The big cheese

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Walk into the R. Hirt retail store in Eastern Market on a Saturday afternoon and you are likely to see a dozen or more people waiting to buy a hunk or two of cheese. But this fourth-generation family business is much more than just a small cheese shop. R. Hirt imports and sells cheese and specialty food products to retailers and food service companies statewide. We tracked down R. Hirt's cheese buyer of 13 years, Ed Nemetz, to talk cheese.

Metro Times: How do you know so much about cheese?

Ed Nemetz: I went to the University of Michigan, got out of school and started waiting tables. I got into the food business, met a variety of people working at different restaurants, and became friends with the two gentlemen who opened Zingerman's Delicatessen in Ann Arbor. I went to work for them and learned my basics there. I have learned a lot on the job. I have read a lot of books. I have tasted a lot of cheese. I also happen to be married to a European woman. She's Swiss. So I have traveled to a variety of places in Europe and through my interest in food I have gone to see cheese production facilities and see how they do things in traditional ways.

MT: How much cheese do you sell?

Nemetz: We stock about three hundred cheeses. Some of them I'll sell two cases a week. Some of them I'll sell a thousand pounds a week. About a quarter of that is domestic. The U.S. cheese industry has really stepped up in the last 10 years. It used to be heavily focused on commodity cheese, big volumes of processed and shelf-stable cheese. Sliced American cheese is a processed cheese. It is not a natural product. We try to find the higher-grade cheeses; for instance, our featured cheddar is Vermont Grafton Village cheddar made from the high butterfat milk of a Jersey cow.

MT: So who is buying all this cheese?

Nemetz: Half of what we do here at R. Hirt is food service. The other half is retail. Our niche in the market is the independents. We sell to the smaller providers. Holiday Market buys a good quantity of cheeses, Papa Joe's, Westborn, Nino Salvaggio's, Hiller's. Russell Street Deli around the corner buys quite a bit of cheese from us. They will buy some unique cheeses and tie them with ham or roast beef sandwiches and a special sauce to dramatize the cheese. We also sell in Traverse City and Petoskey. There are a lot of restaurants up there and a few nice markets.

MT: What advice can you give someone who might be a little overwhelmed when they're confronted with the huge selection at R. Hirt's retail shop?

Nemetz: Ask for a taste. Try different things. There are strong cheeses, mild cheeses, young cheeses, old cheeses. Don't get stuck on the same cheese. Try similar cheeses from different countries. Try cheddar from England, Ireland or Canada, try cheddar from Vermont. They all have different characteristics. What the animal eats will also affect the flavor of the cheese. It really makes a difference. Cheese comes from milk and milk comes from a cow or sheep or goat. If you're trying cheese that was made in the summer from animals out in the pasture eating fresh grasses and wild alfalfa, versus a cheese made from an animal that's been in a barn all winter, you're going to taste a difference. Keep an open mind and you'll find a range that you'll like, characteristics that you like.

MT: When shopping for cheese, how do we know it has been stored properly?

Nemetz: Cheese really needs to breathe. If you can get cheese that has been waxed or a cheese with a breathable wrapper on it, it's better for the cheese. But it really depends on the type of cheese. Aged cheddars can hold up in a vacuum-sealed pouch pretty well. Brie would die. It has a bloomy mold on the outside that is important for cheese to ripen. Package it in a vacuum pouch and it will die. It's the same with blue cheese. At a retail counter, if you have knowledgeable people working with the cheese, they'll know how to prepare it, how to handle it. There are a number of places that put cheese out into a coffin case and hope it goes away. You have to have a certain type of cheese to do that. You can't do that with all cheeses.

MT: And when we get it home?

Nemetz: At home, it should not go into the coldest part of the refrigerator. Refrigerator drawers are a little bit warmer. Then, before you eat it, bring it up to room temperature. Get some air into it, let it warm up, you're going to get bigger flavors. Many people take cheese out of the fridge, slice it up and eat it. A half-hour to an hour at room temperature changes the flavor dramatically. You can leave it out for days. If a mold forms, don't be afraid of it. Cut it off. Basically, cheese is mold.

MT: What cheese do you eat at home?

Nemetz: A good, fresh chèvre. I love Roquefort, a sheep's milk blue, from France. Swiss Gruyère is a wonderful, full-flavored melting cheese. And sheep's milk feta, from Greece. Most of the feta people eat around here is cow's milk. A true feta is made with sheep's milk. I love a good feta.

Todd Abrams is a freelance writer living in metro Detroit. Send comments to [email protected]
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