An Afternoon With Award-Winning Cheesemonger Sara Adduci Shows The Changing Nature Of The Commonwealth’s Cheese Scene
It’s a cold, gray late-January afternoon, and yet, pushing through the glass doors of Charlottesville’s Main Street Market, a small crowd of patrons sits laughing, talking, animatedly gesturing in the eateries or café over drinks and steaming coffee. Shoppers carrying paper bags emblazoned with logos from the various stores bustle across the large open hallway connecting the market’s seven locally-owned, locally-focused artisan and family-farm-friendly shops and restaurants.
In the back corner of Feast!, a high-end delicatessen, lunch-counter and wine store with warm yellow walls and beautiful hardwood floors made of reclaimed lumber, lies what is undoubtedly one the best, most underappreciated secrets of Virginia’s culinary scene: Sara Adduci’s cheese counter.
Tucked away on the periphery of downtown Charlottesville, Feast’s counter is world-class, offering a selection of more than 70 of the world’s most cutting-edge and historically sought after cheeses—including, yes, the renown south-France delicacy Roquefort, a sheep’s milk blue whose recipe (Adduci likes to personify her cheeses) was perfected centuries before French King Charles VI granted name-protection to the 6.58-square-mile communal lands of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in 1411, effectively trade marking the township’s five-month aging process, which takes place in the caverns of Combalou and gives the cheese its distinct taste.
Rummaging behind the counter, Adduci produces a tasting stick replete with a small hunk of Papillon Roquefort, which goes for around $28 a pound. “This is an old-world, European example of an authentic, place-based cheese,” she says, using the French offering to explain the complex factors that go into perfecting a branded, terroir cheese. First off, the milk comes from a particular breed of sheep, Lacaune, that are native to the region. Second, the ewes graze on the mountainous Larzac Plain and surrounding hillside pastures—elevation roughly 3,000 feet—which feature biome-specific herbs and grasses, giving the milk its unique taste. Then there are the caves. As harbingers for a variety of mold, Penicillium roqueforti, found in their soils alone, the taste of a cheese aged in Combalou’s mile-deep natural caverns is impossible to replicate.
“All these factors combine to create an artisanal geographic product that, no matter how hard you try—and people have, believe me—you absolutely cannot reproduce,” says Adduci, her voice ripe with awe. “If you think about it, it’s pretty amazing.”
Inspecting an unpackaged hunk of Roquefort, if you’re unaccustomed to looking at such things, the rindless cheese’s moldy dark blue-green speckling might strike you as something more likely to cure—or perhaps induce—gangrene than a gastronomical delicacy legend has it was a favorite of the 9th-century Frankish emperor Charlemagne. However, as promised, the cheese is astounding.
“There’s this rich textural granular-ness; the paste dissolves against your palate like a milky lozenge; you can kind of almost smell and definitely taste that wet, sweet, damp cavern air,” muses Adduci, eyes squinting toward the ceiling as she offers what amounts to a guided, supra-sensory taste-tour. “After you swallow, note that fiery, spicy, peppery lingering on the back of your tongue … Wow.”
And just like that, the ride is over. With a chuckle she smacks her lips, adjusts her glasses and begins sifting for another cheese.
A Masterful Monger
Despite routinely being honored at national cheesemonger competitions—including a runner-up showing at 2016’s Cheesemonger Invitational, where she bested top mongers from around the country in a series of evaluations ranging from blind taste identification, written tests, cutting, speed-wrapping and a mock sale—it turns out Adduci is astonishingly down-to-earth. According to her, the characteristic should go hand-in-hand with the profession. “Cheesemongers are the public face of a cheese; it’s our job to talk to customers and not only educate them about a given product, but share its story and help them appreciate all the science, skill and TLC that goes into its production,” she says. “That’s my favorite part of the job—there’s nothing I love more than turning someone on to a new flavor or variety they’ve never tried before.”
According to Adduci, whether it’s a romantic dinner for two or a cocktail party, like wine, cheese is best enjoyed with company. And that notion of sociability should be extended to include the local cheese counter which, by her logic, ought to be an experience people look forward to—a place where patrons can both indulge old favorites and push gastronomical boundaries. “People come to the counter with these categorical preconceptions, saying, ‘I don’t like this,’ or ‘I’ll never try that,’ and I think, well, let’s see what we can do,” she says. “I start by asking a bunch of questions, trying to find out what they like and why they like it, then I offer them something just a little different, get feedback, and branch out from there.”
Meanwhile, a couple has sidled up against the counter. Looking to be in their late-50s, their attire is formal—she in a dress and blouse, him a suit and coat. With a furtive but insouciant thoughtfulness, they pore over the display. “Can I help you with anything?” asks Adduci, opening a conversation that quickly snowballs into a startlingly intimate discussion of the couple’s plans—a small dinner in their daughter’s first post grad-school apartment—as well as their tastes—“I absolutely want nothing to do with goat cheese,” says the matron. “Yes, she finds it too gamey,” explains the husband, adding that, on the other hand, he’s a bona-fide lover of the variety.
Fingering her lip, Adduci ruffles her brow. The two have driven about three hours from Chesapeake and are hoping to nab something special they can share with their daughter, perhaps over a glass of wine. “Alright, let’s try something,” says Adduci, sort of brazenly relying on the wife’s knowledge of her comestible accolades to convince her into maybe just trying a small bite of one of Caromont Farms’ fabulous, but comparatively mild offerings made of, yes, goat’s milk.
“So this is the Esmontonian, which is named after the little one-stoplight town where the farm’s located,” says Adduci, handing out samples of the cheese made just 23 miles south of Charlottesville. “In the spirit of creating a local, terroir-based product, Caromont’s goats are free-range and pasture-fed, with this rustic, semi-hard Tomme cheese being rinsed with a chardonnay vinegar made from local wines that is produced near the farm by Virginia Vinegar Works … The taste begins with notes of minerality, a touch of tangy citrus and finishes with a delicate, earthy, mushroomy aroma and maybe some hints of toasted maple.”
As the husband braces himself, with a humorous quip, “Bottoms up!” the wife takes a bite. First, her eyelids flutter close. A languorous Mmmmm drifts from her lips. Brows at full-mast, the husband cuts his eyes: Adduci’s strategy has worked. Packaging a half-pound of Esmontonian, she listens to the wife explain how her perceptions have been entirely altered—“And to think, I was convinced I hated goat cheese,” she laughs, “but you nailed it.” Behind the counter, Adduci’s lips have curled into a compassionate, self-satisfied grin.
And there’s a reason for that: This nailed-it moment is something she says happens every day. “As you saw, a lot of it’s made possible by the recognition I got at the Cheesemonger Invitational, which itself is an indicator of how cheese is becoming more and more of a thing,” says Adduci. “The national cheese industry is growing, and that’s being reflected here in Virginia as well.”
Virginia’s Cheese Story
Indeed, on a national level American Cheese Society memberships have risen to almost 1,700, more than doubling since 2004. Furthermore, of the artisan and specialty cheesemakers surveyed by the society in 2012, most were around the size of Caromont or smaller, with 71 percent producing less than 25,000 pounds of cheese a year. In terms of the commonwealth, while the state’s cheese-making scene consists of only around 80 producers, according to Adduci, it’s on the rise. To put matters into perspective, Richmond-based cheese consultant and former cheesemonger at Southern Season and Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market, Dany Schutte, compares the development of Virginia’s cheese-producing industry to that of its wine industry 10–20 years ago. “Wine and cheese go hand in hand,” she says. “Over the last 15 years, our wine scene has finally grown up, to the point where we’re seeing highly competitive world-class wines. Following that is the blossoming artisan food scene, which includes cheese. We may be 10 years out, but we’re building a critical mass that is going to continue to elevate the cheese-making industry in Virginia.”
According to Adduci, for the time being, that relative smallness has its positive side. “The great thing about it is the fact that everybody ends up working really closely together,” she says, pointing to her relationship with fellow Charlottesville cheesemonger Nadjeeb Chouaf, who won last year’s Cheesemonger Invitational and whose shop, Flora, is located a half-mile away, as an example. “I literally have his number on speed-dial. Whenever I get something in that’s really cool, I call him up and we get together and taste the cheese and nerd out for a little while. And he does the same for me.”
While you might think having another world-class monger doing business no more than a few city blocks away would give rise to competitive anxiety, according to Adduci, that’s far from the truth. “The thing is, as cheesemongers we favor certain tastes and make selections based on what we like,” she says. “While there are literally thousands of amazing cheeses in the world, I carry less than 100. So having more retailers means supporting more producers by having more amazing cheeses available for people to taste and take home. While we’re not in business together, in that sense, Nadjeeb and I sort of piggyback off one another—I’ll sometimes send him folks that’re looking for a specific thing, and he does the same for me. So the relationship is beneficial, very symbiotic.”
As the couple from Chesapeake passes through the checkout line, they praise Adduci’s abilities to the cashier. Confronted by their lingering excitement, it’s hard not to be impressed. “Two aspects make a cheese a cheese: the flavor and the story,” says Adam Moskowitz, founder of the national Cheesemonger Invitational. “By the time you get the cheese into your mouth, the packaging is off and there’s no label, no story. The cheesemonger knows that story.”
And it is Adduci’s ability to tell these stories and weave them into a tasting that makes for such a magical experience and keeps people coming back—sometimes from hundreds of miles away—again, and again, and again.
Feast!, 416 W Main St., Charlottesville, 434-244-7800, FeastVirginia.com