The independent news organization of Duke University

Slicing Into Durham

The story goes like this: I walk into Reliable Cheese Company. The cheesemonger at the glass counter—who, more often than not, is owner Patrick Coleff—asks me what I like in a cheese.

Let me confess now: cheese is pretty important to me. I tried to be vegan once, and I only survived a week—after that, I sprinted to the Whole Foods cheese section, bought a log of goat cheese, and finished it within a day. But I’m not the most knowledgeable about cheese descriptors. The only one I can hastily pull out is “nutty.”

But Coleff is more than up to my challenge of vague cheese adjectives. He’s worked in the cheese business for about seven years, at prestigious shops in New York City before relocating to Durham and opening Reliable Cheese Co. in June 2011. Always friendly and helpful, Patrick teaches me something new about cheese every time I go (which is at least once every 2 weeks). This week, it’s that the orange rinds you see on cheeses are called washed rinds, thusly named because they’re washed with a briny alcohol solution to produce a strong, pungent, salty taste.

Coleff opens the glass cheese counter, which boasts a scrumptious selection of cheeses with fun, creative captions that he’s authored. My favorite at the moment is for Caveman Blue, which Coleff describes as “like eating a really rich brownie. Or a moldy brownie in the back of the fridge.” He gives me generous slabs of various cheeses to try. I emerge with Challerhocker, an aged cows-milk Swiss alpine cheese—and oh, is it life-changingly delicious.

But that’s not the only life-changer here. When I ask for “strong, salty, slightly spicy,” and emerge with Monte Enebro, a complex, creamy goat cheese from Spain—it’s another winner. It’s made by famous artisan cheesemaker Rafael Baez and his daugher Paloma in Spain. Baez is man whose cheese is so legendary, he allegedly turns down customers who he doesn’t think deserve it. Tales of legendary exclusivity aside, the cheeses at the shop are sourced from small farms and artisans, everywhere from the local Chapel Hill Creamery and Goat Lady Dairy (which makes a mouthwatering fig and honey spreadable goat cheese) to handcrafted cheeses from Europe. For the high degree of excellence and quality, the cheese is reasonably priced.

Reliable Cheese’s offerings are more diverse than its name purports; they sell more than just cheese. Next to the cheese counter, there’s another counter that sells meat—sourced, once again, from small farms and artisan producers anywhere from Chapel Hill to Italy. The offerings include slab bacon and mortadella with pistachios. To the back of the store, there’s an array of cheese partners—crackers, condiments and spreads. Shelves are stacked with hot peach chutney, membrillo paste, fig jam, stone-ground mustard, cornichons, pickled okra and onions, caramelized onion-flavored crackers—everything you can think of—all of which is locally sourced. Big Spoon Roasters’ nut butters, for example, made with hand-roasted and ground peanuts and local wildflower honey, are made by a family that lives right off of East Campus. Toward the front of the store, there are LocoPops and chocolates with flavors like pink pepper and citrus, and cinnamon and sakay.

That’s not all. Reliable Cheese also offers cheese classes at least once a month. They do specialty cheese platters for all occasions. They make hot, fresh sandwiches to order with the ingredients and cheese they sell, on bread from Loaf Bakery on nearby Parrish Street. Oh, and they’re the real deal. Priced from $5 for a grilled N.C. Hoop Cheese or handmade Pimento, to $7.50 for the incredibly scrumptious country ham, blue cheese, and fig jam, or city ham, gruyere, cornichons, and mayo, they might actually be the best grilled cheeses you’ve ever eaten. If you’re in a hurry, they also sell the same sandwiches in a grab-and-go section at the front of the store. They have fresh salads, too—a tuscan kale salad, a sprouted lentil salad and a beet salad made with fresh goat cheese, mint, and lemon juice. To help wash down all the delicious food, there are drinks in the shelves and refrigerator in the back: wine, handmade cider, soda, Purity lemonade.

With all these offerings, Reliable Cheese is the perfect place for creating your own cheese-centric story. Walk in on a sunny spring or summer’s day with some friends. Order a few sandwiches. Grab some champagne/sparkling wine (you’ll find a mas corona Cava Brut) to mix with Purity lemonade, and you’ve got a delicious summer mimosa, or summosa. There’s limited seating inside of the shop, but it’s beautiful outside. Walk to the picnic tables by Scratch Bakery, just around the corner, and there, you’ve got yourself perfection: a gorgeous summer’s day picnic—sandwiches, summosas and all. Reliable Cheese has given me some of the best brunch picnics of my life.

Located in the heart of downtown Durham, next to Rue Cler and ensconced by City Hall, Reliable Cheese is well worth a visit—or multiple. True, you can get some of the cheeses and products at Whole Foods or A Southern Season in Chapel Hill, but Reliable Cheese Co. has a smaller, friendlier and altogether more pleasant feel.


Share and discuss “Slicing Into Durham” on social media.