The best meat, produce and more inside the city's top grocery stores
Giant Eagle Market District, 3061 Kingsdale Center, Upper Arlington
Take that small island of international cheese in the produce section at your usual grocery store and multiply it by 10: At Market District, they've got full refrigerated cases dedicated to prime dairy regions like France and Italy. But you don't have to travel around the world to witness cheese magic in action. Right in the store, behind two towering glass doors, Market District ages swollen wheels of cheddar cheese from Wisconsin's Carr Valley Creamery for a denser texture and stronger flavor. Anyone manning the cheese counter there is either a certified cheesemonger or on their way to becoming one, which means they've undergone countless rounds of tastings and dairy-based education. So don't be afraid to ask for a taste and some friendly advice.
Don't miss: Pair your cheese with a fantastic aged balsamic vinegar from the store's self-serve spigots.
Earth Fare, 1440 Gemini Place, Polaris
The new-in-town store may look like other gourmet chains, but at a much more manageable size. And in addition to its carefully edited grocery stock, it's got a wonderful cheese department. A counter attendant on a recent visit spotted us eyeing a hunk of a French cheese called comté and offered up a sample while giving us ideas of how to incorporate it into our cooking-she even opened up a jar of a bacon jam we were curious about tasting. They've also marked every cheese with a small sign describing its origin, flavor and potential pairings, taking the mystery out of cheese plate assembly. Don't miss: Natural food fans can enjoy Earth Fare's promise not to stock anything containing high-fructose corn syrup or other unhealthy-in-excess additives.
WHILE YOU'RE OUT...FIG JAM
One of our favorite combos is sumptuous Ohio goat cheese and peak-season figs, but the whole "figs aren't native to Ohio" thing limits how often we can find the fresh fruit. Thank goodness The Fresh Market carries several fig-laced jams to sate our cravings year-round, like this Dalmatia Fig Spread made from imported Adriatic figs. ($6 at The Fresh Market, 1920 W. Henderson Rd., Upper Arlington)Counter Cultures
Curds and Whey, 59 Spruce ST., Arena District
Twenty-five years ago, when Mike Kast started Curds and Whey inside the North Market, he couldn't get anybody to buy goat cheese. Now, it's one of his big sellers-a testament both to our developing tastes and Kast's own efforts at palate expansion. We asked Kast to tell us how he fell in love with fromage and offer some advice for the budding connoisseur.
What was the cheese that changed everything for you? French Muenster. I had only ever known the American muenster, but then I had the real deal. It's real, real, real strong. If I had to choose one cheese as a favorite-well, I don't think I could do that, but I love to have that muenster on bread from Omega Artisan Baking. That's the trick to strong cheese-great bread.
How many cheeses do you have at any given time? When I started, we had 70 cheeses. Now, in the summer, we have about 300, and around Christmas it'll be closer to 500.
What's the secret to putting together a cheese plate for a party? I tell people that ultimately, you have to like the cheeses-you're the one who will get stuck eating the leftovers.
What cheeses are you enjoying right now? I'm loving a lot of the Ohio artisanal cheeses. I used to be so blasé about American goat cheese, but then I had this one from up near Cleveland-Lake Erie Creamery-and there's nothing quite like it. He doesn't use any chemicals when he makes it. It's really good.
How can people learn more about cheese? I think they should get a notebook and just start trying cheese. Write down the name and where you had it and your reaction. There are many different reactions, based upon where you're eating it and what you've already eaten. Sometimes people will come by and they'll be drinking a double-chocolate mochaccino and want to try stinky cheeses and I'll say no, because it just won't taste good. Now, when we've got a wine festival going on, I'll let them taste anything. Wine makes every cheese taste good.
Crème de la Crème
Celebrate Local, 4030 The Strand East, Easton
For just about any gift item in the shape of the state of Ohio, Celebrate Local is a dependable stop between browsing the big-name stores at Easton. The storefront started last fall as a holiday-season extension of the shopping center's farmers market, but grew so popular that it's stuck around ever since. And while we love hitting Celebrate Local to stock up on jars of local jams and honey, no trip is complete without perusing the store's back coolers-that's where they keep a stash of delicious Ohio-made dairy products, including several choices for cheeses from every corner of the state. We're particular fans of many, including the tangy-yet-luscious feta from Bellefontaine's Blue Jacket Dairy ($10.95/lb.) crumbled alongside this season's juicy tomatoes for a lazy, heat-wave-friendly salad. Or, try Mackenzie Creamery's apricot-ginger chevre ($7), a sweet stunner made in Hiram. It's dessert-worthy itself, especially spooned out of the pudding cup it's packaged in. But for ease of cheese consumption, pick up Laurel Valley Creamery's fresh cheddar curds ($6). They're a dairy-lover's dream snack, salty and bite-sized and so addicting you may find yourself eating the whole package before you get home.
Illustrations by Paige Vickers