Thursday, October 27, 2016

Exploring Van Hook Cheese & Grocery

Van Hook Cheese recently opened at 528 Jersey Avenue to the excitement and relief of many - most specifically me.

I've long wished for a dedicated cheese shop to open in Jersey City and Van Hook meets all my expectations and then some. Although the space is relatively small, it's been transformed into a warm, welcoming, and well-organized store with both open refrigerated and pantry shelving as well as a good-sized cheese and charcuterie case. The staff is knowledgeable and exceedingly friendly, particularly the owner Carl, but everyone will happily and non-judgmentally walk you through their variety of cheeses, make suggestions, and offer tastings.

Their inventory is carefully hand-chosen but wide-ranging with everything from soft-ripened creamy sheep's milk cheese to pungent washed rind cheeses to bold blue cheeses. There is a focus on small, local producers and specialized cheesemakers, many of whom are creating a new wave of "American" cheese - those made with European tradition and tastes in mind, but with milk that inevitably has its own flavor profile based on where and what the producing animal is eating and specialized, unique ingredients, bacteria, and aging processes or innovative methods. One of my favorites I've tried so far is the Ameribella, a taleggio/Northern Italian-inspired cheese coming out of Jacobs & Brichford, a small farm in Indiana, but there are countless others I can't wait to slowly work my way through.

In addition to the cheese, there's a solid selection of cured meats, also mostly produced locally, and good quality, thoughtfully selected pantry staples like crackers, handpacked dried fruit and nuts, hot sauces (including Outer Limits), jams, condiments, etc., many of which would go well as accompaniments to the cheeses and many of which are just great to have but not always easy to find in town. For example, this was the first place I've found in Jersey City that carries a jarred good-quality, actually tasty and actually salted caramel sauce.

There's also a selection of seasonal and farm-fresh produce and a well-stocked dairy case with several specialty butters that caught my eye (I typically keep 3-4 different butters on hand for different uses. Don't judge me.), organic milk, and odds and ends like Parmesan rinds which are great for adding into soup.

Price-wise, just about everything I looked at seemed to be in line with the pricing at similar places and how much you spend will really be dependent on what you get, but it's definitely possible to walk out with a decent piece of cheese or two for under $10. Again, feel free to ask questions and find out more about what the options are - everyone has been more than happy to help during my visits.

They've also started offering specialty tasting and pairing classes, often working with other small businesses, so keep an eye out for those. The schedule can be found on their website and I think we can expect a lot of great things from Van Hook in the future.

PS - If you're interested in a very quick overview of the development of cheese in the states, I recommend starting with this.

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