Sex and the Happily Married Soul

Surdyk's Cheese Shop
303 E. Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 379-9757

"Perhaps I should go shopping--a married person's version of dating," writes Lorrie Moore in her 1994 novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? And I think that if shopping is dating, then shopping for cheese is a married person's version of an orgy. All those chubby, fleshy drums and discs and wedges crowded in one long, chilled column, all cunningly devised to titillate our oral selves. Elementally they pleasure the tongue with artful combinations of our most basic cravings--salt, fat, and sweet. More significantly, they excite the adult part of the soul, drawing as they do on cultural heritages and trends from all over the world, and requiring some amount of study and a nurturing of personal taste; after all, the T-shirts say the brain is the biggest sex organ.

Hereabouts, the best collection of these sustaining stimulants is to be found at Surdyk's Cheese Shop, where the clever creations are overseen by a bashful, pink-cheeked, curly-haired culinary master: Sally Witham. A Culinary Institute of America-schooled chef who spent 18 years running kitchens at Baci, Linguini and Bob, and the New French Bistrot, Witham came to Surdyk's cheese shop in 1996. "It is something of an adult playground, a sensory playground," she agrees--and with more than 200 options here, you could put your senses through Olympic rigors.

Consider the Saenkanter aged Gouda ($10.99 per pound), an amber-colored cheese that's as rich and satisfying as chocolate; slipping a slice into your mouth, you can make out hints of butterscotch, honey, whiskey, and glory. Or the Papillon Bleu ($17.99 per pound), an imported Roquefort made from sheep's milk and aged in the Cambalou caves--11 levels that head a mile and a half into a limestone mountain in France. It's a peppery, lively cheese that moves from bite and tang to salt and saturation and bows to a delicate finish in its brief time on your tongue.

And don't forget the Rouzaire Brie de Meaux ($10.99 per pound), from the appellation-controlled district around Paris. Brie's dirty little secret is that even when it's not any good, it's still pretty good--like ice cream and canoodling--owing mostly to its enormous butterfat content and creamy texture. Which is why the prepackaged triangles of Velveeta-esque goo fly off the shelves at lesser stores. Yet at Surdyk's the easy fix is bypassed: This is Brie that's made by the famous Robert Rouzaire, Brie that's born in a white velvet cloak, Brie that exudes the faintest mushroomy, beefy perfume and oozes like a wet summertime kiss. Best of all, the large wheels are scrutinized by staffers able to tell exactly when they're ripe. Brie ripens from the outside in, and sensitive cheesemongers can discern the stage of ripeness a wheel has achieved just by pressing on it a bit: Unripe Bries are hard and chalky, overripe ones are squishy, but ripe Brie bulges a bit when ready, and feels like a perfect peach.

(While researching this article, I went to another local cheese shop where a well-meaning staffer tried to convince me that unripe, cut, plastic-wrapped Brie will continue to ripen in your refrigerator. It won't. Worse, as soon as it's cut it starts to lose its balmy character, and it gets ammonia-smelling if allowed to sit around for too long after being opened. A spot like Surdyk's, where they know of what they speak, where they go through several 6-pound wheels of Brie de Meaux a week, is without a doubt your best bet.)

Sally Witham is fascinated by cheese: "The history of cheese follows the history of the world," she says, launching into a hurried yet detailed explanation of why we are now living in one of the great ages of cheese. To make a long story short: All the peace and prosperity in the third of the world that eats cheese has allowed European cheeses to return to their preindustrial glory, while at the same time American artisanal cheesemakers are also beginning to make their presence felt. This is taking place against a backdrop of the near ruination of cheese that arose from the devastation of the world wars, coupled with agricultural industrialization.

Asked to pick a favorite, Witham scans her case with evident worry, like a proud kindergarten teacher more afraid of who will get passed over than who will be picked. (Ask Jim Surdyk to pick a favorite and you get the judicious on-the-one-hand-ing that has inspired the Surdyk clan to stock more than 11,000 different beverages in the liquor store. He would admit that his 12-year-old triplets really like the French triple-cream soft cheeses.) When Witham finally settles on something, it's an American treat that didn't exist even 10 years ago: an aged goat cheese from Coach Farm flecked with green peppercorns ($14.99 per pound). It comes in a fuzzy-jacketed polyhedron about the size of a loaf of sandwich bread, and it's a cheese full of the sprightliness of goat's milk, with a fresh, chalky, creamy texture and a spray of springy pepper. Envision some alchemic halfway point between watercress and a cloud.

When someone behind the counter reverently slices off a piece of this precious cheese for you, they nearly always mention that it's made by the same Coach family that built, and then sold, the famous leather goods company. Such an exchange provides a good example of what a swell place Surdyk's Cheese Shop is; staffers can nearly always offer suggestions to help you put together the cheese array of your dreams (or the best choice for a specific beverage), and they generously offer tastes of nearly all the cheeses in the case, beyond the moment when you think they'd lose patience. Once you've picked what you want, the Surdyk's computer prints out a nifty label that tells you what you've got and what it goes best with, so you can carry your cheese into the liquor store and conduct your own cheese class. (Sex ed for married people?) In response to this sort of treatment, several cheese-tasting groups have sprung up, getting together and sampling five or six cheeses and an accompanying wine. I imagine it's like a book group but with less advance preparation.

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