If you've got a craving, just go to the big cheese

A department head at a local specialty-food purveyor spreads the love for other fanatics.

11/16/2008 12:00 AM

11/14/2008 8:50 PM

I'll admit it. I am a cheese junkie. Havarti, Stilton, Camembert and Roquefort – I love them all. In 2002, I entered a recipe contest sponsored by the American Dairy Association in search of America's greatest cheese lover and won the South's regional award with my recipe for Harbour Town Crostini, an appetizer featuring a blue cheese/cream cheese mixture spread on toast crisps topped with caramelized red onions, tomatoes and basil. I often find myself dreaming up cheese pairings and never pass up the opportunity to try something new.

Fortunately, Charlotte is a cheese lover's kind of town. All of the major groceries in the Queen City carry a variety of unique cheeses, and most often the staff is knowledgeable and helpful.

A stop at Phillips Place specialty food purveyor Dean & Deluca will take you into an entirely new level of cheese worship. This place is the Taj Mahal of cheese. It features more than 250 varieties of domestic and imported cheese. Its most important offering, however, is found behind the refrigerated case, not inside it.

There you'll find Regina Healy, cheese monger.

Healy is a cheese lover's best friend. Her official title is supervisor of the cheese and charcuterie (pork products, pates etc.) department at this full-service outlet of the New York-based merchant. I think cheese savant is a more apt description for her. Healy has worked in the department for three years and was recently promoted into her current role.

“I am passionate about cheese,” says Healy, who went on to say that she is “always learning, as cheese is different every day, the flavors change continually.” Healy's training and cheese education has been primarily on the job, where she has tasted and learned about hundreds of cheese varieties, countries of origin, manufacturing techniques and ingredients. She also cited her vast cache of reference books and cheese guides that fill her bookshelves at home as major contributors to her growing base of knowledge.

Healy learns from her customers as well. She said the store has quite a following and attracts patrons from as far way as Boone and Columbia. When it comes to Charlotte, Healy says, “The town is crazy about Gouda.” A creamy cow's milk cheese with a nutty and slightly sweet taste, Gouda is popular in young and aged varieties. Mild goat cheese such as Ticklemore from the U.K. is also very popular with Charlotteans.

Taking advantage of Healy's expertise can make a big difference for the casual cheese shopper. Customers can ask for specific pairing suggestions for certain wines and menu combinations. Storage and serving tips are proffered as are suggestions on how the cheeses can be best enjoyed. Healy is adamant in recommending serving cheese at room temperature. “Cheese always tastes better when given the opportunity to develop its flavors beyond refrigeration,” she said.

Healy is often asked about the best cheeses for picnics. She recommends hard cheeses that tend to travel better such as pecorino Toscano, a sharp sheep's milk cheese with a buttery and hardy flavor. Healy has also been called upon to recommend cheeses for book clubs, cocktail parties and beach and mountain trips. She is happy to oblige, always tasting the cheeses with her customers so she knows exactly what they are getting.

A dream job, indeed.

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