Some people have a nearly religious devotion to cheese.
“I’ve got to take you to the most amazing cheese shop…”
Some people have a nearly religious devotion to cheese. My friend Jon, one of the people to whom this blog is dedicated and one of my closest lifelong friends, is one of those people.
If anyone else had told me that there was an amazing cheese shop in South Bend, Indiana, I would have been skeptical. It may seem surprising, but there is actually more than one reason to visit South Bend. Aside from the notably famous University of Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish and Notre Dame’s stunning Basilica of the Sacred Heart, most people picture Indiana as mostly being endless fields of corn. And in some ways, they’re not wrong although there is definitely more to Indiana than that. South Bend, especially, as a college town, is a little bit different from the rest of the state – it’s a little bit more cultured, a little bit more ‘blue’ and a little bit more intellectual than your average Midwestern town. As a result, there is a burgeoning food scene, several local pubs and microbreweries, local wineries, a robust and authentic famer’s market – and a cheese shop.
Yes, that cheese shop. If Jon starts raving about a particular cheese – or cheese shop – my ears perk up.
Speaking of religious devotion, Oh Mama’s on the Avenue – which is family owned and operated – really is something special. The moment you walk in the door, it’s obvious that these people are very, very serious about their cheese. So serious, in fact, that the owners – Jody and Josiah Klideninst – built Indiana’s first geothermally regulated underground cheese cave, to house the cheese they collect and import as well as their own house cheese.
The cheese cave as well as their goat farm where their personal house- cheese is made are housed a stone’s throw away in Walkerton, IN. The religious devotion to cheese here goes two ways. Everyone who poked their head in the shop seemed to be on a first name basis – the patrons are as devoted to the shop as its owners are to cheese. The place has a cult following to be sure. The Klideninst’s love for what they do is apparent. For them, it is a whole family affair; the day I visited Oh Mama’s, Jody and her daughter Sofia (with an “F”) were working together in the shop.
And what a shop it is. Soft cheeses, hard cheeses, blue cheeses; Bries, Fetas, Cheddars, Camamberts, Goudas; bark wrapped cheeses, aged cheeses, fresh cheeses; that stinky, runny, ammoniated cheese of your dreams that smells like a cow’s you-know-what but is heaven on the palate (they’ll love you if you use the term “ammoniated” by the way… more on that later); goat cheese, cow cheese, sheep cheese – oh my! Just look at them.
Did I mention that they will let you sample anything out of the case? That’s right – Jody was generous enough not only to take time out of what can only be an unimaginably busy schedule to talk shop, but to allow us to sample several of her beloved cheeses.
Jon was all about this one particular Gouda he had had but, alas, they were out of it when I visited. It is, however, an ill wind that blows no good – we were treated to another Gouda – the Meadow Cas – which is a springtime Gouda make from the youngest cows producing the freshest milk – yearlings.
We also tried a blue cheese called Stichelton, which is like Stilton, but better (yeah, you read that right). It in fact comes from the same place that Stilton comes from, but due to copyright laws needs to be called something else. The difference? It does not use pasteurized or factory-produced rennet; as a result, it is smaller batch and more authentically flavored. Seriously, I’ve never had anything like it.
Next, we sampled a triple cream brie which comes from Jersey cows from a company called Trillium. It was delightfully creamy, gently funky, and had a long, lingering sweet aftertaste.
At this point, I mentioned to Jody that I longed for the stinky, runny, beautiful kind of cheese you can only get in Europe but could never find in the United States. Although I was peripherally aware that U.S. regulations prevented some imports, I didn’t know the specifics. As it turns out, in order for a non-pasteurized cheese to be imported to the U.S., it must be aged for 60 days. In other words, you can get young, pasteurized cheeses, and aged non-pasteurized cheeses, but you can’t get a young, unpasteurized cheese. I suppose from a food safety standpoint this makes sense, but it’s a risk I’d be willing to take – I’m more of the Mark Twain school of thought “Eat what you want, and let the food fight it out inside.”
“What do you have that is the closest thing to that kind of cheese? You know, that sort of ‘ammoniated’ punget smell?” I asked.
Jody looked at me with a sense of appreciation and a twinkle in her eye. “I love you for saying ‘ammoniated'” she said, and walked over to the glass case and unwrapped something that was clearly very precious. “Here, try this.” And she handed me a little tasting spoon with a tiny dollop of cheese on it.
It was the cheese of my dreams.
Pungent, ripe, strong. Sweet as could be on the lips and tongue, creamy aftertaste. Oh, glorious cheese! A bark wrapped cows milk cheese, cellar aged for the minimum amount of time, non-pasteurized it tasted exactly like what you can’t get here in the States. The Harbison from Jasper Hill in Vermont. There was a twinkle in my eye now too, from the gentle tears of joy that began to well up upon the first taste.
“That’s the closest thing you can get to what you want here in the States without going to the Black Market,” Jody said. (Apparently, yes, some people are so fanatical about cheese that there is a Cheese Black Market).
While Jon and I were tasting cheeses, Sofia was making lunch. And a gorgeous, wonderful lunch it was. Yes, they also do sandwiches and drinks at Oh, Mama’s! I had the 3M+C – Mortidella, Capicola, Salami and Mozzarella on a rustic panini with a jalapeño gardinara. Divine.
We ended up walking out of there with a tub of fresh feta, marinated in olive oil and herbs, and a beautiful rustic hunk of home-baked bread.
There are numerous reasons to visit South Bend, even if one of your closest lifelong friends doesn’t live there. If you ever do find yourself visiting, you really do owe it to yourself to visit the magnificent, other worldly and breathtaking Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
But if you’re looking for a different kind of religious experience; one a bit more grounded than grand, but one that will still take your breath away and leave tears in your eyes, don’t forget to come by and pay homage to Oh Mama’s on the Avenue, the greatest cheese shop in the state – if not that side of the Mississsippi, or the country for that matter. Who knows?
Thank you for taking the time to let me talk to you about cheeses.