Meet & Eat: Anne Saxelby, Saxelby Cheese

Meet and Eat: NY

Conversations with chefs and food personalities in New York City.

"You're stuck on a desert island with only three cheeses. What are they and why would you pick them?"... "I hate this question! I think my answer would change every week. This week, it would be Twig Wheel, a pungent mixed goat and cows' milk cheese from Twig Farm..."

20090129-saxelby.jpgThis week we get to know Anne Saxelby, New York City's local champion of American artisanal cheeses. Stop by her namesake stand in the Essex Market, bring along a restaurant recommendation, and she'll share all of her cheesy knowledge with you. Actually, she'll give you cheese plate ideas even if you don't give her a restaurant recommendation--but it couldn't hurt. Let's hear more from Anne!

Name: Anne Saxelby
Location: Lower East Side
Occupation: Cheesemonger

How did you get into the cheese biz? Basically by eating a lot of it. I pretty much ate cheese of the Kraft variety 'til I was 18 and went to college. My sophomore year of school, I went to Florence to visit a good friend studying there and came back utterly obsessed. After I graduated college (with a degree in studio art) I decided that the art world was not my cuppa tea and got a job at Murray's. After a summer there, I interned at Cato Corner Farm in Connecticut as a cheese maker, and loved every bit of it. Cheese had kind of a snowball effect on me--the more I learned, the more I loved it.

Why did you decide to focus on American cheeses rather than imports? My experience working at Cato Corner was so rich, literally and figuratively, and I was so taken with the generosity and know how of Mark Gillman and his mother Liz McAlister who owned the farm.

Here were two fascinating, super smart people who had left other jobs (junior high English teacher and social worker, respectively) to farm and make cheese. I thought that was just great. And the more American cheese makers I met, the more I realized there was a common thread to their stories--they have a myriad of backgrounds, but have all come to cheese as a way to make a living and change their little slice of the world.

I wanted to be their cheerleader here in the city, so folks know not only how tasty the cheese is, but a little bit about the makers themselves. So relationships were the number one thing. With that came the deluge of other good things, like supporting local farms, sustainable agriculture, the integrity of the cheese was much better because it hasn't been sitting on a boat for weeks in transit. The list goes on and on.

How do you select the farmers whose cheeses you sell? It's been a process of about six years of getting to know people. The cheese world is a small one, and wonderful one to say the least. I made friends with a few cheese makers, who in turn told me about other people making fantastic stuff. Some I've sought out on my own, met at different conferences (the American Cheese Society and other sustainable agriculture conferences) and some have been recommended by fellow cheese lovers.

Cheese plate 101: any guidelines for putting together a selection of 3 to 5 cheeses for a wine and cheese night? I always go for the trifecta of barnyard animals: one cow, one sheep, and one goat. I also try to mix up the textures and flavors so that you get a range of things from fresh to creamy, and gooey to firm and crumbly. And I always think about cheeses on a plate being like stepping stones, starting with the mildest and progressing to downright funky. But it's really up to whatever you're in the mood for.

There are so many varieties of cheese out there. Any suggestions for how (or where) to learn more about cheese? Eat more of it!! I seriously learned the most through tasting. Just buying little bits of things to try at home or at dinner parties with friends. But I understand the cheese overdose factor (in your tummy and your wallet) so some other good references are books like The Cheese Plate by Max McCalman. There seems to be more and more classes popping up around town as well. Beer Table in Brooklyn does some great cheese and beer nights. Murray's has an amazing line-up of classes as well.

Where do you like to shop for food, wine, beer, or other things that you pair with your cheeses? The Essex Market, where my shop is located, is great. There's always something interesting to discover, be it a new squash or tuber that I've never seen before, some kind of Dominican fruit paste or fruit bread, or an interesting honey or preserve from Formaggio Kitchen. For beer, I like Eagle Provisions in the South Slope or American Thrifty on Court Street. In general, I am a Sahadi's fanatic. I try to go there once a week for my dried fruits and nuts fill.

Do you have an absolute favorite cheese pairing? No. I like to be surprised by different things each time. But one pairing that really sticks out in my mind though, because it shocked me so much, was a cheese from upstate New York, Harpersfield with Ommegang (yes, the cheese is soaked in the beer!) with champagne. I thought the beer would compete too much with the flavor of the champagne, but the yeasty fermenty flavors present in the cheese turned out to be the perfect foil.

You're stuck on a desert island with only three cheeses. What are they and why would you pick them? I hate this question! I think my answer would change every week. This week, it would be Twig Wheel, a pungent mixed goat and cows' milk cheese from Twig Farm that tastes like a musky buttery barnyard coated by a layer of pine needles. It's the end of the season for this cheese and it has been consistently mind-bogglingly good over the last few weeks.

Then I'd bring a slice of the newly released Pleasant Ridge Reserve, an eight-month old cows' milk cheese from Wisconsin that is done in a Gruyere-style. It's dense, toasty, nutty, and a bit fruity. All the things I want in a cheese in the cold weather. Is it a tropical desert island? In that case, I'd make one exception to the American rule and bring along a bloomy rind goats' milk cheese from France, Chabichou if I were given the choice. It's a sublime, creamy goat cheese that tastes of perfectly soured goats' milk and grass.

Do you have a favorite dish at a restaurant in the city that uses one of your cheeses? Casellula, a little spot in Hell's Kitchen [Editor's note: Here's Ed's review!] has about six of my cheeses at any given time, and their fromagere extraordinaire, Tia Keenan, creates the most fantastical pairings. She has combined cheese with everything from corn nuts to homemade white chocolate bacon fudge to Big League Chew. No joke. It's a trip to go there and see what she's concocted on any given day.

We've often made a Gruyere-based fondue for Super Bowls past. Do you have a fondue recipe that you'd be willing to share for anyone feeling cheesy this Sunday? Yes! It's posted on my blog, It's delish!

Best pizza in the city? Lucali in Carroll Gardens. Hands down.

Favorite burger? Spotted Pig.

Favorite bagel? Kossar's.

Best late-night eats? I'm an old lady. I'm not out that late that often, but if I had to pick, I'd say someplace in Chinatown. Maybe Great NY Noodletown on Bowery would do the trick.

Undiscovered gem? Alias. A neighborhood standby. But so good, cozy, and inviting.

Guilty pleasures? Oreos, malteds, pork dumplings. But I never feel too guilty.

Food you won't eat? Not really. I'll eat just about anything.

Most memorable New York City meal? That's a tough one. Al di La seems to have a kind of magic. Every time I go there, it's heavenly.

Everyone has a go-to person they call for restaurant recommendations. Who's yours? I totally rely on my customers to keep me abreast of everything going on in the neighborhood. I find that my radius of restaurants is pretty small, and that unless someone tells me, hey, check this place out, I'll go to one of my trusty standbys.

What's the best recommendation he/she has given you? Oh, they've guided me to some great places. Recently, to Txikito [Editor's note: Read Ed's review here!] in Chelsea. I ate the most amazing tapas there--everything from bean stew with seafood to paper thin octopus salad drizzled in olive oil I could drink by the pint.

Saxelby Cheese is located in Essex Market at 120 Essex Street (at Delancey Street; map). They are open from Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and can be reached at 212-228-8204.