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A taste for the finer things in life can be acquired at any age. Anne Saxelby was in college by the time she realized there was more to cheese than Kraft. Growing up outside Chicago, she thought of white cheddar from the dairy aisle as "the good stuff." But then she visited a friend studying abroad in Florence, where she met what she now calls "real cheese."
Saxelby immediately started making up for lost time. Despite spending two decades in oblivion, she designed a cheese curriculum for herself that was undeniably first-rate. After she graduated from NYU, Saxelby worked at Murray's for two years, taking a five-month break for an internship at Cato Corner Farm in Colchester, Connecticut. There, she found bliss in the cheese making process, from keeping the cows happy to monitoring the mold growing in an underground cave. She also spent five months traveling in Italy and France and learning the art of cheese making from Old World masters. It was in Europe that she realized her love for goats and their milk.
Before finding cheese, Saxelby's official education was in fine art. As an undergrad, she had numerous internships at galleries and museums. By the time she graduated, she was sick of the art world. "This is such a bummer," she remembers thinking about the scene.
Now, at 25, she has just opened her own cheese shop, Saxelby Cheesemongers, occupying a stall formerly home to a dumpling house in the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side. All of the 45 varieties she carries are American and come from small farms no further away than Iowa and Wisconsin, but the majority from Vermont and Connecticut. (The shortest commuter is fresh mozzarella from Caputo's in Brooklyn.)
She says a Toussaint from Poughkeepsie is "rocking my world a little bit" these days, and describes it as a perfect marriage of cheddar and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Indeed, the cheese is sharp and tastes similar to good cheddar but has a firm, granular texture that makes it good for grating. The Toussaint is made with cow's milk, as is the majority of her stock. But it's clear that goats hold a special place in the young cheese monger's heart. Goats and sheep breed seasonally, and cheese made from their milk is usually not aged for long periods. They breed in the fall and give birth in spring, so the cheese making takes place in April. Peak season for the final product is in mid-June. "Things will get more diverse," Saxelby says, grinning.
People occasionally approach her glorious glass case full of mold and ask, in despair, what happened to the dumpling lady. "I feel bad," she said. "I tell them there are lots of other great dumplings nearby." But she also, wisely, greets curious faces with samples. Her showstopper is something called Square Cheese from Twig Farm in West Cornwall, Vermont, an aged goat cheese with a mesmerizing outer rind. The curd isn't pressed, but shaped into a square and allowed to slump as it ripens. "Like this," Saxelby says, drooping her shoulders. White and blue and green splotches come together to encase a sublimely creamy, emphatically goat-y creation.
For now, Saxelby will accumulate and celebrate cheese like this, but eventually she plans to return to cheese making, and to life on a farm with goats. This time, they'll be her own. She's confident that New Yorkers are rediscovering the value of farmstead cheeses and handcrafted food in general. "It's good to be small," she says.