Cheese week in Dallas just wouldn't be a real cheese week if it didn't include the mozzarella queen-bee Paula Lambert. Several decades ago while studying Italian in Perugia, Italy, Lambert, who is originally from Fort Worth, fell in love with fresh mozzarella. While in Italy, she came up with the crazy notion of bringing the fresh, hand-crafted mozzarella back to Dallas. She opened her Mozzarella Co. in Deep Ellum in 1982 and for the first couple of years things didn't go so well. But, slowly, as the local culinary scene picked up -- Dean Fearing returned to the Mansion and Stephan Pyles opened Routh Street Café -- so did the artisan cheese business.
Recently we got to chat about the Dallas cheese scene and the long road to mozzarella glory.
When you first started making cheese locally, what were your greatest challenges? The greatest challenge was learning to make cheese! When we first began, I had never made cheese before, so a cheese professor from Italy came to teach us and work with us for the first month.
Was the local market ready for artisan cheese in 1982? The word artisan was not used in relation to cheese in the 1980s. Our cheeses were called specialty or gourmet cheeses. And there was no market for our cheeses. We had to educate our customers and create the market. I found that the gourmet shops in Dallas were interested and wanted to sell the cheese, but their customers didn't know about it ... so we focused on selling to restaurants. I felt that people could taste and learn about the cheese at the restaurants and then look for it in the stores. That strategy was successful.
How has the Dallas culinary scene changed since that time? In 1982 the Mansion had mozzarella and tomato salad on their menu, but until we came along they were using low-moisture Kraft block mozzarella that they sliced thinly and folded artistically between tomato slices. People didn't travel to Europe as they do today, so many had not had the opportunity to taste cheeses like those that we were making. The most sophisticated gourmet stores were Di Palma on Lower Greenville and Marty's on Oak Lawn. Central Market was not even a pipe dream. There were no Whole Foods stores in Dallas. There was no Food TV. Many of our current customers were not yet born!
Any advice for budding cheesemakers out there? My best advice is to keep good records and pay attention to details.