“Cheese is the thing most people have an anxiety around,” says Jon Fancey, cheese buyer for Bi-Rite Family of Businesses.
That includes wine, he says, because with wine, people at least have keywords to choose among when buying a gift for someone or showing up at a dinner party. At a minimum, nearly everyone knows that red goes with beef and white with fish, but just knowing that “so-and-so likes Pinot” can be helpful.
“But with cheese, more and more I’m finding people who are not as well exposed to cheese as people were five years ago,” Fancey says, chalking the situation up to saturation of food culture. “Cheese is a great gift, but when folks come in and sayd, ‘I’m going to a dinner party, I don’t cook, I can’t cook, I don’t know what to do,’ my first thing is cheese.”
So Bi-Rite has begun offering guided shopping experiences, free half-hour segments where Fancey can help you out. (To register, send Bi-Rite a direct message via Instagram for 30-minute slots on the evenings of Tuesday, Dec. 19 and Thursday, Dec. 21, and the afternoon of Saturday, Dec. 23.) One thing this is not, Fancey insists, is a concierge experience, because the customer is still the one making all the decisions.
“It’s a more intent-ful and purposeful connection with people,” he says. “I will show you options depending on what they need, anything from gifts to ‘I’ve been invited to a dinner party and I need to bring X, Y, and Z.’ We’re taking care of all those holiday anxieties for folks who want to have well-made, thoughtful food at their event but don’t know where to start.”
Having worked in the food world since high school and putting in five years at Cheese Plus prior to arriving at Bi-Rite, this is Fancey’s fourth holiday season with the market. (Disclosure: I worked as an on-call bartender for Bi-Rite Catering until 2014, and while our tenures technically overlapped briefly, Fancey and I never worked together.) In selecting cheeses, Fancey travels widely, including several weeks in Europe every year. He meets with cheesemakers and exporters to find unique cheeses every season, but he still makes sure to include “things that grandpa would like.”
That would be classics like a smoked gouda, he says: “I found the best smoked gouda from Thorp, Wisc., a town that’s famous for its smoked bacon. That’a another thing in the holiday novelty realms: We try to find the best of the best.”
At times, there’s an almost lumberjack quality to Fancey’s job, which includes cutting down a 200-pound wheel of Emmenthaler. That’s about as large as cheeses ever get to be — almost.
“I don’t want to say that’s the largest, there’s a cheesemaker in Wisconsin named Edelweiss,” Fancey says. “They make a giant Emmenthaler, and because it’s younger they border on 220 [pounds]. It ages, and shrinks as it dries. That, to my knowledge, is probably the largest wheel of cheese out there, but we don’t sell it.
“Still,” he adds, “some of the more enjoyable moments I have in this business are working behind he counter or dealing with a giant wheel of cheese.”
A professed lover of the holidays in spite of it being a very busy time of year, he’s gotten better and better at food-related gifts. If you have friends or relatives in the Midwest, the Ohio native says, a flat-rate box packed with California citrus and other fresh produce can be much more thoughtful than something off of Amazon — “especially if someone only wants to spend $20 or $25.”
Similarly, olive oils are “foolproof,” with a high-quality, first-pressed olio nuovo from Italy or California anywhere in the $17 to $40 range, making it even easier. Then there’s always panettone and lebkuchen, the hard-to-master holiday breads that are moist and dense, with plenty of fruit. Fancey recommends Big Sur Bakery Stollen, which the market carries. (The company lost its facility to wildfire, but they’re already up and running.) And for wines, Bi-Rite’s own Trac Le has lots of holiday-appropriate magnums, many of them under Bi-Rite’s own house label.
But for cheeses at the table, the rule of thumb is not to overwhelm. What would Fancey do if he were having, say, 10 people over?
“I would only pick two or three, tops,” he says. “My least favorite thing is when there are like 12, and they’re these little pieces that no one can enjoy. It doesn’t represent the actual cheese, and no one’s getting a taste of it. I always recommend something softer and something firmer, large pieces, or maybe a whole round of something and a really nice, impressive wedge. At the holidays, I always go for cheeses from the Alps. We have a beautiful Beaufort this year, a Comté that’s 28 months old that I selected in France. All of these things basically were hand-selected, so everything for Christmas is always spot-on.
“I actually like to grab a Brillat-Savarin and just cut the top off and put a spoon in it,” he adds. “It’s like whipped butter inside of it, basically.”
(If butter rings your bell, Fancey also recommends a loaf of Tartine bread and a pound of French or English butter is another solid gift for $15.)
But over all, scheduling a 30-minute appointment with Fancey is meant to take away the anxiety about food.
“You’ll still get the same high level of attention even if you only need a $20 gift,” Fancey says. “It’s free, and there’s no minimum. You can get a really amazing gift for $10 here that you’re not going to find at Trader Joe’s.”
Guided Shopping Experiences With Bi-Rite Cheese Buyer Jon Fancey
Tuesday, Dec. 19, 6-8 p.m. (Bi-Rite Market Divisadero Street)
Thursday, Dec. 21, 6-8 p.m. (Bi-Rite Market 18th Street)
Saturday, Dec. 23, 2-4 p.m. (Bi-Rite Market Divisadero Street)