The eight cheeses on the dinner menu at The Salty Pig are carefully curated to have mass appeal. Whether you are a cheese newbie or somewhere closer to cheesemonger on the scale, Josh Turka has prepared some options he knows will invite discussion, questions, and most definitely tasting.
Turka became executive chef of The Salty Pig about two months ago when Kevin O'Donnell left to work on the latest Coda Group restaurant project in the South End, a Venetian bacaro called SRV, opening very soon. Turka had been a sous chef at the restaurant since May 2014 and took over the cheese program about three or four months into his tenure.
"[O'Donnell] encouraged me to kind of take this thing over and just see what I could do with it and run with it. He was great. I mean, you could talk to him, but he was pretty hands off and just let me take things the way I wanted to," Turka said. "I'm a chef, I know about food, but I'm not a cheesemonger, that's not my expertise, so I've done a lot of learning by reading online, reading books, and then talking with our purveyors. They're the best resource for sure."
Turka built up his knowledge and began shaping the program into something he felt would allow guests of all levels of cheese knowledge to find something to try.
"Generally we try and hit a little bit of different parts of the spectrum," he said. "That way everyone can find something that they like or maybe something they've never tried before."
The cheese spectrum has a lot of moving parts.
But the spectrum has a lot of moving parts. First, there's the type of milk used to make the cheese — cow, sheep, or goat — and then there's whether the cheese is hard, soft, or somewhere in between. Throw in aged cheeses, fresh cheeses, visibly moldy cheeses ("I mean, it's all mold," Turka said), and cheeses with rinds, and it's a party before you even get to where these cheeses were made.
"So that's the thing that really surprised me," Turka said. "I always liked cheese, but when you really delve into it, the amount there is to know and the amount of different techniques that people have come up with to make cheese that can yield such crazy different results."
Take, for example, some of the cheeses on the current menu at The Salty Pig.
"Right now we have two bloomy rind cheeses, one blue cheese, three harder cheeses, one smoked cheese. We have two sheep's milk, two goat cheeses, cow cheeses — some raw, some pasteurized, some cave-aged," Turka said.
The bloomy rind cheeses he mentioned are typically Brie-style: They have that chalky, soft mold on the outside, which grows after a cheese gets misted with a water spray that contains a strain of penicillin.
Casual cheese fans often seek a familiar Brie-style cheese.
Turka said that people who love cheese but know less about the gritty details sometimes look for a familiar Brie-style cheese on a new list. "Everybody loves it. We try and keep it on the menu," he said.
In addition to the Brie, Turka usually keeps a younger goat cheese on the menu alongside an aged cheese. Right now, he has two locally made goat cheeses from the same source: Boston Post Dairy, a farmstead creamery in Vermont that produces the milk it then uses to make cheese. The Tres Bonne goat cheese is aged nine months, while the White Diamond is aged just 30 days.
"I think this is a really cool one to have together, because it's the exact same goat milk. And then you just treat it differently, and they're completely different," he said.
Cheese tasting is similar to wine tasting, Turka said, where surprising flavors surface depending on the treatment of the product.
"You're eating, you know, cow's milk cheese and it tastes like mushrooms or it tastes like brioche or something. I think that's really cool," he said.
The Salty Pig offers a mix of old world and local cheeses.
"We try and split about half and half between European cheeses and American cheese to kind of give a little bit of a range of everything. I think it's great for people — we're a restaurant where you have people come in who are kind of cheese connoisseurs, then somebody comes in maybe for just a pizza and sees our cheese list and is like, 'Ah, this is cool, let me try something,' so I think we're often a great introduction to people into the world of cheese. Showing them classic old world cheeses along with some locally made cheeses can be fun, so we try and have a little bit of each," Turka said.
The international contingent on The Salty Pig's current menu features cheese from Italy, England, France, and the Basque region. The Basque cheese, called Etxegerai, is aged six months and is slightly smoked, with a salty, bright punch common in sheep's cheeses. As it ages, Turka said, the cheese absorbs some of the smoky flavor through the rind.
On the more moldy side of things sits the Shropshire Blue, from Nottinghamshire, England, which has an orange hue more like cheddar than blue cheese. Turka said the cheese makers used to add carrot juice to the milk before cooking it, and the keratin would stay behind and dye the milk proteins. They now use a naturally occurring food dye to create the color. The cheese is bright and sharp but milder than most blues.
"You see orange and blue and gray and it's like, 'God, that thing's going to be like an assault,' but it's actually really mild. I mean, it definitely has some sharpness, there's some tanginess, you've got that blue flavor, but it's not in-your-face pungent," Turka said.
One of the French cheeses, called Abbaye de Belloc, is made from sheep's milk at a monastery in the Pyrenees. "It's only made in this one little monastery, and they get milk from local farms, and it's aged for four months," Turka said, noting that the conditions at the monastery impact the cheese's flavor.
Environmental conditions make a big difference.
These are the processes that make cheese so interesting to Turka: A European-style cheese made the exact same way in the U.S. will have a different taste, purely because of the environmental conditions. Sometimes, if he wants to put a European cheese on the menu but it's not available, he can turn to local sources to find something similar.
"There's tons of cheeses there that are modeled off these classic European styles, so it's really nice to have that resource," he said. "Also, the European cheeses are great, but they're often tied down to these rules of region and structure and sometimes the American cheeses can get a little bit more interesting."
And in this region of the country, there's plenty of cheese to choose from. Turka said he works regularly with certain purveyors, who in turn deal directly with cheese makers.
"We have a lot more opportunity to meet with some of those cheese makers as well, because they're local," Turka said, noting the quality of cheeses that come from places like California but can often be difficult to source here. "There's a strong local resource of cheeses and cheese makers to work with. And we like to work locally as much as we can with everything," he said.
Many selections come from New England.
The Salty Pig uses the Copley Farmers Market when it's in season and sources other products from farms in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. "It's fun to stay local with our cheeses as well," Turka said.
The selections change regularly, two or three at a time, and Turka said there was no exact formula for shifting out the cheeses. "I'd say once a month, once every six weeks. We won't change the entire list; we just kind of rotate cheeses on or off," he said. A cheese could stay on the menu for as long as six to eight months if it's selling well. Every time a new one is introduced into the mix, Turka makes sure the restaurant staff has the chance to taste and discuss the cheese.
"There's a lot of knowledge that we expect out of our staff," he said. "If you come in as a guest and don't know any of these cheeses but know what cheeses you want, or know other cheeses that you like, we try and make it so our staff can do a good job of recommending cheeses that will kind of fit this flavor profile so that you can experience something new."
The cheese stands alone.
For a restaurant that features pizza and pasta, cheese seems a natural part of the crew. Turka said they will occasionally use a cheese from the tasting menu to top a dish, but generally, "it tends to be stand-alone," Turka said. "The cheese is the cheese."
Turka's ideal cheese board, based on the current options at The Salty Pig, includes the Parmigiano, Ascutney, Etxegerai, and Shropshire cheeses with some olives to cut the fat of the cheese, plus some fig jam.
"I think it's really fun and fascinating, and I love all the differences there are. I love trying to get in new cheeses and new flavors," Turka said. "It's fun for our staff to see new things. It's fun for our guests to see new things."
[Illustration: Emily Phares]