Ask any cheese-lover and they’ll tell it to you straight – cheese is just plain better in Europe.
For this, we Americans have the FDA to blame. Old-world cheeses are traditionally made with raw, unpasteurized milk. Raw milk is key to the funkiest, most addicting flavors, but has the potential to harbor harmful bacteria in certain cases. Because of this, raw milk cheeses are illegal in the US. They cannot be imported, and, if made in the US (in secret, by diehard cheeseheads with nothing to lose), they cannot be sold for consumption.
The FDA’s puritanical 60-year stance on cheese-making could also be blamed for American cheese culture, which reveres Frankencheeses like Velveeta, Kraft, Cheez Whizz, and Philadelphia over the real deal. And while Philly Cheesesteaks are arguably an institution and a way of life, it would be absurd to argue this case against a dank Époisses, a tangy Chèvre, or a nutty Gruyère. If childhood nostalgia weren’t involved, no Kraft Mac&Cheese powdered cheddar could ever hold a candle to Roquefort.
In spite of living in a culture against curd culture, Francophile cheese lovers of New York are in luck. Though you may not be able to find that mind-blowing sheep-milk camembert you had while Euro-Railing through Alpes-Maritime, you can get pretty close.
Here are the top spots for fine cheeses in NYC:
2245 Broadway, (1-212-787-2000)
Zabar’s is probably the most well reputed grocery on the Upper West Side. The cheeses there are respected, well packed, and available for tasting. In our opinion, it’s the “Cheese Temple,” a favorite for any connoisseur. The Swiss Gruyère is our top choice, plus it isn’t too expensive. Zabar’s products bring us across Europe, traveling from the west to the Mediterranean, passing through pasture-rich plains of Wisconsin on the way. Zabar’s also remains true to its roots: it was opened by a Jewish Ukrainian who arrived in the US in the 1920’s, and it continues to keep a selection of Kosher cheese.
254 Bleecker Street, (212-243-3289)
From the moment you see the sign above the shop, “This is Murray’s Cheese ” you know it’s going to be good. The red awning below the sign featuring the words “cheese – dairy” promises the shop inside to be the hell of anyone with a lactose allergy or intolerance. In the past 76 years, Murray’s has been under the ownerships of its Jewish founder, then an Italian immigrant, and now a New Jersey man from a grocer family. They refine their own cheese, which they select and import from all around the world. The sheep’s cheese Chevrotin from the Seal Cove Creamery in Maine is, in our opinion, worth the $33.99/lb. If the price is killing you inside, the Vermont Creamery Small Goat Log is a great, sweet, creamy option that’ll have your mouth watering.
1505 First Ave, (212-452-0690)
Agata and Valentina, a family-owned specialty food store, is known as a “cheese lover’s mecca.” Sure, most notably their cheeses come from Italy, but that doesn’t mean that fromage-ophiles can’t love it too! While many of their cheese are delicious and fine, the mozzarella is a must: they make it every half hour right behind the counter. It’s so fresh, so creamy, so full of dairy, that we doubt you’ll make it home with enough to put on the pizza that you’d bought the mozzarella for in the first place. The store stocks food products as well, making it even easier for you to stop and enjoy your mozzarella with a jar of olives and box of almonds.
41 Spring St, (212-302-3390)
French Cheese Board is not only your new source for all of your favorite cheeses, but also a shopping experience that elevates buying cheese to an artform. Nestled into iconic Nolita, French Cheese Board is the most aesthetically pleasing cheese shop you’ll ever be in. They make cheese shopping (and eating) a lifestyle by offering courses such as Cheese Platter Styling, Cheese and Wine Pairing, and the basic Fromages 101. This month’s featured cheese is one of France’s best-known: a soft and creamy Brie made in the Ile de France region. So as to not overwhelm the subtle flavors, we recommend eating it with watercrackers or crostini. Check out their website to learn how to pronounce it, where it’s from, and get wine pairing suggestions.
120 Essex St, (212-228-8204)
Saxelby Cheesemongers is the underdog story everyone wants for their cheese shop. Opened in 2006 by a 25-year-old who had worked the cheese circuit, Saxelby’s really commits to being a local store by selling almost exclusively local products, labeling each cheese with its name, origin, flavor, and recommended pairing. Besides helping you in the store, Saxelby helps you continue your obsession at home by selling cheese gear like a cheese journal, serving platter, and insulated cooler bag. In lieu of recommending a single cheese, we suggest joining the cheese of the cheese and chocolate of the month club. A half-pound of cheese paired with chocolate shipped to your door–perfection.