A few weeks ago, Reliable Cheese Company was a blank canvas. The shop needed more construction, health and fire inspections, paint and sinks. It had all the hopes and aspirations of the owners, including company founder Patrick Coleff, a Brooklyn expat who was drawn to Durham's foodie culture.
The story of Reliable Cheese is not only about a small-business owner opening a specialty shop. It is the story of how Durham attracts culinary enthusiasts and how a community helped an idea form, much like the metamorphosis of milk into cheese.
Coleff picked Durham because he felt there was more possibility here than in the neighboring cities. "One of the reasons we wanted to be in Durham instead of Chapel Hill was because we felt that Durham was where the exciting culinary action was happening."
Reliable Cheese Company opened June 16 with an array of cheeses that showcase some of North Carolina's fromage chic: artisan cheeses from throughout the state as well as international varieties. In addition, the store offers cured meats, wine and American craft beers.
Coleff's cheese philosophy hinges on rotating the cheese selection depending on the season and cutting all cheeses to order. In cheese lingo, seasonality refers to when cows begin producing milk in spring through summer. Then, once the cheese arrives at the shop, Coleff recommends that it stay intact until a customer orders it—known as the "ready-to-cut method." This allows the cheese to retain its natural flavor longer. "The glory and curse of cheese is that it absorbs flavors well," he says. "That means that the mold growth on the rind imparts certain flavors to the interior of the cheese. It also means that cheese wrapped in plastic wrap starts to taste like plastic wrap."
Some of the shop's cheeses are certified organic or come from farms that raise their dairy cows humanely; none come from cows treated with bovine growth hormones.
"I could pump out organic milk from a factory all day. That only means my factory meets government standards, none of which are 'happy cows,'" Coleff explains. "When I am looking at a cheese, I'm looking more for words like 'rotational grazing,' 'seasonally produced,' 'farmstead,' more so than I am looking for 'organic.'"
Among the specialty highlights is Neal's Yard Dairy Gorwydd Caerphilly (pronounced "gore-with kay-er-filly"). A Welsh cheese, it is made from unpasteurized cow's milk and has three distinct flavors and textures: a rind, a creamy layer and a hard center that is tangy and vibrant, evoking smells like earth, cream, lemon and mushroom.
Coleff wants to inspire in his customers a love for cheese, much like he learned to love it when he began his food adventures at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan. He then went on to work at Murrays, a boutique purveyor of cheeses. There, Coleff sold goat cheese made at Lively Run Goat Dairy, and after a year he decided to visit and tour the farm. After seeing the bucolic landscape and the cheesemakers at work, he had an epiphany: Cheese was his future. He then honed his cheese-mongering skills at New York's Dean & Deluca, a high-end grocer, and Stinky Brooklyn, a neighborhood cheese shop. After their first child was born, Coleff and his wife moved to North Carolina, where he worked in the cheese department at Weaver Street Market in Carrboro.
The Durham food community has chipped in to help build the business. Fullsteam Brewery has carried the shop's cheese plates, and Scratch Bakery has been storing the cheese for its Cheese 101 class, offered in conjunction with Durham Spirits Company.
Coleff and his wife chose the name Reliable Cheese because its old-timey feel suits the long history of cheesemaking, which started in ancient Egypt as a way to preserve milk. It was already a major commercial enterprise by the time of the Roman Empire. "We are big on knowing our producers and want to translate that to the customer," Coleff says. "It fits with what we want to accomplish at the store."