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Attention, Bulldogs — Athens. Has. A. Cheese. Market. This is NOT a drill!
Fritz Gibson, a Tifton, Georgia, native who grew up with Extension agent parents, spent years in Vermont and Chicago exploring the culinary world, and he kept ending up working with cheeses. When he and his wife, who works in wine, moved back to the Classic City, they’d already created the idea for Half-Shepherd. The timing was kismet: he said about three months after they moved back and discovered this space off Prince Avenue in the Normaltown neighborhood, the space came up for grabs and they nabbed it.
Several years ago, when I lived in the Virginia Highland neighborhood of Atlanta, I lived within walking distance of this incredible neighborhood market that had sandwiches, a bakery, dry goods, wine and a cheese display to swoon over, which was (wo)manned by a real-life cheesemonger.
To my knowledge, at least during college and in the year since I returned, Athens didn’t have anything of the sort. Most of the larger grocery stores amped up their “fancy” cheese selection during the past few years, but I mean … it’s a grocery store. You go in, you play bumper-buggy with about 6,431 fellow shoppers all vying for the same half-pint of heavy cream. The store might be clean, but when you’re on a time crunch to get back home and cook a meal/take the dog to doggie daycare, it’s hard to achieve cookery zen when you’ve been waiting in the self-checkout line for 17 minutes.
This is why I love local markets, especially local markets that market other local stuff. Half-Shepherd takes things up a notch though: “Local foodies, I see your farmer’s market vibe and I raise you sandwich café.”
Yes, y’all, I counted: 24 mustards, additional cheeses, meats and spreads to pick from. I added the prosciutto and apple & onion jam, though in hindsight I’ll request Dijon mustard as well next time. The Old World has comte, an Alpine cheese I’d never heard of; gouda and brie, which is one of my not-so-guilty cheese pleasures; all on sourdough bread from Atlanta’s H&F Bread Co.
“If you ever tried to make a grilled cheese sandwich with an aged cheese, it kind of breaks apart when you heat it up and it gets oily,” Gibson said. “The trick is to mix in some less-aged cheeses with more moisture in them. With both [the Old World and Old School] sandwiches, we try to do one fairly aged cheese, one moderately aged cheese and one fresher cheese.”
For the Old World, the brie is the fresher, the comte a moderately aged melting cheese and the 30-month gouda the more aged.
My taste buds aren’t refined enough (… yet) to distinguish the difference between all three cheeses, but I can tell you that the blend of the three was a delicate blend of creamy, mild and nuttiness. Prosciutto is a paper-thin sliced Italian dry-cured ham. It is divine. Since it’s cured, it has a pronounced salty flavor, which to me just enhanced how mild the cheeses are.
I visited Half-Shepherd for its ribbon-cutting ceremony with the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, and as part of that was able to enjoy kind of a two-fer. The owners put out samples of their Cubanesque sandwich as well, and that will definitely be what I get full-size next time. The roasted pork fell apart in my mouth, and the chow-chow gave a nice crunch and vinegar-y tang. Gibson said he puts the comte cheese — that moderately aged, nutty Alpine cheese on my sandwich — on this one as well. We uncultured (ooh, cheese pun!) Americans have a tendency to think of Swiss cheese as ivory slices with holes in them, but there is a much broader category of Alpine cheeses like comte that Half-Shepherd can now introduce us to.
What?! Don’t look at me like that.
Y'all already know my family’s coming to visit next just to take home artisan cheese, don't even play! Seeing their daughter/granddaughter/ niece is just a front to get good food.
just kidding, mom.