By Lucas Witman
For those venturing into the burgeoning world of American farmstead cheeses there is probably no better point of entry than New York’s Saxelby Cheesemongers, and there is perhaps no better tour guide than the store’s founder and namesake Anne Saxelby. Saxelby has dedicated her career to promoting the craft of American cheesemaking, and at her flagship cheese shop in Manhattan’s Essex Market, hungry shoppers can indulge in some of the best dairy products the northeastern United States has to offer.
Saxelby began her career as an art student at New York University, but it was during an early employment opportunity at New York’s most celebrated cheesemonger Murray’s Cheese that she fell in love with the dairy staple. Her stint at Murray’s led her to an internship at Cato Corner Farm, a small dairy and artisan cheese producer in Colchester, Connecticut, where she began to open her eyes to the immense world of American farmstead cheeses. From there, Saxelby began traveling around the United States and eventually Europe, visiting small family dairy farms and educating herself about the artisan cheesemaking process.
From the beginning of her career, Saxelby knew that she wanted to open her own business, but it took her a while to find her niche within the specialty food landscape. While traveling in Paris, she became acquainted with Fromagerie Laurent Dubois, a gourmet store specializing only in artisan cheeses. It occurred to her that there was no equivalent to this shop in New York City. “In New York, you find all these specialty food stores, but there was nobody just focused on cheese and dairy,” she said. “Cheese is where my expertise is. I’m not an expert on olive oil. I’m not an expert on vinegar. I’m not an expert on the best olive or cured meat selection. So this is perfect for me.”
In 2006, Saxelby first opened her eponymous shop in the eclectic Essex Market on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The modest shop occupies a mere 150 square feet and includes a long counter, finishing at a simple 3-foot cheese case. A walk-in refrigerator rounds out the location, where shoppers can pick up milk, cream, butter and other dairy staples. Saxelby in part credits the small size of the shop with its continued success. “It allows us to really move through products and rotate things and change product constantly,” she said.
The business philosophy behind Saxelby Cheesemongers is simple: the promotion of American farmstead cheeses produced at small, independent dairy farms in the American Northeast. “American farmstead is not only delicious, but it is made locally, and it is about supporting local farmers,” Saxelby said. “The goal was then as it is today to be a bridge between the farm and the person eating the cheese.”
Saxelby offers customers a carefully curated selection of artisan cheeses produced by farmers who she knows by name at farms she and her staff have visited themselves. Although always looking to learn about new farmers and bring her customers something fresh, Saxelby does admit to having a few favorite cheesemakers. She praised The Cellars at Jasper Hill for its consistent commitment to producing great cheeses. Of West Cornwall, Vermont-based Twig Farm, she says, “They are unparalleled in terms of flavor and quality and nuance.” She also expressed particular admiration for Cazenovia, New York’s Meadowood Farms.
When it comes to the particular cheeses that are most popular among Saxelby Cheesemongers’ customers, it can be difficult to pin down a specific favorite, as the selection is constantly in flux. However, there are a few standouts Saxelby points out as particularly in demand. The Ledyard from Meadowood Farms is a current top seller – a soft-ripened sheep’s milk cheese wrapped in grape leaves that have been soaked in local beer. Woodcock Farm’s Summer Snow, a sheep’s milk camembert-style cheese, is another favorite. And Cabot Clothbound Cheddar form the Cellars at Jasper Hill is a perpetual bestseller.
At Saxelby Cheesemongers, Anne Saxelby attempts to create a unique shopping experience that lures cheese aficionados and beginners alike away from the supermarket cheese case and into this dedicated space where she can offer them something that they simply cannot get anywhere else. “We’re really fun. Everyone that works at Saxelby, we have a really distinct passion for these cheeses. The experience is going to be a lot different from going to a grocery store. We are not intimidating, but try to educate through taste,” she said.
“We also have a selection of things you’re probably not going to find at the grocery store. The quality of the cheese we have is amazing, because we are cut-to-order, and we move through our inventory really quickly,” Saxelby added.
In addition, Saxelby and her staff pride themselves on the personal service they are able to provide, guiding the customer to the particular cheese of their dreams. “We are a cut-and-wrap cheese counter. Nothing is pre-cut. Nothing is pre-packaged. When a customer comes up to the counter, we play‘cheese detective’ and try to snuff out what they are looking for,” she said. “We give as many samples as people may want … We really just try to ask questions and see what people are looking for.”
With the holiday season approaching, Saxelby invites holiday shoppers to come into her shop to pick out the perfect cheese selection for a cocktail party or holiday get-together. And for those traveling home to spend the season with family, Saxelby Cheesemongers offers shoppers a special selection that is sure to surprise and delight loved ones.
For Saxelby, American farmstead cheese is a personal passion that extends well beyond her professional commitments and into her basic philosophies about life. And this commitment to our country’s vast cheese landscape shows itself in the quality of products that Saxelby Cheesemongers offers, as well as in the shop’s quality of service.
“For me, the pleasure of eating artisan cheese is just incredible. Once you’ve had a really wonderful piece of cheese, it changes your outlook on things in general,” said Saxelby. “Cheese is a living thing and should be treated as such. We’re entrusted with these really wonderful things that the cheesemakers have made, and it almost feels sacred in a way.”
This story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Gourmet News, a publication of Oser Communications Group.