In Washington, DC’s Union Market a beautiful, beguiling beacon shines bright, welcoming the cheese-loving public. Righteous Cheese is the shopping equivalent of an elegant cheese cart rolled to a restaurant table. Staff gently guides the shopper through the extraordinary variety, asking questions to define palate, occasion and budget. The passion for cheese is everywhere—in the knowledgeable staff; the bright, abundant display cases and the attention to detail—and it comes straight from the enthusiastic fromager, 36-year-old Carolyn Stromberg.
Stromberg didn’t set out to become a cheese specialist, but it comes as little surprise to her family, where the entrepreneurial spirit runs deep: Both parents have their own practices (dentistry and law), and her grandfather was a career-changing, “self-starter long before it was fashionable,” says Stromberg.
Growing up outside Buffalo, New York, Stromberg’s exposure to fine food was limited. While her mother is a good cook, especially around the Jewish holidays, Stromberg wasn’t exposed to fine dining or gourmet foods until she arrived in Washington, DC. A creative writing and sociology student at George Washington University she just needed a job, and it was sheer luck that placed her at Asia Nora, at the time one of the top restaurants in the city.
In Washington, as the restaurant scene surged forward, and new exceptional restaurants opened across the city, Stromberg moved from one sensational establishment to another. First, Komi, where she met her husband, and then Palena where she met her other love: cheese.
Palena’s forward-thinking chef, Frank Ruta, wanted a cheese program. Weekly shipments of international, rare, exceptional cheeses arrived, each packaged with a lengthy, poetic description of the type and style. She began making up cheese plates for customers and, over time, developed a reputation and a palate. A fromager was born.
Stromberg went on to work at Cowgirl Creamery and then at Cheesetique in Alexandria, developing wholesale cheese programs for chefs and restaurants. As maître fromager, Stromberg developed a cheese program, including a cheese cave and cart service, for Gaylord Hotel’s Old Hickory Steakhouse in National Harbor. Each stop along the way further informed her growing passion, not only about cheese, but also the application in fine dining. In time, the opportunity for a retail store in the new Union Market appeared, and with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign, Righteous Cheese was born. I met with Stromberg who answered our burning cheese questions.
Jewish Food Experience: Where do you stand on cheese: serve it before or after dinner?
Carolyn Stromberg: From a professional standpoint, cheese is served after dinner in Europe, but personally, I like cheese before dinner. It really whets the appetite. Or, I like cheese as dinner. At least once a week, my husband and I make up a board of cheeses, olives, nuts, fruit and maybe some anchovies with bread and butter.
JFE: What do you like to see on a cheese board?
CS: Basically, think about variety of textures and flavors. So, a cow, goat and sheep cheese, and a hard, semi-soft and creamy cheese. This way, your palate won’t get tired.
JFE: Can you suggest some standout cheeses to look for now?
CS: We sell “in-law” cheeses. These are impressive and unusual, interesting but approachable—what you might serve your new in-laws! I love the Abbaye de Belloc, a sheep’s milk cheese, semi-firm. It’s smooth, nutty and toasty. Another favorite is the Dutch cheese, Black Betty. Only 300 wheels are made each year, and we have three in the shop! It’s a beautiful goat gouda, extra aged, with a caramelized milky sweetness. It’s very special and very easy to like. We only have it now, although we carry a younger version of the same cheese year-round.
JFE: What advice do you have for people on a budget?
CS: It’s better to get a small amount of a high-quality cheese than a lot of a lesser cheese. Serve small amounts. Buy from a shop that cuts to order and only buy as much as you will eat in a week, so you don’t throw it away. Also, invest in some cheese paper to extend the life of your cheese.
JFE: Any suggestions for serving?
CS: Always slice up semi-soft or hard cheeses fairly thin so that the texture and flavor don’t overwhelm the palate. It helps the guests to have these cheeses pre-sliced. Cheese doesn’t always need a vehicle: Firm cheeses are great on their own. Softer cheeses need a piece of bread or a cracker; the textural difference is important.
JFE: What condiments do you serve alongside cheese?
CS: I like cheese with fruit, whether fresh or dried or in a jam. These days, I am loving pickled fruit, like mostarda. Avoid citrus—it just doesn’t work with cheese. But on the savory side, olives, spiced nuts and pickles and onion jam are all good options.
JFE: What do you do with all the bits and pieces of cheese left in the refrigerator?
CS: Make fromage fort! It means strong cheese, and it’s a great way to reinvigorate those leftover bits.
JFE: What’s next for Righteous Cheese?
CS: In 2016, we’ll be starting classes again. Check out our blog for more information on classes and tips for serving and enjoying cheese (including a recipe for Raclette latkes—bookmark it for next year!).
Righteous Cheese, 202-716-3320, Union Market, 1309 5th Street NE, Washington, DC, Tuesday–Friday 11 am–8 pm, Saturday 10 am–8 pm, Sunday 10 am–7 pm. Not kosher.