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Local Eats: North Van's Cheese Man
The Cheese Man doesn’t do much marketing. Other than a clog-wearing, cheese-munching mouse statue out front and small sign above his shop in a nondescript cinderblock building behind Capilano Mall, he relies almost exclusively on word of mouth.
After all, that’s how Doug Martin first discovered the small, aromatic shop with cheeses from around the world 15 years ago.
“Same way as everybody else — customers telling customers,” says Martin.
Martin bought the cheese shop five years ago when owner Benny Nordhoj, a native of Denmark, retired after 25 years behind the counter.
Nordhoj did even less marketing, with just an obscure sign reading B & N Sales above the door, but customers still lined up for his reasonably priced cheese.
Martin has since changed the sign to read Cheese Sales and renamed the shop the “Cheese Man” — which is how he and other customers had affectionately referred the store’s owner for years.
And while Martin has done a lot of things — Olympic swimmer (Montreal, 1976), troubleshooter at IBM, executive coach, head of a not-for-profit and VP of a software company — he never imagined he’d be a purveyor of fine cheese.
“I wanted a business that I could have fun with,” he says.
“And that’s turned out to be the case. I enjoy every day I come in here. My customers are fun. It’s a fun place to come and shop.”
Some days, like Saturdays, there’s a lineup snaking out of his shop. But it usually doesn’t take long to get your order and it’s a good chance for cheese lovers to swap recipes and the provenances of their favourite varieties.
“[They] learn as much from [the people who shop here] as from me,” he says. “[It’s] really a neat community inside the shop.”
Martin’s usually got between 75 to 100 different cheeses in his display cases. Some are Canadian but the majority are imports: Switzerland, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Britain, New Zealand, Norway, Italy, to name a few.
He also carries seasonal selections, like raclette, a cheese produced in Switzerland and France, that’s traditionally heated with a special table-top machine (which you can borrow from the shop for free with the purchase of cheese), then scraped onto potatoes and served with different accompaniments like gherkins, pickled onions, vegetables and smoked meats.
It’s a European tradition Martin had never heard of before purchasing the shop.
“I’ve seen a whole new world of what you can do with cheese,” he says.
To share all the tasty recipes and unique uses for cheese his customers have given him, Martin produces a monthly e-newsletter on all things cheese.
On his website, cheeseman.ca, there are more recipes, like, for instance, BBQed grilled cheese sandwiches and Roquefort steak sauce.
Many of his customers, like Anne Bigler, a native of France who now lives in North Van, have been making the special trip here for years.
“What are we thinking today?” he asks when she walks in.
“[I’ll] start with creamy blue cheese Cambozola and a piece of the French one,” she says, pointing down at a wedge of Port Salut.
“Do you have any Brie?” she asks.
“Creamy, runny?” Martins asks, plucking a cheese from that case.
“That one will run all over the place.”
“What else do I want,” she asks aloud as she surveys the cheese counter.
“Do you have any German Butter?”
“[It has] nice flavour,” she says, as Martin opens another cooler to grab the mild and creamy cheese.
“And is this the one with the herbs?” she asks, pointing to another.
“It’s a cream cheese,” he says.
Martin then recommends something her husband might like, Pont L’Eveque, a French cheese.
So, why does she choose to come to a business park for her cheese?
“First of all, it’s a better price and he’s got more variety,” she says.
“Oh, [and it’s] lots of fun,” she adds.
While some come in for large quantities to stock their cheese drawers, others just order a few slivers. All are welcome, but if you’re looking for “grab and go” you may be disappointed.
The amiable Cheese Man likes interacting with his customers. That may include helping to come up with a selection of cheeses for a dinner party platter or even pairings with wines.
Quizzed on a chardonnay pairing, he makes this recommendation:
“Goat gouda, nice triple-cream Brie. I’d also have a nice blue that would go well with chardonnay.”
While his go-to cheese is always five-year-old cheddar (his great-grandfather got him hooked), Martin is also fond of a cheese from Quebec called Bleu Bénédictin that’s produced by monks. He calls it a “Goldilocks” — “a blue that’s not too sharp and not too creamy. Just right.”
“It can be used in a salad, served on its own or even melted on a tenderloin.”
Along with an apprenticeship with Nordhoj, Martin has also had the enviable task of upping his cheese IQ with tasting trips to Europe.
So far, he’s visited Switzerland, Germany and Denmark. France, Italy and Holland are next.
In Switzerland, he went on a nine-day cheese adventure, visiting cheese-makers in different regions, even venturing into the cave with one artisan who slid rounds off racks and began doing core tasting samples of different-aged cheeses.
“There’s always something to learn, new recipes,” he says of his new vocation.
And even though Martin’s now the ‘big cheese’ at the shop, there’s not nearly the kind of pressure he’s faced in other lines of work.
“It’s a lifestyle choice,” he says, noting he has “little to no stress and gets one good belly laugh or more a day.” He also lives five minutes from work and is able to commute by scooter in the summer.
And in this job, it’s not so bad bringing your work home with you.
On this Friday night, he’s planning to enjoy a bottle of wine and some cheese before dinner.
—Local Eats is a semi-regular column that profiles North Shore restaurants and foodies.