East End Food Co-op’s ‘Romantic Cheeses’ event emphasizes sensuous side of dairy product

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Just imagine Cupid wielding a cheese plate rather than a bow and arrow.

That’s Caldwell Linker, cheese buyer for the East End Food Co-op, who is presenting a workshop tonight on “Romantic Cheeses,” just in time for Valentine’s Day.

“I’m going to be focusing on cheeses that are wonderful to share with somebody else,” Linker said. “I have some lovely little cheeses. Most of them are cute and round and heart-shaped.”

So how does cheese edge out chocolate as the love treat of choice?

“Part of it is the texture,” Linker said. “There will be some nice, soft, sensuous, creamy cheeses that are … well, they’re sexy. They’re kind of decadent, but they’re very pretty. You put them on a plate and they look really nice. And they create a romantic mood in that two people can be close together to share them.”

Linker comes from North Carolina.

“I got a job at this grocery store that was opening up, and I was asked, ‘Do you like cheese. Do you want to work in the cheese department?’ I said, ‘Sure.’

“I didn’t really know much about cheese at the time. And it’s fascinating. How you can take four basic ingredients — milk, salt, cultures and rennet, which is primarily what all cheeses are made of — and make all these different things.

“It’s also interesting to me how cheeses from different cultures reflect the needs of different cultures. I’m someone who likes to learn a lot, and when I found cheese I was like, ‘Wow, this is something I could never learn entirely. I could keep learning in perpetuity.”

So Linker is never cheese bored.

Linker moved to Pittsburgh about seven years ago and took a job in the cheese department of a local Giant Eagle before becoming cheese buyer for the East End Food Co-op in 2012.

“It’s kind of a dream job,” said Linker, who lives in Point Breeze. “I’m in charge of finding new cheeses, tasting a lot of cheeses, helping customers figure out what cheese is best for them. Especially adventurous customers, who want to try something new but don’t know exactly they want.

“I visit farms and research cheeses. Of course, there’s also the cutting and wrapping of all the cheeses, which is less glamorous. But it’s a pretty great job.

“We primarily focus on American-made cheeses with an emphasis on local and regional cheeses. I do carry some international cheeses, but I primarily focus on cheeses from around this area that are hard to find.

“I like supporting local growers and cheese-makers. I try to have a wide variety, but I don’t have unlimited space. I do try to change up my selection with some regularity, so someone could shop here and never buy the same cheese twice.

“I myself am a huge fan of many European cheeses. But I don’t bring those in as much because we are the co-op and people expect local, they expect small producers, raw milk, grass-fed, all those fun things. I’ve got cow, sheep, goat. I’ve got some water buffalo. I’ve got some mixed-milk cheeses.”

Cheese goes well with so many things, including Linker’s other interest — photography. Linker recently had an exhibit of work at the Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side.

“I divide my time between photography and cheese,” Linker said. “And sometimes my passions meet and I go visit farms and take pictures of the cows and the cheese-making process.”

So you can trust Linker to picture the perfect cheese for your romantic moment.

“I ask people a number of questions,” Linker said. “A lot of people don’t know what they need, so I ask them what it’s for, what they like. Some people want to just try to find something new. Some cheese that they haven’t tried before.

“It has a lot to do with what else they’re going to be eating and what they like. And, I’ll be honest, I’m a bit of a cheese psychic. Sometimes I have an instinct. I’ll look at someone and I’ll think, ‘Ooh, I think this person wants feta.’ And we’ll start talking and it turns out they want feta.”

The workshop begins at 7 p.m. in the cafe of the East End Food Co-op, 7516 Meade St. in Point Breeze.

The event is free, but those interested in attending are asked to call the co-op at 412-242-3598.

“Folks should call to make sure there’s still space available,” Linker said. “And, to be frank, I’m going to be putting out some expensive cheeses. I’m going to let the people try some fancy stuff, so I really need a good idea of how many folks will be there.”

Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com.

First Published February 12, 2014 4:26 PM

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