You walk into a cheese shop-looking to impress a date or to up the ante at a dinner party-and you find yourself looking at 50-plus varieties with names like Bonde D'Antan, Taleggio, and Tomme de Savoie. Head spinning, you eventually just grab something you've never heard of or just leave.
Adam Engle, the head cheesemonger of the Wine Source's cheese shop, hopes to improve that experience. "Cheese is pretty daunting, kind of overwhelming," he says. "I think that's what we're trying to do here . . . [instead of,] 'Hey, I'm going to buy these fancy cheeses.' It's [more] about what you're tasting. I want [you] to be happy with what you're taking home." It's similar to how Max's Taphouse demystifies its obscure beers by offering a taste before going all in.
It's clear that Engle is fixated on lifting the veil on the popular, yet often under-explored food-a journey he's been on for six years now. After getting an undergrad degree in philosophy/music and various stints in "weird art-rock bands," he took a gig at Whole Foods and worked the cheese counter for two and a half years before taking over the then-small cheese shop at the Wine Source, where he has, with owner David Wells' full support, spent the past three and a half years turning it into a full-blown cheese oasis.
"When I started at [Whole Foods]," Engle continues, "I had no interest in cheese. Then I began to taste a lot more cheeses, I began to take notes, [do] a lot of reading, and then I just got obsessed, and I was like, 'I really wanna do this right.'"
Doing it right led to trips overseas-the cost shared by Engle and Wells-to feed that obsession. He spent a week in a coveted internship with world-renowned London cheese shop Neal's Yard Dairy, an opportunity afforded to only one or two mongers a year. There, he "was given a brief 30-minute tour and then immediately caring for the cheeses that needed it, checking in orders, washing washed-rind cheese, and so on. It is highly unlikely that it will get any better or more intense."
A two-week jaunt through France visiting cheese-makers and learning their methods left him amazed at just how important it was to work with small-batch creameries, now the focus of the shop. "I was able to see the tiniest producer, a cooperative, and a cheese factory. Seeing three very different ways of making cheese was a very big eye-opening experience."
He carried that philosophy back to Baltimore. "We're trying to work with farms that are either farmsteads, artisanal, or very small cooperatives," he says. "I actually like to know where my cheeses are coming from. And these cheese-makers are working really hard. A lot of them only get vacation a couple weeks, when they don't have any milk, so I'd like to show their cheeses at the best they can possibly be."
On a recent visit to the Wine Source, Engle's attention to detail was on full display. He took us into the back, to two large refrigerators full of various aging cheeses and a large board cataloging which are ready to go, not quite, or still aging. It isn't long before he's eagerly opening the doors to check the goods.
"When they come in, they're often really tacky, and the rinds will be slippery and won't be set all the way," he says. "By unwrapping them, it dries out the rinds and then every day, we'll look to see what kind of condition they are in and flip them if they need to be."
Excitedly picking up and checking a couple rinds, he finishes his thought. "The flipping allows for the paste to come in even, so you have a cream line on the outside and a paste that's even throughout."
He also makes clear there's a lot of work to ensure the cheese doesn't take on any plastic flavor after it's cut and wrapped. Up to 8 pounds of cheese per week is scraped or cut off and thrown out to guarantee the customer goes home with the best flavor possible.
Engle says regulars are slowly becoming more comfortable talking cheese. "People are becoming a lot more relaxed about it," he says. "There are a lot of great interactions every day . . . It went from not talking to anyone to talking to everyone. It's almost weird not to interact with a customer [at this point]."
And, as if abruptly reminded of just how good he's got it, with a semi-guilty smile creeping across his face, he says "It's a pretty great job, really exciting, and I couldn't ask for much better than tasting cheese all day."