December 22, 2009
In Philly I step into Di Bruni’s, on Chestnut. Everyone but me has evidently heard of this place, a Zabars-on-the Schuykill stuffed with hundreds of cheeses, a banquet of prepared foods, a bakery, seafood and meat counters—all the best. Founded in 1939 by some Italian immigrants, it thrives today as a gourmet food emporium, and a multi-location food and catering business, and it’s online. And it’s crowded, with the ethnic neighborhood feel drained away, replaced by grandeur and competence and corporate efficiency. Nothing wrong with it, but I was feeling a little processed making my way through.
Then I found my cheese guy. He asked if I needed help, and I said just looking, and he said, “Our deal here is you learn a lot more by tasting.”
He started with some perfunctory cuts. Then I asked if he had Haystack. That was all it took. Every religion has secret societies. You could argue religion is a secret society: a community set apart, outside normal, bound together by common beliefs, rites, passions. Think of the Opus Dei, the group within Catholicism that Dan Brown made famous in The Da Vinci Code. (How he could write three books set in Italy and France and include no recipes I can’t figure out).
Well, me and cheese counter guy were clearly in the Society of the Works of the Goat, Opus Capri. The next 15 minutes he walked me through tastes of every local goat cheese, leading up to the holy of holies, a set of fice fresh cylinders from a place Shellbark Farms. His face lit up.
“This is a guy who lives in the exhurbs, surrounded by McMansions, and he just raises his goats there, in a goat house. Forty five minutes from here.”
We’ve spent two days in Philly. 45 minutes of driving only gets you two blocks. Impressive.
“What kind of goats?” I asked.
Now we were going deep. We were bonded. We loved cheese, and goat cheese, and local fresh goat cheese from floppy eared goats.
He handed me a taste of Shellbark’s latest creation, a harder cheese, the creator’s attempt at a provolone-style he grew up with in downtown Philly.
“It tastes like an experiment,” I said. “A first try.”
He like what I said, and I saw him carve out a slice for himself, behind the counter.
They say music is the international language, but they’re wrong. Wherever you go, whatever language you speak, it’s food.