I eat cheese practically every day. Mostly with eggs, sometimes with fruit, and often on its own. Pecorino Romano is my staple- a hard, Italian, sheep's milk cheese that I use as one would Parmigiano Reggiano. Most likely some dude from Rome and some dude from Parma are rolling around in their graves right now because of my cavalier comparison, but for someone who can't eat cow's milk products, Pecorino Romano makes a great substitute for the more commonly used Parmigiano.
As you well know, cheese, like anything else, comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. There are orange cheeses that come pre-sliced and individually wrapped (which scare me), truffle infused cheeses for $40 per pound, and everything in between. And while unique and expensive cheese isn't necessarily an everyday staple, just a bit can transform a meal, as can many artisan food products. For example, a crumble of roquefort, a sheep's milk blue cheese from the south of France, can turn some simple apple slices, toasted walnuts and escarole lettuce into a beautiful salad without breaking the bank.
While going to the butcher for steak and the cheesemonger for cheddar used to be a commonplace occurrence, these days, specialty food shops are considered luxury. Adored for their fine selection of delectables, yet often scoffed at for the high price, the specialty store has turned in to the boutique. I support my local farmers and grocers, and avoid impersonal box stores. But as far as the bank account is concerned, shopping at fine little food shops exclusively would be the equivalent of eating dessert for every meal: extravagant and problematic. But a little dessert is a good thing. And so is a little boutique food shop.
This post is evidently about cheese, but any good quality - albeit slightly more pricey - artisan product can transform a dish, and let you remain friends with your wallet. A bottle of amazing olive oil may cost more that you're used to paying, but it will work wonders when drizzled over some greens or a simple soup, and when used sparingly will last a long time. Just don't sauté your onions or grease a baking dish with it.
After moving this fall, I now live in a rural part of Connecticut with limited grocery options close by. But about 35 minutes north is the food hot-spot of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, which has a variety of options including Rubiner's Cheesemongers & Grocers. Rubiner's is every boutique-food-shop-seeker's dream. Put the cheese, chocolate, and olive oil sections of Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco together in a beautiful brick building in the North East, and voilà. See - it will even entice the Man to come food shopping...
Boutique shops like Rubiner's are great for two reasons that can be tied together by a line from Rubiner's website: "a cheesemonger's job is not simply to sell cheese, but to search out the best specimens available..." Matthew Rubiner became a cheesemonger in 1994 after a career in military policy analysis. In other words, he didn't open a cheese business because he had to; he opened one because he loves cheese. And his employees? They love cheese too. And want us to love cheese. So one reason to shop at Rubiner's is obviously the cheese. You won't find a better selection or quality anywhere else. And while the quote I reference is cheese-specific, it represents this passionate shop's mentality toward all of the products they carry.
But beyond selection, you're going for the service. The experts at Rubiner's want to convey their love and knowledge of cheese to you. If you're looking for something like I was yesterday that is made from goat's milk, has a relatively mild flavor, and is a good melter, they're going to help you find it and give you a taste.
You will have a great time, and leave knowing that what's in your bag is exactly what you were looking for, and is going to be delicious. And that's much more cost effective than leaving the supermarket with something that's mediocre, isn't quite what you were looking for, and you might not like. I exited Rubiner's having spent only $20 with a smile on my face and exactly what I needed in my bag for the baked pasta recipe I'll be testing this week. In this case, my staple just wouldn't do.