From Antonelli's Cheesemonger Jerod Hruska
A Test – Then a Trip!
When you are a cheesemonger at heart, every vacation becomes a cheese-themed journey. Antonelli’s Cheese founders John & Kendall (with two caseophile kiddos in tow) embrace and plan for this reality, scheduling detailed, weeks-long itineraries through region-specific lenses. It’s no rest for the wicked mode, as bumpy off-roads are braved in stick shift rent-a-cars to get to distinctive cheese related destinations.
In early 2018, I’d heard mention of Antonelli’s on KUT, and something just clicked: that’s where I should be. The stars directly fell into line, and before I knew it I was one-third of an Events team that was finding a new groove. This year, I was honored to be invited by Antonelli’s to take the American Cheese Society’s once-a-year Certified Cheese Professional exam (many refer to this certification as something like a ‘cheese sommelier’). This test is not simply the usual cheese shop stuff, rather an expansive overview of dairy science, food safety, retail management and anything that might have something to do with cheese. A test so intensive, many applicants begin their deep-dives into the vast study materials at least six months in advance.
Surrounded with piles of textbooks, flashcards, sample tests, videos, and any other outside-the-box resources I could hunt down, plus vacation time looming that needed spending, it sounded like a good idea to book a plane ticket to New York the very day after the test. Like a second home, I’d lived in Manhattan in what seems like another lifetime, and the familiar turf & cheer of good friends resonated as the correct destination. Cheese was to be in the back of my mind…but not for long.
Much has been said of the Summer of ‘23 being the ‘hottest on record,’ but the oppressive steam-bath of lower Manhattan in late July was no surprise to me. What does always humble me about New York is the acuity required to stay on track, and on time. I’d made several rookie mistakes that would humiliate any would-be New Yorker, and – long story short – I arrived at my dear friend’s East Village apartment very late, and too soaked in sweat for a proper hug.
Pamela is a jewel of a life-long friend. In pre-Giuliani New York, where smoking indoors and dancing on tabletops was de rigueur, I found an unlikely friendship in the proprietor of a sweet, tiny page-out-of-Paris bar called ‘Bouche.’ Punctuated by Brandy & Benedictine nightcaps, Pamela counseled a 21 year-old me about what revelations life might have in store. After several years, she sold Bouche Bar, and set her sights on a vision that celebrates both her engaging personality and business savvy, forging a career as an international wine specialist. So, in our present incarnation, the two of us are a walking ‘wine & cheese!’
A true friend knows exactly how to host an ideal homecoming, and a sumptuously unique spread of Polish cheeses & charcuterie meats from Julian Baczynsky’s East Village Meat Market – trimmed with crusty blonde bread, a marinated mix of olives, and of course a dizzying array of beverage choices – was a perfect reception.
Nonetheless, reconnecting with one of the precious few areas of New York City that truly retains its character was not the mission of this trip. The next morning, we set about to procure everything we might need for where we were headed: the Catskills. A few years ago, Pamela was on the ground floor of a crop of pragmatists that seized the opportunity to cultivate satellites away from the city, and she’d secured a gorgeous getaway right upon the rocky rivers of “Trout Town, USA.”
A gift of our spending spree that kept on giving was the bounty we collaborated on at East Village Organic Market: a button of spruce-wrapped Harbison from Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm, the notoriously stinky (yet obsession inducing) Epoisses Berthaut, a hunk of Grafton Village’s 2 -Year Cheddar, and the comfort-zone of Gabriel Coulet’s Roquefort. These selections afforded not only cheese boards we will long reminisce over, but sublime accents to nearly every meal we conceived of.
We kicked off our arrival in the Catskills seeking further insurance that we’d ‘want for nothing’ by visiting the local small-town supermarket, where I was excited to see a well-stocked case of locally made cheeses, such as Caerphilly & little soft-ripened discs of goat milk brie. A common predicament cheesemongers find themselves in is ending up with way more cheese than anyone could realistically consume, so I followed Pamela's advice to hold off on buying more (note: following advice at odds with the pull of the heart, no matter how wise, can potentially lead to regret!).
Epicurean shops, farmer’s markets & “Farmacies” abound throughout the region, and a quick ride over to Main Street Farm in the village of Livingston Manor resulted in more one-of-a-kind accoutrements: locally-crafted raspberry jam and savory chutney, plus exquisite native honey & loaves of crusty bread. One of Pamela’s clients from Italy had shipped a parcel of freshly toasted Italian hazelnuts, completing our symphony for the palate. Pamela served crisp pours of Grüner wine, as well as a citric sparkling CBD seltzer – which indeed simply “takes the edge off” – as we enjoyed a phenomenal, food memory-inducing spread before making a pilgrimage to Bethel Woods (the hallowed grounds where Woodstock took place).
At a lake-house Summer jam I was privileged to be Pamela’s escort to, I finally got to meet some of the vibrant characters I’d been hearing all about. A close friend of hers from the wine world brought his charming partner, a supremely confident New Yorker with family ties to Eastern Europe. She told of a relative that had been visiting her recently, who had somehow smuggled through customs an entire wheel of precious cheese from their mother country! Things never did line up for me to get a taste…and these are the loose ends that keep a cheesemonger up at night!
Closing out this part of my journey with a seriously cheese-y bang, we headed over to another charming riverside town, Callicoon, for our last day together. More of a modern general store than dedicated food shop, rumor had it that Spruce Home Goods maintains a respectable cheese counter. Although proprietors Lori Grant and David Tew were out that day, Lori’s pedigree working for Tiffany, Ralph Lauren, and Anthropologie effervesces, signaling that you’re exactly where you're supposed to be. But front & center from the entryway is the cheesemonger’s main attraction: a tightly-curated selection of cheeses from across the world, elegantly tucked into a vintage display case. Pressed for time and barely able to take it all in, I sampled a sacred bite of French Morbier (layered evening & morning milk curd, separated with a ribbon of vegetable ash), before we had to duck out for our next engagement. Just around the way, we found an outdoor table with a river view at The Callicoon Wine Merchant, where chef Robin Mailey dazzled us with delectables such as housemade ricotta drizzled in local honey; and smoked yogurt with local egg, fresh anchovy & black garlic.
As Pamela and I exchanged our bittersweet arrivederci, the cheesemonger in me felt at least 97% certain that we had sniffed out every whiff of cheese-y adventure our journey had brought to the table.
Hudson River Valley
Transportation options among the mountain ranges of New York state are nothing like in the city, but rather akin to rural areas you’ve been: few & far between. After a bizarre 2-hour bus ride from a Monticello casino to a luxury outlet mall near the Hudson River Valley, I was scooped up in a Mini Cooper by my pal Ashley. She and I go way back – we met while working at a massive retail store in Soho, and ‘fast-friends’ would be an understatement. Nevermind the space in time since we’d last seen each other, there was no beat to even miss, and next thing I knew we were at the kind of remote swimming hole that makes clear, ‘this must be paradise.’
Invigorated and ambitious, we headed to Pleasantville, NY on a pilgrimage to Second Mouse Cheese shop, with a mission of making an unforgettable cheese board that evening for Ashley’s mother & 11-year-old daughter. A notably large space, Second Mouse’s owner Ivy Ronquillo has curated a thrilling array of selections – with a sensibility of ‘what’s good’ that handsomely echoes my beloved Antonelli’s Cheese Shop. The vibe was bright, accessible and lively, and when my identity was out, we were warmly greeted like long-lost cousins. Tasting things ‘local’ was the primary focus, and of course I asked my cheesemonger, “what’s tasting good today?”
The first sure-fire bet presented was a palate-slathering, bloomy rinded butterbomb called Nimbus, handmade at nearby Chaseholm Farm Creamery, and after much tasting, our basket filled up nicely with an aged Marieke gouda, an 18-month Gruyere from Switzerland, savory-smoked speck Italian prosciutto – and a jar of Quince & Apple’s Fig & Black Tea preserves to pull it all together. Needless to say, later enjoying these treasures amongst stellar company, while we lazily gazed at the glittering Hudson, was another magic memory made.
Brooklyn & Beyond
Feeling like I’d fully gotten my mojo with public transportation back, I boarded the Amtrak for Penn Station the next evening, as I had a tight window to make the reservation my friend Isaac had made at Village Taverna. Isaac, a banker in the Big Apple, and I met in middle school, so when we finally stopped talking long enough to placate our annoyed waiter with an order, I caught a glimpse of something my soul said, ‘do not miss.’ The Halloumi, a PDO cheese from Cyprus, was grilled to perfection (sturdy yet pillowy; light yet resoundingly meaty), served drizzled in extra virgin olive oil & lemon, and dusted with a flurry of oregano. A true chef’s kiss!
After a very lively trip, I opted to spend my last day decompressing at a Brooklyn spa, just a stone’s throw from where I was staying. I expected a modern, luxurious facility – but what I did not expect from the succinctly titled Bathhouse Williamsburg was a phenomenal meal. The Bathhouse restaurant is accessible from the sidewalk and fully open to the public, so lunching ladies and free-thinking professionals casually intermingle with bathers in robes & slides. The menu descriptions were spartan, so after a quick assessment with the counter staff, I went for the Stracciatella, an Italian (from the province of Puglia) ‘pasta filata’ cheese dotted with gem-like trout roe, accented with dill flake and an emerald-green chive oil. Some describe Stracciatella as a Burrata without the mozzarella-ball shell. Balancing a rich, savory mouthfeel with the sweet-cream aroma of pure lactic ferments, the texture had me pondering, ‘is this what cottage cheese would be like – if it were made with heavy cream?’ In other words, Epic!
Antonelli’s: Home Sweet Home
My journey had come to an end, and it was that vacation you need a vacation from (in the best way), so I joined my mom & a family friend to come back to the comforts of An Antonelli’s Social event (find info about our next one and more: Events Calendar). After all the cheese-y experiences I’d had over the previous two weeks, it felt wonderful to be home. Hosts Alex & Anna did a brilliant job, leading a sold out crowd at our turn-of-the-century Cheese House in Hyde Park, Austin, through a seven-course cheese tasting, each with a bespoke food pairing, and plenty of Easy Tiger baguette, artisan crackers & olives. For this cheesemonger, bliss is in the balance between ‘oh, the places you’ll go’ – and home, sweet home.
[Editor’s Note: As this piece was being finalized for publication, Author Jerod Hruska received an official communication from the American Cheese Society declaring that he is now a Certified Cheese Professional.]