Sylvia Sobocinski shows me a dated black-and-white photograph hanging on the wall of the Caseus cheese shop in New Haven. In the photo are three grinning men and a several-hundred–pound torpedo of provolone cheese. The men, who appear bemused if not proud, are Angelo Cavaliere and his two sons, Emiddio and Silvio — Sobocinski’s grandfather and uncles. They operated Cavaliere’s Grocery Store in New Haven’s Wooster Square for 65 years between 1935 and 1999. The massive provolone, propped up on crates, dwarfs the Cavalieres themselves. This is the unlikely legacy of Caseus, New Haven’s nearly ten-year-old hipster artisanal cheese shop.

Sobocinski spent her childhood living behind Cavaliere’s, popping over before dinner to fetch whatever was needed for the evening’s meal. These days, she is in charge of all things cheese at Caseus, her son Jason’s joint fromagerie and bistro venture. “I don’t know what happened, cheese just kind of beckoned to me,” she says.

Caseus is not just a cheese shop but a restaurant, and to get to the basement-level fromagerie I had to walk down a flight of stairs off the street. Caseus is low ceilinged, unpretentious and undeniably hip — it feels like a coffee shop that downed two or three bottles of wine. The walls are papered with the circular, colorful labels of cheeses past. Jarred and paper-bagged goods — olive oils, jams, garlic baguettes — are stocked on tightly packed shelves. The cheeses are displayed in a delightful panoply by the front register, each with an individualized label listing its name, price per pound and description in purposefully charming handwriting.

When I met Sobocinski at Caseus on a Wednesday afternoon back in October, she was wearing a black apron and carrying her handwritten cheese inventory. She speaks with what sounds to my California-transplant self to be a vaguely East Coast accent, luxuriating over her vowels. It is an accent I cannot place but reminds me of my aunt’s friends from Boston University who would come to Thanksgiving and ask the 11-year-old me if I was enjoying my studies. Sobocinski is warm but clearly not altogether comfortable being interviewed; she exchanges several glances with my notebook.

What she is comfortable with is cheese. Every day, Sobocinski and her team bring out the cheeses, clean them off and set them up with the handwritten signs. She chooses cheese for the boards and gives some extra cheese to the restaurant, for specials. She makes her picks for the Cheese of the Month Club, doing write-ups and finding recipes, and she sells cheese to other local shops and restaurants.

Under the legacy of Cavaliere’s, Sobocinski and her family have always been centered around food — she herself likes to cook, mostly vegetarian, with the occasional fish or meat dish. But before Sobocinski’s son Jason got his master’s degree in gastronomy from Boston University, the family cuisine was traditional Italian fare. “Artisanal cheese was something they brought to me,” Sobocinski says, taking the craft in stride.

Right now, Sobocinski is excited about two 60-pound wheels of a cheese called L’Etivaz which just arrived from Switzerland. L’Etivaz is an Appellation d’Origine Protegée cheese, which means that it has a protected name (think champagne). A whole host of regulations legislate the process by which the cheese is made and aged — in copper cauldrons over a wood fire between May 10 and October 10, bathed in brine and heated to exactly 134.6 degrees Fahrenheit — to list only a few of the requirements.

This L’Etivaz comes from Alp Tompey in Switzerland, which the Caseus team adopted through the Adopt-an-Alp program this year. Adopt-an-Alp is like Adopt-a-Highway, except instead of agreeing to pick litter up off the interstate, cheesemongers travel to Switzerland to connect with Swiss Alp farmers who practice the over 8,000-year-old tradition of transhumance, wherein the farmers take their cows and themselves up to the highlands for the summer to make cheese.

Only a few times in our interview does Sobocinski’s usually measured voice overtake her, and one of them is when she talks about the Switzerland trip. It’s clear that she’s taken by the romance of Swiss chalets and young raw milk cheeses, which are not available in the States. “The wildflowers, the fragrance, it was just, like, amazing,” she says with a shy smile.

Next, Sobocinski takes me to see a second cheese display, which is tucked into a corner of the front room. The first cheese she shows me is white and fuzzy: “It’s almost called a cat hair rind.” This fuzziness is achieved by putting bacteria, usually penicillium candidum, on the cheese to make the rind grow. The next cheese is rindless, and the third cheese has been washed with a chardonnay barrel saison. It is a yellowish orange color, which Sobocinski tells me is due to the bacterium B. linens that form during the process of washing the cheese. She turns the cheese over in her hands so I can get a better look. “The washed rind cheeses, they don’t really like plastic,” she says, clarifying that, really, no cheeses like plastic. “Cheese is living and breathing, and plastic kind of suffocates it.”

Some of the cheeses bear familiar names: cheddars, goudas. Some are foreign to the uninitiated but still clearly French and vaguely cheesy: mothais, coupole. Still others, like Purple Haze, could be confused with strains of marijuana at a Colorado dispensary.

I have been itching to see Caseus’s cheese cave since I arrived. A quick Google Image search shows that traditional cheese caves, which are used to age and store cheese, are dark underground Italian-villa style chambers with exposed stone, lined with rounds of cheese on wooden shelves. Caseus’s cheese cave is also underground, tucked off to the side of the kitchen. It is a sleek, streamlined version of a traditional cave — it looks like a refrigerator, one with a system of air circulation designed to best maintain the cheese’s quality. Inside are massive hunks of cheese in varying shapes and shades of pale yellow. Sobocinski points out her 60 pound wheels of L’Etivaz, which have been quartered, presumably to fit better in the cave.

Sensing where my mind has headed, Sobocinski graciously offers to let me taste a little cheese. She leads me out of the back room to the front cheese display and unwraps a Granola Brown Ale House cheddar. Sobocinski helped make this cheese in March on a snowy day at Farmstead Cheese Co. in southern Vermont — she even helped milk the cows. The cheddar has been infused with Granola Brown, an award-winning brown ale. The beer isn’t immediately detectable — it comes in a mild but unmistakable aftertaste. After the Granola Brown, Sobocinski slices me a thick wedge of Pradera, a gouda. It’s deliciously rich, and every other bite is punctuated by a small but satisfying crunch.

When the cheeses arrive at Caseus, they have already been aged. Different cheeses age for different amounts of time — some goat cheeses will age for only two weeks, whereas the Pradera I tasted had been aged for at least three years. As cheeses age, they become denser. Their flavors become deeper and more pungent, as if they have become wise or even jaded by time.

Sobocinski, who despite all this talk of aging has thus far avoided talking about cheese like wine, offhandedly mentions the “caramel notes” present in the Pradera. Her voice rises when she describes how this sweetness comes out of the removal of some of the curd’s lactic acid. “But it was still a very — she pauses here — concentrated cheese, right? It packed a punch.”

During her “noncheese” hours, Sobocinski teaches occupational therapy — mental health and fieldwork — at Bay Path University in the fall and Sacred Heart University in the spring. She speaks with a shy but fervent kindness about her work — it’s holistic and creative, she explains. In the past, she worked in both inpatient and outpatient mental health. “The people appreciate being helped, even the ones that are tough.”

Sobocinski has grandchildren now, Jason’s kids, and her voice floods with warmth when she speaks of them. They are two, four and six years old and spend the night on Saturdays. They live across the street from Sobocinski and her husband Tom, much like she herself lived behind Cavaliere’s Grocery so many years ago.

Sobocinski speaks measuredly, with a similar gentle passion for both cheese and family. She is bridging the world between Cavaliere’s and Caseus — she possesses the warm sincerity and shy earnestness of the old order but is savvy in maneuvering her way through the new one. Her voice is of the old world but her words are of the new.

One last thing — will she be working with cheese for a long time? Trying to imagine Sobocinski outside the context of cheese and Caseus makes me feel like a third grader trying to picture my teacher outside of school. After a mild pause and a noncommittal gesture: “I’m enjoying it,” Sobocinski says, unwilling to tell me whether her future years among the cheese will be counted in goat cheeses or Praderas or hundreds of pounds of provolone.

Talia Soglin |