Bella Vitano Gold, Young Manchego, aged Gouda – for these delights I head to Grand Rapids’ own Cheese Lady, an aptly-named cheese monger in the Midtown neighborhood (I’ve only seen women behind the counter). In fact I have a habit of singing “Bella Vitano Gold!” upon entrance, and have suggested others do the same. I’m not the only one in love with this pale, medium hard, cheese – which combines, according to the label, “the fruity flavor of a premium parmesan with the creamy smoothness of a fine cheddar.” Tanya Dyer was snacking on this very cheese when I made my entrance, and wrapping it back up from a previous customer. “Everyone likes this cheese,” she said proudly, a statement I find interesting considering I have never had a cheese like it before this past winter when I finally began frequenting the new establishment (which opened in October of 2012).
While I had been drawn to cheese before – primarily from an afternoon spent at Murry’s Cheese in Manhattan some years back – the Cheese Lady’s exclusive focus on, well, cheese, reinvigorated my modest passion. Several things make the Cheese Lady not only unique, but integral to the dynamic of West Michigan’s booming culinary scene. First, one can taste the cheese before purchase. Select a cheese from the chalkboards on the wall behind the counters – reminiscent of those behind the bar at a local brewery – and the first thing Dyer or another staffer will do is pull off a thin slice for you and her to try. One need not ask, the cheese will simply be handed your way. Second, very little of the cheese for sale is prepackaged. This means you can take with you as little or as much as you’d like. While these first two points were emphasized by Dyer during my latest visit, a third is my own observation: all of this constant tasting on the part of the women who work at the Cheese Lady provides the community with in-depth experiential cheese knowledge. This is similar to the knowledge acquired by employees of Ann Arbor’s Zingerman’s in regards to balsamic vinegars or olive oils, or Siciliano’s Market staffers in regards to brewers malts or craft ciders.
While packing up my selections, Dyer thought over a question I asked about the appeal of cheese in the local culinary scene. She suggested that, like beer and wine, cheese is comprised of a very limited number of ingredients. And yet, depending on what the goats, sheep, or cows that produce the milk were eating, the time of year, particularities of the season, and overall natural environment, the flavors, aromas, and textures would be different. The variety of cheeses we are privy to today then are the outcome of both happenstance and intentional selection. These sorts of musings are best served with a thin slice of Bella Vitano, so please carry on the conversation with Dyer or the other women of the Cheese Lady, either in Grand Rapids, Muskegon, or, opening this fall, Traverse City. –Wes Eaton