Cambridge has lost some of its most beloved cultural touchstones recently, from The People’s Republik to the Cantab Lounge to the Border Café, and on and on. Amid this avalanche of goodbyes, a bright spot: Formaggio Kitchen in Huron Village.
Valerie Gurdal, 62, has worked at the cheese shop since 1984 and owned it outright with her husband, Ihsan, since the 1990s. She’s watched the city shed its bohemian layers, and yet she still remains, providing groceries to everyone from Yo-Yo Ma to Peter Wolf to eager novices looking to impress a date or attempt a gourmet meal.
Formaggio will relocate down the street to 360 Huron Ave. in the coming weeks, taking over Fresh Pond Market. (There are other outposts in Kendall Square and the South End.) The space is larger, with room for more staples like detergent and cereal. But the focus will remain the same: thoughtfully sourced cheese for discerning turophiles.
What attracted you to the world of cheese?
I grew up in Miami. My mother’s Spanish-Puerto Rican, and her family is in Spain. I decided that I wanted to go live in Spain with an aunt and uncle and try to learn Spanish. She never taught us, as a first-generation immigrant. She wanted to be American.
I went there in ’79 and lived with them for six months. Growing up in Miami, we had the Winn-Dixie and the Publix. We did our grocery shopping that way. With my aunt, she’d take her little wicker basket, and we’d go out and go to the fish guy, the vegetable guy, the egg guy, the chicken guy. I just thought it was the coolest thing.
I moved up to Boston to go to school, and I was looking for a place to buy saffron, and I don’t even know how I found Formaggio — you couldn’t Google back then. How did you go from one place to the next without GPS? I pulled up, and it was dusk. I got my saffron, some cheese, a baguette, and flowers, and I thought: I want to open this in Miami.
I applied for a job there, met Ihsan, and I stayed.
What’s the secret of your longevity?
In the 1980s, they said, ‘Don’t eat cheese; it’s high cholesterol.’ Then there was bread: ‘Don’t eat pasta.’ We’ve always had a very adventuresome, educated, well-traveled clientele. It’s not like they just jump on the bandwagon. A lot of them are European and used to having cheese before or as dinner, and then the food world has certainly changed since I started in ’84. Even when I opened the South End in 1999, I had wild boar, but no one bought it. Then Coppa opened up across the street after several years — first it was Dish — and they had it on their pizza and pasta. The Food Network certainly helped food evolve.
I think our staff keeps us young and interested. I think we try to stick to our principles, but we also try to change and do things as the food industry evolves. This new store will be different for us because it was a neighborhood market that sold toilet paper and laundry detergent and had a butcher and some seafood. All those things are sort of new to us. Since the pandemic, we have started selling toilet paper in our Cambridge store, because people didn’t want to go to larger-format stores. We’ve done a lot of curbside pickup and deliveries. It was easier for them to do. One-stop shopping. We added things as customers have asked for it, so in some ways, it helps us stay relevant. But I’m not going to sell Coca-Cola and cigarettes here, even though they used to.
Will you change up the inventory?
We’re bringing everything that we already carry and then some. We’ve set up shelves and stuff, and if you’ve been in the old place, you know every inch is used. It’s a little airier in feel. We’ll have a regular butcher case; we’ll sell fresh cuts of meat. We’ll also have some seafood, because the neighborhood wants it, and household products — but we’re keeping them eco-friendly. Then, more cereals. We import stuff from Austria, but we’ll have Raisin Bran. We’re trying to have a range of price points to please everyone, but you know how it goes. Not everyone will be happy!
How has the pandemic affected Formaggio?
We haven’t suffered. Knock wood. We have so many restaurant friends, and it’s hard to say. But we’ve had to change the way we’ve done everything. I can’t tell you how many months we didn’t allow customers into the store. It was just curbside and delivery, and that was harder than the holidays. You’re just running around. We had to limit the numbers of orders we could take. We couldn’t keep up. We were shopping for people: ‘I’ll take three bananas, four peppers on the small side, half a pound of this, this, that.’
Staff was freaked out. We were freaked out. We were double-masking. Cambridge let six people in at a time. This store’s bigger, and we’ll see how many the health inspector says we can have in at a time. We’ve been good about that, and people have been good about it. I feel terrible in the winter when people are standing outside because it’s so cold. We don’t do tastings anymore. We don’t put samples out anymore. There’s no barbecue anymore. Someday, I’m assuming those things will come back — at least barbecue. We can’t give you a sample at the cheese counter, and that’s our thing, taste before you buy.
What have people been buying a lot of during the pandemic? What surprised you?
In the beginning? Flour, yeast, pasta, and bananas. One day, I got 1,000 pounds of flour delivered. I’d never even sold flour before. You couldn’t keep up with eggs. You couldn’t keep up with milk. In the summer, a lot of vegetables that people were pickling.
How has the Cambridge culinary community changed since the 1980s?
Gosh, I’ve been here a long time. I remember when they had the Wursthaus in Harvard Square, and there were bookstores everywhere. There was a little diner on Church Street called Leo’s Place. We’d take the kids there and go to Reading International and read magazines. I think that’s a First Republic now. I mean, for me, obviously, I’ve always liked independent shops. Independent restaurants and stores of any kind always bring much more charm to any neighborhood, wherever you are in the country or the world. Would you go to Rome and go shopping at the GAP? I mean, why?
Harvard Square has changed a lot. We still go to the Harvest. It was one of our first dates; we haven’t gone since the pandemic, but we’d go and sit in the café and have a hamburger and a nice glass of wine. At least that’s still there.
What’s your most missed restaurant?
We loved going to Rendezvous in Central Square. You could just go up to the bar. I have a love-hate with small plates. I want a bunch of things but don’t want to share them. You could go and get octopus, and good vegetables, and three or four little appetizers and a glass of wine. I like eating like that.
What do you see happening for food businesses in the next few years?
I think people will still want a lot of their takeout. Or maybe not. It’s hard to say. People miss going out, but they’ve gotten used to either picking up or getting curbside or takeout through a third party. Hopefully it’s made people aware of the small businesses and the chain effect this has had on everybody. It’s not just the owner; it’s the wine purveyor, the driver, the people who provide chemicals to clean, the aprons. I think, in our business, people will still want curbside and delivery.
Gotta ask: favorite cheese?
I’m a goat cheese and sheep’s milk person. I don’t like really, really stinky cheeses, but my new favorite — we’ve had it a while — is Florence Maritime, a goat’s milk cheese from Belgium. The rind is covered in algae. It has a briny, tangy saltiness to it. I just love the algae on the outside. It’s a really good goat cheese.
What would you recommend as a comforting quarantine snack cheese? A comfort cheese, if you will?
I would say cheddars and comté. You can never go wrong with those, especially if you have a big hunk. We eat comté all the time. Breakfast, lunch, appetizer, throw it in an omelet.
Any cheese you absolutely cannot stand?
I’m not really fond of stinky, washed-rind cheeses, but I do like some of them. It’s not a category I completely don’t like, but I don’t like it when it’s really, really strong. We have Friday Night Tim — what we call him in the South End — and he wants the stinkiest cheese we have that week. Everybody’s different.
Who’s your most famous customer of all time?
Gosh. In Cambridge, we have a lot — Yo-Yo Ma, John Malkovich, Justice Breyer around the corner, Eric Lander. All those people live right around the store. Peter Wolf has been coming in for as long as I can remember, daily. Louise Gluck, the poet laureate. I’m sure there are a million others, writers and stuff. I have to say, they’re super nice. Yo-Yo Ma couldn’t be nicer. He comes in with a smile all the time.