If a meal could change your life, what would it taste like?
It was a trip to the Lombardy region of Italy, and a winding mountain road, that led Matthew Rubiner to the meal that altered the course of his life, steering him away from a career in military policy analysis at MIT and towards an existence more satisfying to his senses.
In May of 1993, Matthew, a Michigan native, found himself in the small town of Malgrate, seated in the terrace dining room of il Griso, with its breathtaking view of Lake Como and the Alps. Prepared by Chef Claudio Prandi, the lunch was served by waiters formally whisking domed covers from dish after dish. While he and his travel mate were almost certain the experience would cost every penny of their modest travel budget, the young Rubiner hung in for what would prove to be a turning point in his life.
“The experience was so overwhelming” he recounts. “Every dish, every bite was so spectacular, better than anything I’d ever tasted before. Every ingredient was local. The fish was from a local stream. The cheese from a nearby farm. In that moment I made a declaration, that I’m going to go on a new path. I knew that I was done with everything I’d been doing before. I returned home from that trip and started looking for work in food. And what kept turning up was cheese.”
Cheese appealed to Rubiner, not only because he enjoyed eating it, but because the role of cheesemonger embraced everything that attracted him to wine. That beyond the pleasure of its consumption, and an appreciation for the importance of terroir, necessary is a determined interest in the specific historical circumstances and traditions that bring them about.
He opened his eponymous shop in May of 2004, exactly ten years after that fateful lunch in Italy, and after many years learning the trade and working, dissatisfied, for others in the field. His own passion and vision for fine food finally found a home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts - an area of Southern Berkshire County enjoying proximity to New York’s Hudson Valley and Northwestern Connecticut. The shop is housed in an elegant, neoclassical building, with the original, massive vault door at the rear of the shop a vestige of the building’s previous life as Great Barrington Savings Bank. Visitors entering through the heavy glass doors are greeting by an open, beautifully lit space with tall ceilings, filled with the earthy aroma of cheeses. Shelves line the perimeter of the shop, stocked with specialty grocery items, from pastas to paprika, oils, sauces, and stocks. A refrigerator bearing local eggs, yogurts, and oil-packed cheeses hums against the wall. Thanks to a long-awaited and recently obtained liquor license, bottles of organic wine and craft beer stand shoulder-to-shoulder in orderly rows throughout.
On the day of my visit, regular customers, a couple with Italian heritage, stop in to purchase their weekly supply of cured meats from the old country, and eggs from a local farm. A young couple from Brooklyn navigates the shop while steering their toddler around a small marble-top table offering samples of Montgomery’s cheddar from England. An orderly arrangement of wheels and wedges of dozens of cheeses, from pungent Alpines to creamy Vermont goat cheeses, grace the wide, black schist counter.
The shop is bustling with guests from all over New England, predominantly New York, as well as a surprising number of European expats. Many have come to the Berkshires for ski vacations, fresh off the slopes of nearby Butternut and Catamount resort, and will soon follow the brick alleyway along the building to Rubiner’s cafe, rubi’s, to enjoy the apres-ski comforts of expertly-crafted lattes, steaming mugs of hot chocolate, and gooey grilled cheese sandwiches.
I ask Matthew, a formidable and charismatic man, what drives his passion for what is undoubtedly a challenging business, especially in Berkshire County - an area with dramatic seasonal swings. As he leans on a case displaying charcuterie, his eyes flash, smiling as he speaks. “My aim is to be a true merchant of food, to shorten the distance between the producer and the consumer. To be the gatekeeper of that relationship. My primary objectives have always been quality and taste. Here, we want to sell things made by artisans on a small scale, things that are important to the geographic regions they’re from, to their locality. Many of the items we carry are endangered in their traditional form.”
Gesturing towards the case, he tells me about the cured meats from a small good, crafted by an Australian fellow in Maine committed to reviving old-fashioned butchery and charcuterie-making there. We chat about the other meticulously packaged, small-batch grocery items on the shelves facing us, each with its own unique story set in a different part of the world. Pastas from Italy, biodynamic wines from Spain, sea salts from Wales, jams from California, ecologically duck-farmed rice from Vermont. It is clear that the store’s motto “Local Foods From Around the World” is taken to heart. “Everything here comes from caring people trying to use the land, care for the land in a way that’s beneficial for the community and the Earth. It is one virtuous aspect of globalization that a small store in Great Barrington can help ensure the survival of a small producer in Campagna [Italy].”
Helping food traditions survive is imperative to his mission. The well-considered selection reflects a commitment to makers invested in traditional and adaptive techniques, those individuals skilled at capturing moments in history through the crafting of foods that reflect the air, the sun, water, and land at those specific places in time. This process of transforming moments in history into pleasurable flavors and textures, is, in turn, transformative for the consumer. We experience the world - a changing yet constant world - through the foods we eat.
Rubiner’s shop also showcases producers adept at elevating those experiences to forms of art, notably the exquisitely colorful eggs from The Fancy F (Hillsdale, NY), Bartlett House jams (Ghent, NY), and fresh breads from Le Perche (Hudson, NY).
If foods can be a snapshot of history, then Rubiner’s is a gallery of captivating experiences like none other, with a collection and style that has earned him the attention of publications and renown among people in both the production, and enjoyment of, specialty foods. His reputation has also drawn the next generation of tradespeople to a life in the Berkshires.
Ben Conescu, the shop’s manager, learned of Rubiner from a Berkshire native during an internship in Sienna, Italy. Conescu attended a Newton, MA, high school which offered students 4-year vocational programs, priming him to continue culinary training at Johnson and Wales in Providence, RI. Sharing an Italy-fueled compulsion toward a life in food, and an upbringing that parallels that of Rubiner (both grew up in the suburbs of large cities), Conescu has found the shop, and the area, an ideal place to learn and to grow. With a youthful enthusiasm, and the iconic Parmigiano-Reggiano stamp tattooed on his leg, he says, “I fell in love with the shop. A visit here is an education” I’m curious how Matthew is able to train his staff to possess the high (and somewhat intimidating) level of knowledge required to represent the cheeses and other products he carries. “Being a cheesemonger is a trade, and can’t be done if you don’t devote yourself fully to the arcane knowledge it requires. If you’re going to do well here you have to love food - and be a little bit of a performer. One thing that helps is that it’s my name on the door” he says, laughing. “I’m not selling anything I don’t like, everything on these shelves carries my seal of approval, and is made by people I like and respect.”
It is clear that he possesses a compelling expertise which draws his employees to the work. His expertise also pairs well with his searing wit, evidenced in lively conversations with visitors to the shop, and in the stories he shares in his email newsletters and social media. As I leave through the massive glass doors and back into the chilly winter air of Downtown Great Barrington, I am warmed not only by the several helpings of cheese samples I enjoyed, but by spending an afternoon where love of Place is shared and celebrated, where there is pride in doing things with time and care. It is an especially good feeling knowing that it is an art not
lost on the up-and-coming generation, here in this corner of the world where farms, producers, and local food culture thrives and blossoms.