The Freshest Market in town

by Brian Clarey

Happy hour at the recently relocated and seriously upgraded Fresh Market on Lawndale Drive in north Greensboro begins just before 5 p.m., when the aisles teem with parents and professionals all trying to answer the question, “What’s for dinner?”

And the answers provided here are as layered and multitudinous as selections on a mile-long Las Vegas buffet.

I frequented the old Fresh Market, just a hundred yards or so across the parking lot, when I lived in the north end of town and my wife worked at my mother-in-law’s health food store just a couple doors down. As the stay-at-home dad to an infant, familiar with cuisine but new to the twin sciences of cooking and home economics, I would wander the tight rows, sometimes with a weeping child in tow, enrapt by the gleaming produce, artisan breads and cakes, lush meats and assorted exotica that neatly lined the shelves.

Here I would purchase fresh cubes of feta cheese and strawberries for an outdoor lunch, tiny pastries for afternoon surprises, bulk candy because I have something of a sweet tooth.

This was Store No. 1, the first Fresh Market opened in 1982 by Ray and Beverly Berry, and the company has since grown to encompass 66 stores in 44 states – a Greensboro success story along the lines of Vick’s VapoRub. And in this new incarnation, Store No. 1 realizes the full potential of the concept.

It’s like the old store after a growth spurt. The layout is much the same: produce to the right, butcher in the back, aisles on a smart diagonal in one corner. But things are, in the parlance, “kicked up a notch.”

It’s a lot bigger, evidenced by an expanded grocery section which allows for more brands and a wider array of obscure products: Newman’s Own dog food, Bubbie’s pickles, Black Ace licorice. There’s half a row of mustards, and they’re crazy with wine.

In the dairy, the butter is both cultured and clarified. Under the glass in the meat case, the country sausage is shaped into a pig, with cherry-tomato eyes. The beef pot pies have longhorn cutouts on the top crust. Coffee sits loose in barrels, the dark beans glistening with an essence that hangs like perfume. Strawberry bread. Fresh-ground almond butter. Grape leaves in the olive bar. A house bruschetta blend. Like that.

Still, you can wander into the produce section and score navel oranges for $1.49 a pound or a pineapple for less than $4.

During happy hour the staff is maxed out to accommodate the rush.

Among them is Nancy Lewis, the cheese specialist, handing out schmears of brie on crostini.

“My friends,” she says, “they call me ‘Velveeta.'”

She moves a double wedge of the stuff to a young couple, then gives a me a taste of le Roule, a soft, French cow’s milk cheese graced with garlic and herbs.

“Isn’t that nice?” she asks. It is.

The she runs through a short sampling that includes Roulette, a dense, flavorful Swiss; Kerrygold Irish cheddar; Carr Valley cheddar, aged six years and flaky as phyllo dough; a smoked cheddar flavored with actual oak smoke as opposed to smoke-flavored additives; and Mimolette, another French number. It’s a hard cheese, with rind and flesh that looks just like a melon, made from an ancient process commissioned by the Sun King himself, Louis XIV, Lewis tells me, as an answer to Dutch Edam.

It’s firm and flavorful, and I want to try it melted on a turkey sandwich.

Then she whips out this mango-ginger Stilton. It’s crazy.

Stilton is generally found as a blue-veined cheese, like Roquefort or Gorgonzola. This is a white Stilton, with a more muted flavor profile and a touch more creaminess. Embedded ginger and mango bits give an incredible counterpoint.

“I have a customer who buys this and serves it on shortbread cookies,” she says.

I’m going to have to try that.

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