Eric Paul Takes Us On a Tasting Trip Around the World
Use by permission of the Times Union, Albany, NY:
The namesake product of Eric Paul’s store is indulgent, unhealthful, expensive and arguably unnecessary. Paul’s customers love him.
The shop, called the Cheese Traveler, opened in September 2012 and quickly became a destination despite carrying little more than cheese from around the world and meat raised on a local farm. The shelves and coolers have since become richer in variety, from cheese complements such as crackers and condiments to charcuterie, gourmet staples and curiosities including coconut-curry caramel corn. But the Cheese Traveler, located at 540 Delaware Ave. in Albany, is still a specialty shop, not a market to pop into on the way home to grab all the fixins for dinner. (It carries no vegetables, for starters.)
And yet, even facing a surge in area supermarkets with impressive, eclectic cheese selections, some twice as large as Paul’s, his store has become a hit.
This seems unusual for a place where it’s difficult to spend less than 30 minutes and less than $50. (The average transaction is more than $35.)
“Cheese is a moderately affordable luxury, and it’s shareable,” says Paul. “It’s also a perfect thing to bring to parties where everybody else is probably going to show up with a bottle of wine.”
Although the core of Cheese Traveler customers run from their late 20s through late 50s, Paul says he has a surprising number of college students, including a group of women who hold girls’-night-in cheese parties a few times a month, each bringing a different cheese. (The shop’s customer base is about 60 percent female.)
The appeal of the Cheese Traveler is the individual service provided to every customer — or, as Paul prefers to call them, guest. Cheeses are sliced for each guest from wheels or blocks, but first the outer edge is scraped with a knife, or “faced,” to remove the layer that had been exposed to air (or plastic wrap).
“It was so important to me to have a cut-to-order shop,” says Paul. The interaction between Paul and his small staff — two full-time employees, one part-time and, not unusually, at least one his three teenage children — furthers a bond that deepens with each purchase. As Paul gets to know a guest’s preferences and level of palate adventurousness, he can hone recommendations and offer samples. Customers may taste any of the 100-plus cheeses in the shop, a practice that Paul says results in a sale 70 percent of the time. Even if a guest doesn’t care for a particular cheese she’s just tried, the information is useful to guide Paul and staff when recommending something else.
“Develop a relationship with your cheesemonger,” says Paul, whose fascination with cheese — OK, call it an obsession — bloomed during the four years he worked at Honest Weight Food Co-Op in Albany. By the time he left, in 2002, he was head of what was known as the “sin shop,” the department that stocked cheese, chocolate and meat.
Originally from central Massachusetts, Paul, now 38, pursued classics at Siena College, picking up studies he’d first begun at the University at Albany, before eventually finishing at Bard College. His degree is in classical philology, which is essentially a combination of literary criticism and linguistic analysis. He applies a similarly devout attention to learning about cheese as he did to reading Homer, Pindar and Sophocles; a guest’s question about a particular cheese may produce from Paul an earnest disquisition about not only its region and maker but the season in which the milk was produced and the type of mold that produces the distinctive rind.
“We know everything about the cheeses,” he says. This isn’t said as a boast, just a statement of fact.
Paul uses the same decision-making criteria on all of the products he carries. Paramount is superior taste, followed by quality, method and scale of production, adherence to tradition and culture and, whenever possible, a preference that the item is locally made, raised or produced. So while he’s proud to sell St. Stephen cheese, made by the Four Fat Fowl creamery in Stephentown, Rensselaer County, he’s also enthusiastic about the unusually flavored caramel corn made by a California family and the sweet treats from an Amish community in Wisconsin that uses only three ingredients in its butter crunch: butter, sugar and either cashews or sunflower seeds.
Paul deliberately limits his cheese stock to about 100, perhaps up to 125 around the holidays.
“Anything more than 100 is too much. We’ve learned that,” he says. “Coming in and staring at 250 uncut cheeses with signs sticking out of them — it’s overwhelming to almost everybody.”
Sometimes a cheese is just a cheese — a piece to nibble on or a slice to slap on a sandwich. But more often, for Paul, that combination of milk, salt and fat produces an alchemical magic that occupied a certain French author for more than 3,000 pages.
“Tasting cheese is almost Proustian: When you put something in your mouth, it sort of reminds you, in a sensory way, that you’re alive.”