The Big Cheese Leaves Brooklyn

This master ‘monger leaves a lactic legacy.

cheesemongerMarty Stiglich has worn many hats—standouts include the yellow hardhat, and the big foam Cheesehead.

Hair coverings are required in the basement food-processing area of the legendary Park Slope Food Co-op, where five shifts a day cut and wrap cheese for the bustling business upstairs. Founded in 1973, the country’s largest member-run co-op is now 13,000 strong, each of whom works a 2¾-hour shift every four weeks. Membership indeed has its privileges: an extraordinarily wide and high-quality selection of grocery items, local and organic produce, grains, spices, nuts, cheeses and meats, all at remarkably low prices (as much as 40% less than retail).Sixty paid full-time employees keep things running as smoothly as silken tofu, or perhaps creamy unsalted organic cashew butter.

Marty is the ‘monger behind the Co-op’s astonishing—and evergrowing—cheese case. A background as a classical guitarist and yoga instructor prepared him for the gig, which he’s been perfecting since 1990. Since then he’s masterminded cheese buying and “food processing”—cutting and wrapping cheese, and bagging olives, nuts and dried fruit (the dried whole bananas alone are worth the workshift requirement—but that’s another story). An affable, energetic people-person in constant motion, Marty oversees 50 different member-workers every day (the nature of member workshifts means every few hours, a new team that hasn’t done the job in a month shows up). For 17 years the Michigan-born son of a Ford auto worker has been a mentor of cultured milk for thousands, an inspiration to all Co-op-ers who investigated the stinky, the runny, the sharp and the crumbly. But his wife’s corporate job was transferred to Chicago, and in late February the era of Marty the cheese man came to an end.

During Marty’s last week I imbed myself near the cheese case. It’s a typically busy afternoon and the selection of nearly 150 cheeses draws shoppers like a siren’s call. Some stick to a list, many grab a hunk of cheddar or Parmesan, perhaps a six-pack of organic string cheese. But most take a minute or few to consider the wide offerings, which range from fresh buffalo milk mozzarella to tiny disks of Cabecou feuille, a grape leaf-wrapped Périgord goat cheese carefully enfolded in French cheese paper. For every Co-op-er stocking up on provolone, another inspects a “cheese of the week.” They poke and prod for ripeness, sniff the wrapping, and study the label to learn what type of milk it’s made of, whether it’s been pasteurized, and how long it’s been aged. The shelves feel more like a small, sophisticated shop than a supermarket cheese case.

Anna, a Park Sloper and new Co-op member, plans to try “a little bit of every cheese.” Even if the selection were static, at a cheese a week it would take her three years. Today she goes for a thin slice of orange-and-blue striped double Gloucester with Stilton. Valerie, who lives in Crown Heights, is entertaining tonight. “Hard cheeses are healthier,” she muses, “but I’ll get something else for a party.” “Oh, go for the Gruyère,” Anna enthuses, “it’s like Swiss, but better.” Classic cooperation.

The women look for a nice big wedge while an athletic guy in his twenties reaches between them for the truffled, ash-coated Sottocenere and a young mother tells me her three-year-old “loves mountain sheep cheeses from the Pyrenees.” A gray-haired woman quietly admires the bloomy-rinded Le Scarlet in its own wooden box, and decides against it.

But it won’t languish.

“Because of our price structure,” Marty reassures me, “and the amount of foodies who belong to the Co-op, everything sells.”

To ensure quality, only a small amount of each cheese in stock is wrapped and displayed in the cooler on the shopping floor, and the members on duty downstairs are busy keeping up with demand. Marty schooled his ever-changing member workforce in the subtleties of their trade, gently rebuking those novices who obscured their piece of Gorgonzola dolce in a wad of plastic wrap, and battling drudgery with soul music for the last 45 minutes of each work shift. He’d demonstrate how to cut a central round from a wheel of Brie to avoid floppy-ended wedges, then wax rhapsodic on the contrast between the dry interior and buttery circumference of a ripe Humboldt Fog.

But members didn’t have to take his word for it. Marty believes in tasting, and during most work shifts he would cut ‘quality control samples.’ One crew would try six-year Vaca Rosa Parmigiano Regianno, the next would taste Catalonian Garrotxa against a similar raw, cave-aged goat cheese from Wisconsin called Castle Rock, making this basement gig one of the most sought-after jobs among members.

Lynne, who lives in Sunset Park and has been a Co-op member for 30 years, fondly remembers the bygone days when you could request advice, and even samples, right on the shopping floor. Back then the cheese was set up like a store-within-a-store. You’d write your order for one of the handful of cheeses and a worker would cut and wrap it while you shopped. But when Marty switched to offering pre-wrapped hunks, the rise in sales was sharper than New York cheddar, spiking by 300 pounds a week.

But that’s not the only thing that’s changed; Marty’s real legacy is the spice of life. “When I started,” he recalls, “washed rinds were officially known as Stinky Cheese. Who knew from Époisses?” That first year, Marty stuck to the standard bulk cheeses like Muenster and Alpine Lace. But curiosity led him to more obscure selections, many of which debuted as “cheese of the week.” He ate and read his way to a broad understanding of cheese and soon adopted the policy of ordering small quantities of every unfamiliar cheese he came across. Applewood-smoked Derby was an early one: “It’s just a manufactured cheese, but I like smoked foods, and 16 years ago I thought it was a really good cheese.” That one stuck—the Co-op now sells about 1,500 pounds per year.

When one of his catalogs promoted Spanish cheese, he held a Spanish cheese festival. Soon he was immersed in the world of the French A.O.C., Italian D.O.C, and Spanish controlled-origin cheeses—legally protected foods like Parmigiano-Reggiano, produced by traditional methods in a specified region. He went from featuring four “cheeses of the week” to 40.

Though the members swear he can detect the slightest wisp of smokiness, uric tang, lactic sweetness, or bacterial funk, no one would call him a cheese snob. Owen, who lives in Prospect Heights, recalls a day Marty delightedly announced a transcendent pairing: pale, mellow Arina goat Gouda with green grapes (try it!). Tracy, a South Sloper, remembers when Marty showed her how to dissect an 80-pound wheel of Parmesan using wedges and a wire:

“It’s a beautiful experience. I don’t know if he realizes how special it was to me. It was aged five or six years and I got to break it open. I really thought about where this cheese came from. It wasn’t easy, and all Marty said was whatever you do, do not drop it on your foot.” General Manager Joe Holtz saw the cheese department ripen under Marty’s stewardship. “Marty was good at creating the conditions that made people want to work. He drew people in, made relationships, made things happen. It was good for him and great for the Co-op.” Marty cites Steven Jenkins, a pioneer who brought stinky cheese to the city, and author of The Cheese Primer, as an inspiration. In the late ’80s, Jenkins started carrying more ambitious cheeses at Dean & DeLuca (he’s since switched to Fairway). Ted Matern and Alan Palmer, owners of Blue Apron Foods up the block from the Co-op, are Dean & DeLuca alums and recall when Brooklynites had to schlep to Manhattan for real cheese. Now customers from Manhattan stop in at Blue Apron after doing a big shop at the Co-op.

The cheese case looks fine in Marty’s absence. He has passed the reins to another capable staffer, Yuri Weber, who will surely leave his own lactic legacy. “But,” says Joe, “it’s a little quieter around here.” Marty doesn’t yet know how he’ll spend his time in the Second City. Of course he had ideas, perhaps a cheese counter in a wine store. He even has a name in mind: “Macheezmo!”

You can take the Big Cheese out of Brooklyn, but……

MAY WE RECOMMEND

Take it from Marty. Ask him for a recommendation, and Marty would never steer you wrong. Here are three of his current favorites:

GABIETOU, a raw, brine-washed sheep and cow’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees, firm and sweet with subtle tang and fruit and nut flavors that unfold slowly.

KAPITI, a six-year New Zealand cheddar, full-bodied and sharp, dry in texture, with a rich complexity.

ST. AGUR, a French blue with a buttery mouthfeel, an elegant floral flavor, and an unusual freshness for a blue.

BLUE CHEESE DIP

by Zoe Singer

1/2 c. whole milk yogurt
3 oz. (6 T.) creamy blue cheese (preferably St. Agur)
1/4 c. mayonnaise
2 t. minced fresh chives

Mash the ingredients together with a fork, leaving some chunks of blue cheese.

Lovely with radishes, fennel, celery, and blanched sugar snaps.

Yields a generous cup.

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Zoe Singer is a freelance food writer, co-author of The Flexitarian Table and a blogger for fitpregnancy.com. She grew up in Park Slope, lives in Sunset Park and regularly eats her way down Fifth Avenue to Bay Ridge.