By Kate Bigam, New Jersey Correspondent
During a period of mysterious medical issues, my doctor informed me that the test to determine lactose intolerance is three hours long and “a pain to take.” Instead, he recommended that I assume I’d developed a digestive aversion to dairy and begin living my life accordingly.
I started cooking with almond milk and taking my lattes with soy, and I gave up on yogurt altogether, but one not-so-small issue remained: cheese. I couldn’t give it up, wouldn’t give it up, and finally, I begged my doctor to test me, three-hour process be damned. It would be worth it, I told him, to know for sure whether cheese was the root of all my stomach evils. Angels sang when I received my results — negative! — and my affinity for cheese has only grown stronger in the wake of this brief rocky period in our loving relationship.
In my Jersey Shore town, there exists a magical shop called The Cheese Cave, which, as you can likely infer, serves artisan cheeses from around the world, along with cured meats, jams, and other such fanciful accompaniments. The shop also offers a variety of wonderful cheesy sandwiches made with high-end ingredients, to varying degrees of creativity. My Meatless September choices were limited, as all but one of the Cheese Cave’s sandwiches feature ham or salami, but luckily, the vegetarian option — creamy goat cheese, cucumber, avocado, walnuts and arugula — sounded pretty appealing. I took my sandwich to go and settled in at a nearby park, riverside, for a one-woman picnic on a sunny day.
Upon unwrapping my sandwich, I found myself initially skeptical of its seeming lack of sophistication. Its plain wheat bread, cut down the middle and served in a brown paper bag, transported me back to my grade-school cafeteria and a childhood full of PB&Js. One look beyond the bread, though, revealed thin, evenly layered ingredients that made it clear that great care went into the sandwich’s conception and creation. A spread of goat cheese and mashed avocado made for a rather soft, squishy base, but the addition of walnuts provided a much-needed crunch of protein, and the cucumbers added both crispness and a bit of structural integrity. Though I initially wished for heartier bread, anything more robust would likely have overwhelmed the sandwich’s careful balance of delicate flavors.
Unfortunately, with only a few bites left to go, the star ingredient began to overwhelm my palate. Because salt is its primary preservative, goat cheese is known to be quite, well, salty, and the Cheese Cave’s gourmet version was no exception. Maybe more arugula would’ve balanced out the brackishness, or maybe denser bread may have done the trick, after all — or perhaps I just should’ve brought along more water. Either way, despite feeling favorably toward the sandwich’s overall taste, I found myself parched and struggling to finish.
In all, the Cheese Cave’s only meatless option feels just a bit too insubstantial, a parody (albeit a delicious one) of what we’ve come to expect from vegetarian food. It certainly wasn’t the robust, sink-your-teeth-in sandwich we’ve become accustomed to in bigger-is-better, meat-eating America, and it wasn’t the gooey, overwhelmingly cheesy creation I’d hoped for, either. Still, the flavors married so smoothly that its delicateness somehow became part of the appeal, lending the whole experience a cucumber-sandwiches-in-London feel. I couldn’t help but enjoy it, saltiness and all — and maybe to wish for a large spot of tea on the side.
Kate Bigam lives in Red Bank, N.J., and works as a social media and community manager for a large non-profit. She blogs at SuburbanSweetheart.com.