Photo by John Rockwell. Rush Creek Reserve is enough on its own, but just to kick it up I added some Pleasant Ridge (left) and Challerhocker (right). The sourdough is homemade, of course.

The holidays are always an ideal time to snag some great cheese and share some goodness with friends and family. There’s nothing quite like introducing someone to cheese that isn’t from a vac-pack at the grocery store. Fine cheese producers and gourmet retail outlets seem to know this, so retailers of fine cheese gear up for the holidays. Unlike mass-produced items, I learned that when good cheese sells out, it is gone. A few days before Christmas, when I visited the awesome Cheese Cave in Claremont, the shop was full and there was a long line of hosts and guests alike wanting to get something special to impress their friends.

Uplands Cheese Rush Creek Reserve

Wisconsin-made Rush Creek is available once a year, between November and December, or rather, early November to whenever it sells out. It’s a delightful spruce-wrapped washed rind soft cheese that presents like a savory, creamy custard. The spruce bark contributes a significant amount of flavor, and although it is washed, it is not stinky. At its best, it ripens into a dipping texture at room temperature. In fact, I usually cut the top mold cap off and serve it in its own little spruce circle. This cheese is very special, although no round of Rush Creek has ever found its way beyond our small family of four. Even my wife and older daughter, who do not particularly share my fondness for stinky washed-rind cheeses, tend to devour this one because it is amazing.

Of course, that comes with a price. It costs right around $35-40 for a small brie-shaped round, and this is one cheese that your cheesemonger will probably refuse to cut and sell as a half-round. This is because it will continue to ripen and get soft as you store it in your fridge. You’re either all-in or not-in on Rush Creek. Unlike Upland’s award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve (later in this story), this cheese has not won awards because it cannot be judged in all of the summer fair contests. It is made only in the fall when Uplands’ cows are switched to their winter hay diet—the ensuing milk has increased fat content, but less color and less “flavor” from the terroir as hay is a rather bland feed for the flavor development of milk. Here’s my advice: If you see it, buy it. Serve it soon thereafter with some people you love, but make sure they’re cheese lovers too, and have some understanding and appreciation for what they’re tasting. This is not to be served to the anonymous folks at a party who say they’re impressed with the sharp block cheddar at the local Ralphs. I apologize in advance if that seems snooty. It was meant that way.

Whole Foods 12 Days of Giving

Disclaimer: I have a conflicted relationship with Whole Foods Market. I appreciate the availability of the fine foods that can be found in one place. Their cheese selection is somewhat close to a fine standalone cheesemonger (some stores are better than others), and their sourdough bakery produces some naturally leavened breads that approach that of a dedicated high-end bake shop. I also appreciate their general attempt to carry cruelty-free, “non GMO,” or otherwise healthy versions of everyday foods, but of course shoppers pay a premium price for that.

What concerns me about Whole Foods is that anyplace one exists, it seems there is no longer a need for local specialty markets. I know this doesn’t necessarily hold true in established neighborhoods of Los Angeles where popular bake shops existed before the grocery store was installed, but in newer locations, they generally seem to wipe out any chance of local artisan food. Instead, like at the fairly recent installation in Brea, you get a ready-mix shopping center concept that includes upper-end eateries like Mendocino Farms, Urban Plates and Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern.

It was with this tenuous spirit that I decided to participate in Whole Foods’ “12 Days of Giving,” which is a half-off sale of specific brands and styles of cheese that lasts from December 8 to December 19. What’s not to love when a major chain is selling highly sought after cheese at prices that seem to be at (or barely above) their costs?

Day 1 was Humboldt Fog. When I arrived at the cheese counter, I picked up a small round of Cypress Grove’s flagship cheese with its signature “fogline” created by two cakes of goat brie where ash has been sprinkled on one of the cakes. Its perfect sour-salt flavor balance and unmistakable crumbly texture (except around the outside where it is ripened the most) make it easily one of the most recognizable and edible goat bries anywhere. I noticed the cheese was its normal price, and figured the adjustment would be made at the register. A Whole Foods cheesemonger asked if there was anything I was looking for, and I said I found it and said it didn’t look half-off. “That’s because it’s not,” she said. “Technically that size of Humboldt Fog isn’t the same cheese that’s part of our half-off sale.” After a moment of frustration, she explained that she had some behind the counter and not out on display. I made off with a half-round and was very proud of my purchase.

Day 2 was also a good sale day because stinky cheese was on sale. While Whole Foods’ proprietary Mons Epoisses is not quite the real thing, it’s definitely passable, and for under $10 for a small round, I could not pass it up. So I drove to the store after work, and it was sold out. Frustrating. Didn’t go back for a few days. All that driving. Of course, I bought some cheese at full-price.

On Day 6, December 13, I got smart and called ahead. Mons Gabieton, a mixed-milk semisoft cheese that looks a little like Raclette in the ad, caught my eye. However, it was out as well. Oh well. I checked into Whole Foods’ Facebook page and found out I wasn’t the only one experiencing the great cheese shortage problem of 2017. I grew tired of making the effort and driving the miles—our closest Whole Foods is around 60 miles away.

For Day 11, December 18, I had an epiphany. Uplands Cheese Pleasant Ridge Reserve, one of the most award-winning cheeses in the country was on sale. This is the cheese where Uplands claims it just lets the milk do the work. The cows are pasture-fed and the hard cheese is naturally yellow and cave-ripened. The rind tingles in your mouth as you eat it. Everything about this cheese, from texture to flavor, is elegant and sublime. Since I had to work, and my daughter lives a couple of miles from a Whole Foods, I asked her to go there at opening—7 a.m. sharp—and buy up whatever they had. Once again, the cheese was not out in the display, and the mongers had to get what was “in back.” She bought around four pounds, and that was all they had. Facebook chatter seemed to indicate that I was not alone.

So what’s the point of having a highly publicized sale on cheeses that are not really in stock? According to Peg Cancienne, who contacted me as a result of concerns I expressed on Facebook, “this promotion is designed to share some excellent cheeses with our customers; often ones that they may not ever try without the promotion’s goal of bringing them to their attention.” She went on to explain what I already suspected, and that is that these cheeses were so specialty that it was difficult for to distribute them evenly to all of their stores. I received some store credit, which made the sting of all those miles go away, and all was well.

I like the spirit behind this promotion. These cheeses certainly were special and in a couple of cases, kind of rare. If I were in charge of this promotion, however, I’d probably suggest some cheeses for which there would be a better supply, like Swiss Challerhocker, the radically stinky gruyere, or Spring Brook Farm’s Reading Raclette. And maybe instead of sticking to one style, like Vermont’s Bonne Bouche, why not discount their entire lineup? I also do not see a problem with setting some sort of customer limit on purchases to ensure a robust supply for everyone who shops there throughout the day. I’m sure Whole Foods was not trying to anger its customers, but if you’re passionate about cheese, that’s exactly what a cheese shortage might do. In any case, the cheeses I did purchase filled my holiday cheese boards. In the end, my family and friends saw the nice cheese board, and I had some fun party stories to tell about my Whole Foods escapades.