SCARBOROUGH, Maine - Almost everything about The Cheese Iron feels warm and inviting on a crisp fall day. Here in this cheese and specialty food store, lots of little golden lights shine on raw pine walls, and tables are attractively arrayed with bags of violet Italian candies, baskets of parsnips and pears from a nearby farm, squares of fig cake, crisp olive oil bread from Andalusia, dark local chocolates, and more.
At the heart of the shop, flanked by tubs of olives and a case of assorted charcuterie, are more than 200 artisanal cheeses. They exude all the earthy sensuality of finely crafted things.
Conveniently located on Route 1 in Scarborough just off Interstate 295, The Cheese Iron is a great place to sample the best of Maine's gourmet foods, along with products from elsewhere in New England, Canada, and abroad.
The store is the creation of Vincent Maniaci, 36, and his wife, Jill Dutton, 33. Maniaci oversaw the display and care of cheeses at Whole Foods' flagship store in Austin, Texas, which some consider the most beautiful grocery in the world. At their shop, he and Dutton use their palates and their patience to cultivate the best in edible art. Their website quotes filmmaker Luis Buñuel: "Age is something that doesn't matter, unless you're a cheese."
They practice the art of affinage, letting the cheeses rest in a climate-controlled cave until they are perfectly ripe. To determine when the flavors have fully matured, they use a cheese iron - a beveled metal half tube that removes a small plug from a whole cheese.
"When you cut into a cheese that's too young, it dies. It will never reach its peak," Maniaci says. "But a cheese iron lets you take a core sample without disrupting the maturing process." Dutton adds, "You can put the plug back in and seal it without damaging the development of the cheese."
Unlike most grocery store cheese, which is precut in small industrial slabs, all the cheeses here are cut to order. Staff members encourage patrons to try a sample first, to make sure they're satisfied.
On recent visits, we sampled some of the owners' favorites from New England and Quebec. From Oak Leaf Creamery in Kennebunkport, we tried Cimarron, a creamy cow's milk round with a pink, brine-washed rind and a silky texture with just a touch of grit. From Fern Hill Farm in Naples, Maine, came a fresh goat's milk chèvre. "With such a light texture, it makes really fluffy gnocchi or great little ravioli pillows," Maniaci said.
Other knockouts included a cow's milk Stilton from Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vt., with hints of bittersweet chocolate and walnuts in the creamy, pungent blue; a fruity, mushroom-scented goat tomme from Twig Farm in West Cornwall, Vt., and a tangy, raw cow's milk cheese from Chateauguay, Quebec, called Pont Couvert, which Maniaci washes with hard cider "to give it effervescence on the nose," he said.
We also tried some exotic chocolates specially made for The Cheese Iron by Nutmeg Foods in South Portland: fleur de sel caramels with candied olive; little nubs of Parmesan coated in cocoa powder; and dark chocolate Gorgonzola truffles with walnuts and local balsam honey - all alluring, intense, and hauntingly decadent.
Among The Cheese Iron's customers was Jim Olsen, a California winemaker stocking up on cheese and other goodies in preparation for a week's vacation in Jonesport, with his wife, Mary. "I love it when you can go somewhere and really taste the essence of the place," he said. "It makes traveling so much more fun."
Judith Gaines, a freelance writer in Maine, can be reached at email@example.com.