Shoppers sometimes come up to LaDonna Gillespie at the cheese island at Holiday Market, saying something like: “I just came back from France where I had the most wonderful cheese. Do you think you can get it for me?”
Gillespie usually reminds them that, while she might be able to get that particular cheese, she can’t bring them the ambience of being in France. “It won’t be the same experience,” she cautions.
Gillespie is the doyenne of the more than 350 gourmet cheeses stocked regularly at the Royal Oak market — cheeses from producers all over the world, as well as from around the corner.
Michigan, she says, has some notable ones, such as Reny Picot from Benton Harbor (whose Gouda and fontina cheeses she believes rival those from Holland), raclette from Leelanau, the creamy Saga Blue Michigan blue cheese from the Traverse City area, and Zingerman’s cheeses from the Ann Arbor area.
The impressive, three-sided cheese island evolved from a small section at the back of the store that stocked 30 varieties to its current prominent location as interest in cheese expanded.
The stock is continually changing. There are “guest” cheeses — introductions of new varieties brought in to see if they capture the interest of patrons — and cheeses that go “on vacation.” But, Gillespie says, “If three customers ask for one of the cheeses, we bring it back” from vacation.
She says she especially loves the challenge of working with a shopper who says, “I’m really not much on cheeses.” She’ll usually have the person taste one cow’s milk cheese, one sheep’s milk cheese — the strongest — and one goat cheese. “Buy what you like,” is her best advice.
On Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., there’s always an informal cheese sampling that allows customers to try something new, although the cheese staff — four full-time employees and three part-timers — will provide a sample anytime.
“The only way you can find out what you like is by trying it,” Gillespie says. A display basket of small, wrapped portions of various cheeses at prices as low as $1.50 allows customers to pick up something they haven’t tried without spending a lot of money.
“One of the biggest trends now is using gourmet cheeses in macaroni and cheese,” Gillespie says. She makes the dish herself at home, using four cheeses: Michigan fontina, Tillamook cheddar from New York, Gruyère, and her current favorite, Ossau Iraty, a sheep’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees.
Gillespie assumed management of the department from its founder, the late Nancy Giffels, with whom she worked for 12 years. The descriptions that accompany many of the displayed cheese varieties were written by Giffels, such as the one she wrote for Gillespie’s prized Ossau Iraty: “A firm, dense cheese with an olivey, nutty flavor. Bordeaux and Rhone reds are appropriate, as well as pears and apples.”
Another favorite is what Gillespie calls “a knock-off of Gruyère.” It’s from Pleasant Ridge, Wis., a location that registers with locals because of its name.
After working with cheese for a dozen years and tasting perhaps 1,000 varieties, Gillespie says she’s become a cheese snob. But, she adds: “I’m still learning, along with the customers.”
Holiday Market, 1203 S. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-541-1414, holiday-market.com.