In Urnerboden, a Swiss village in a high valley, about 60 families craft cheese the old-fashioned way. When the snow melts, they lead cows up the mountain to dine on the chilly flowers and grass. The munched-on petals and grass enrich cows' milk with flavors of sunshine and Swiss earth.
The cows live like Tolkien elves, and they produce the ingredients for some of the best cheese you’ll find in the city of Dallas, if you’re lucky enough to grab it before it’s gone. At Scardello, you’ll find some alp cheese sitting quietly, some dusted by flower petals.
This is a relatively new life for Rich Rogers. He grew up in Dalhart, a West Texas town, where “the fanciest cheese we had was out of a squirt can,” he says. During the winter, it's one of the coldest parts of Texas. Rogers' grandfather ushered in his love of food, teaching him why Italian-American food means so much more than eating.
A slice of cheese from the French Alps rewired Rogers' brain. Beaufort is a raw milk cheese, a firm Alpine that resides near the Gruyere family. Talking with Rogers, who opened Scardello on Oak Lawn almost a decade ago, you’ll come away with new phrases that are as brilliant as the cheese he brings in. His “cheese heroes,” Daphne Zepos and Max McCalman, led classes in New York, where Rogers learned the ways of the curd.
“We’re kind of like cheese detectives,” he says of his Dallas shop. Recently, Scardello opened a location at the Dallas Farmers Market.
The day before Thanksgiving, the Oak Lawn store is rippling in the wind. One customer walks in and asks for enough cheese for 10 people — the only instructions given — and the cheese detectives get to work.
“You going to make it an appetizer?” the cheesemonger asks. She nods, and he recommends a bolt of cheddar that’s unlike anything you’ll find at the grocery store.
“Early on, people came in and just did not know what in the world was going on,” Rogers says of Dallas cheese-seekers when Scardello opened. It’s not hard to fathom — walking in, you’ll see cheeses you recognize, such as Pecorino Romano, and some that you don’t. Black Betty is an aged goat’s milk cheese that tastes nothing like the laminated logs you’ll find at Kroger. It’s got a sweetness to it. On my visit, I pick up a pizza slice of Pecorino Romano with truffles that lights up my brain like the Griswold house in the Christmas Vacation movie.
“We always get excited when people come who know about cheese,” Rogers says. But this isn’t a place for food pretension. It’s a simple, great cheese shop with wine, olives — there’s a taleggio melt sparking with garlic that’ll ruin you on grilled cheese — and a few people who care enough to recommend Parmesan cultures.
“It’s still the greatest job ever,” Rogers says. He says the first time he ate Rush Creek Reserve, a buttery, runny hunk from cheesemaker Andy Hatch in the uplands of Wisconsin, was pure heaven. “You realize how good it can be,” Rogers says. He teaches a class at Scardello called Cheese 101 and is frequently available to share some of his cheese pairing favorites.
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And every now and then, Rogers hosts a ceremony that lovers of Parmesan should flock to. He cracks a wheel of true Parmigiano-Reggiano. It takes some time, no more than a binged episode of Stranger Things, and it’s a sight to behold. Rogers whips the wheel around, driving wedges into it, slowly opening its body like some kind of ancient ritual, and it opens with a crack-thunk that probably sounds something like when someone cracked the first Gutenberg Bible. Years ago, when I watched the Parmigiano-Reggiano wheel open at Scardello, I smelled the aroma of something completely unexpected: fresh pineapple.
From the moment the cheese opens, it begins to die. Therefore, the whiff that tears out of the cheese like a bird is “perfection,” Rogers says. The crags of mountainy Parmesan smell precisely like pineapple.
Like all of the cheeses at Scardello, you won’t forget it.
Scardello, 3511 Oak Lawn Ave.