love to know.

Posted by: Domenica1 | July 8, 2010 6:04 PM | Report abuse

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