What are the cheese pros excited about right now? Like wine, the world of cheese is vast and diverse—potentially overwhelming, but rewarding to explore. No one is happier to guide you than your neighborhood cheesemongers. You should talk to them! In "Cheese Talk," we introduce you to a top cheesemonger and ask them for three cheeses to look for this month, as well as what wines or other beverages to pair with them.
Not many labors of love begin with a mid-honeymoon announcement that your new spouse wants to quit his career, but that’s exactly how Kendall and John Antonelli’s journey to the top of the cheese world began.
The couple met as students at Georgetown University. John, from Suffern, N.Y., was chairman of Students of Georgetown, Inc., the student-run business that includes a campus grocery store, coffee shops and more; Kendall, a literal cowgirl who grew up on a ranch in north Texas, served as “The Corp’s” V.P. of grocery. John followed Kendall back to Texas after graduation. When the couple married in 2008, he had a successful career as a CPA at Deloitte; she was practicing immigration law and advocating for human-trafficking victims.
“We were on our honeymoon in Grenada,” says Kendall. “John was reading a sci-fi apocalyptic teen novel and thinking, ‘If the world ends today, was it all worth it?’ and he turns to me and says, ‘I just had the perfect wedding. I have the perfect wife. I love our home. I love our dogs. I love our city. … I just can’t stand my job.’ I said ‘OK … what do you want to do?’ and he said, ‘Something in cheese.’”
It wasn’t completely out of the blue. In high school, John’s older brother had given him a George Foreman Grill. It inspired him to start a grilled-cheese club with his classmates and a few teachers. “We were debating the merits of white Kraft vs. yellow American singles,” laughs John. “We weren’t working with the cheeses we work with now … there was a lot of Velveeté.”
Post-honeymoon, John threw himself into cheese. He attended the first-ever Murray’s Cheese Boot Camp in New York. (Kendall’s mother helped talk the specialty retailer into creating the program, and Kendall took the course not long after John.) He interned with legendary affineur Hervé Mons in France, and the couple explored the cheese cultures in Italy and Spain as well.
“Then we started running a gourmet grilled-cheese club out of our house,” Kendall says. “It was a six-course grilled-cheese dinner. And we learned a couple things about ourselves. One, we don’t really like slaving away over the stove. And two, we love being with people and building community through food; we love eating and talking. So we put that together and said, ‘Hey, what if we tell the story of artisanal food?’”
Antonelli’s Cheese Shop opened in 2010, and it’s been full-steam ahead ever since. “Now we have two shops, one with a kitchen,” says Kendall. “We have a warehouse selling wholesale to about 150 chefs and caterers. We have a Cheese House private-events venue hosting more than 200 events a year. We ship cheese nationwide, and we have 30 to 40 employees, but we still consider ourselves a small mom-and-pop. We joke that our cheese shop was our first baby that kept us up for sleepless nights, but since then we’ve had two biological babies. And they love cheese and prosciutto as well!”
Along the way, John was named to the board of directors of the American Cheese Society; he recently concluded a term as president. Kendall is on the board of the American Cheese Education Foundation, a non-profit alliance overseen by the ACS. “American cheeses are gaining a stage in the world market,” says John, “and that will continue, because our cheesemakers are so tremendous at what they do, so creative—it’s amazing.”
Their flagship shop carries 100 or so cheeses, about 70 percent of them domestic, along with jams, fresh-baked bread, charcuterie, pickled goods, mustards, chocolates and more. They also carry about 30 wines, all organic, sustainable or biodynamic, plus a few dozen beers.
“Our goal is that a customer comes in and sees something they know, and that becomes an entry point for us to get them talking and tasting and trying other things,” says Kendall. “Our mission is ‘Do good, eat good.’ We support artisans who make their food in a way that’s great for their animals, their land, the planet, their team and, most important, is delicious.” Each month, through the Antonellis’ philanthropy plan, they select one Charitable Cheese Cause to spotlight and support; this year's recipients have included Big Love Cancer, the Texas Land Conservancy and Keep Austin Fed, among others. They also regularly contribute to charity events and fundraisers, including raising nearly $10,000 for hurricane-relief efforts in 2017.
Antonelli’s Cheese Shop
4220 Duval St., Austin, Texas
Category: Washed-rind tomme
Region: Waitsfield, Vt.
Age: 10 to 14 weeks
Price: $35 per pound
Kendall says: I love Oma, but especially this time of year. Made by the Von Trapps—yes, relatives of those Von Trapps—on a farmstead operation in Waitsfield, Vt., Oma means "grandmother" in German. And this cheese is like a big ole hug from Grandma. It's comforting, bulging and a little stinky. It's a washed-rind cheese, resulting in an orange-hued rind with a straw-yellow paste that comes from the milk of primarily Jersey cows on their farm. While perhaps [smelling] a little funky, it actually has sweet and nutty flavors with a hint of garlic scapes.
Kendall's recommended pairing: The appearance, the texture, the flavor … it all makes me want to curl up on the couch in front of a fireplace with a plate of cured meats, pickles, mustard and pumpernickel bread with a nice stout—cuddled up in that orange-and-green afghan blanket Grandma made in the ’70s. Waxing poetic? Yes. Overstated description? Perhaps. But that's exactly what this cheese makes me feel. (For the record, my grandmother never crocheted an afghan, but eating this cheese makes me feel like she did.)
Wine Spectator picks: Most tomme-style cheeses (a category of small to medium-size wheels that originated in the French and Swiss Alps) share a nutty characteristic, and Oma is no different. But it also has a washed rind, which gives it a marked pungency. Aromatic whites like dry Riesling, Viognier and Gewürztraminer, as well as Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Gris, are lovely complements to Oma, along with light-bodied reds like Merlot, Pinot Noir (especially Spätburgunders) or Gamay. Try the delicate A to Z Wineworks Pinot Gris Oregon 2017 (87 points, $15, 66,726 cases made) or intense Yalumba Viognier South Australia The Y Series 2017 (90, $13, 19,000 cases imported, 2018 Top 100: No. 56).
Category: Semi-firm blue
Region: Auvergne, France
Age: 3 months
Price: $21 per pound
John says: One of the first cheeses I fell in love with was Fourme d'Ambert Terre des Volcans. Sometimes you want a blue that smacks you in the face; sometimes you want a blue that lures you in with a friendly approach and just reminds you what a good, reliable cheese is. This pasteurized cow's-milk blue is the latter, offering even folks who don't love blue a new chance to change their minds with its fudgelike texture that's rich, creamy, milky and earthy. The flavors can range from fruity to mushroomy.
John's recommended pairing: I recently took this home and enjoyed it with a bar of dark chocolate and a bottle of Nebbiolo.
Wine Spectator picks: Blues are perhaps the most strongly, sharply flavored category of cheeses and, not coincidentally, they’re most classically paired with rich and powerfully flavored wines (see: Stilton with Port; Roquefort with Sauternes). Fourme d’Ambert is on the gentler, creamier end of the blue spectrum, which is why it’ll pair beautifully with a young Langhe Nebbiolo like Michele Chiarlo Nebbiolo Langhe Il Principe 2016 (89, $20, 10,000 cases made). But for an eye-opening study in contrasts, try it with a bracingly tart sparkling wine like an extra brut or brut nature (aka “zero dosage”) like Bruno Paillard Extra Brut Champagne Première Cuvée NV (92, $50, 20,000 cases made). The lively acidity and minerally effervescence is a bright foil to a mouthcoatingly creamy, salty blue.
Category: Washed-rind tomme
Region: Dublin, Texas
Age: 3 to 10 months
Price: $36 per pound
John says: If Oma is an everyday fave and Fourme d'Ambert is an old friend, then Fat Tailed Tomme is the novelty that recently came into our lives. Made in Dublin, Texas, by the Veldhuizen family, this is their first attempt at sheep's-milk cheeses, a rarity in Texas—if they existed at all! Stuart and Connie have been making raw cow's-milk cheeses for decades and aging them in their caves built in the side of a hill, and we're excited they've added this to their lineup. When their daughter Rebecca wanted to move back to the family farm, they told her she needed to earn her keep. It was her dream and hard work that launched their farmstead sheep’s-milk creamery.
Taking inspiration from popular Manchego styles, Fat Tailed Tomme is named after the Awassi breed of sheep, known for their high milk production and—you guessed it—fat tails. Made with raw milk, it's aged a minimum of two months, but they're finding that flavor peaks around eight to 10 months, with notes of pineapple and other tropical fruit flavors, as well as hints of pasta. It develops a natural rind that is rubbed with olive oil.
John’s recommended pairing: Pair it with a dry sparkling cider.
Wine Spectator picks: Sheep’s milk has more than twice the fat content of cow’s milk, yielding cheeses with especially rich pastes. Fat Tailed Tomme is a Lone Star tribute to Spanish Manchego, so try it with a late-release Rioja Crianza like Bodegas Faustino 2014 (88, $14, 88,000 cases made), Bodegas LAN 2014 (88, $14, 96,000 cases made) or Cune 2015 (88, $13, 10,000 cases imported).