The Cheese Traveler in Albany

Do you want to see the world?  Is your idea of fun visiting a new place and tasting the local cuisine?  While your budget might not allow you to go touring the planet, you might at least get a hint of the flavors from another country not far from home.  Capital District residents should consider stopping by The Cheese Traveler at 540 Delaware Avenue (between The Spectrum Theatre and the Bethlehem town line).  Cheesemonger Eric Paul, who set up the cheese counter at Honest Weight Food Co-op, worked briefly at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Mass.  His new shop is unique in the local area and has much to offer the frustrated, wannabe tourist. 

Despite its name, this specialty shop is not just about cheese.  All kinds of fine foods from close to home and the four corners of the world can be purchased at The Cheese Traveler.  For one, Eric has partnered with Joanne and Dany Tilley of nearby Tilldale Farm which offers certified organic beef, pork, and dairy products.  One also finds a wide array of cured meats (like prosciutto di Parma and saucisson d’Arles).  Lining the shelves of the shop, there are delicious Marcona almonds from Spain, François Pralus’s chocolates made of cocoa beans from faraway places like Madagascar, foreign honey, jams, pasta, and the newly-arrived nougat from Montélimar in the South of France.  You can get taste treats for yourself and pick up a few gifts for friends and family at the same time.

Naturally, the pièce de résistance in the shop is the cheese.  Eric and his family are experts who will guide you in finding products that suit your taste.  Artisanal American cheeses like Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery in California and several from Vermont’s Consider Bardwell Farm and Twig Farm (which I have written about on this blog before) are among the one hundred choices in the cheese case.  During the “soft opening” over the past month, we have sampled and purchased several different cheeses.  We bought a slice of a wonderfully creamy cow’s milk Stracchino from Italy.  Two of our purchases have been from Switzerland: Chällerhocker (a silken new Alpine cheese from Saint-Gallen in the northeast) and Scharfe Maxx (a wonderfully sharp cheese from Lake Constance in the north).  As Francophiles, we’ve tried several from France: two from Auvergne (a firm, earthy Saintalin and a semi-soft, nutty Saint-Nectaire), and two from the Loire Valley (a blue Fourme affinée au mœlleux and a good goat cheese called Galette du Cher).  But our hands-down favorite so far was one we got last week: an aged goat’s milk Couronne de Touraine.  From French maître affineur (specialist in aging cheese) Rodolphe le Meunier, this gray, moldy, crown-shaped “brainy rind” cheese wouldn’t be the first choice of the majority of Americans because of its appearance.  But if you are in any way adventurous, I encourage you to try this!  It is, as food writer Janet Fletcher from San Francisco put it, simply sublime.

Tomorrow November 18th is the grand opening of The Cheese Traveler.  From 1:00 to 6:00 p.m. there will be a variety of activities to celebrate the official inaugural of the new shop: cooking demonstrations, speakers and poetry readings, food from Mingle restaurant next door, and, of course, cheese tastings.  Check out the schedule and drop in!  You won't regret it.

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Serving on a Jury

Most Americans have seen episodes of Law & Order or old re-runs of Perry Mason television shows and think they know what it’s like to be a juror.  However, unlike most fictionalized accounts, nothing seems so cut and dried in a real courtroom.  In my experience, at least, there was no crying admission from the guilty party being questioned on the stand.  (In fact, the defendant didn’t testify at all in his defense.)  No one rushed in toward the end of the trial with information that proved what actually happened.  There was not even any plea deal in the works.  No, in the second degree burglary case in Albany a few weeks ago, there were many unanswered questions in the mind of the jurors when we were asked to deliberate.  Here you have twelve people of differing ages, from all walks of life, who don’t know each other being ushered into a deliberation room after the closing arguments.  The foreperson, who will eventually read the verdict, is not actually in charge; no one is.  There is necessarily, I suppose, that awkward moment at first and the question: “Where do we begin?”

Before the trial started, we jurors had been instructed by the judge to try to assess the accuracy and credibility of the witnesses.  We weren’t allowed to take notes at any time, mainly so that we could concentrate on the words and demeanor of the witnesses to see if they appeared to be believable.  During deliberations, we were permitted, even encouraged, to have testimony from any or all witnesses re-read in the courtroom by the court reporter.  We were reminded, especially by the defense attorney, that police officers are human and may make mistakes.  Their testimony was not to be considered more trustworthy than other witnesses simply by the fact that they came from people wearing uniforms.  Two of the main witnesses in the case—one for the prosecution and the other for the defense—are felons serving time for the burglary in question. These two individuals, each led into court in their prison clothing and in shackles, had conflicting versions of who was present and what occurred on the night of the crime.  I believe the jury was unanimous in believing that neither was telling the whole truth.  One juror had the idea of using a white board to list the statements by each of these witnesses so that we could try to determine which one was more credible.  

Another charge from the judge was to examine the evidence presented during the trial.  Two types of evidence exist in criminal trials: direct and circumstantial.  From what I understand, direct evidence is based solely on fact; examples include reliable witness testimony,  audio or surveillance tapes.  With circumstantial evidence, on the other hand the jury is left to infer the defendant’s guilt or lack thereof.  Unfortunately, in this particular case, much of the evidence was circumstantial.  For instance, police had collected a pair of latex gloves found at and near the scene of the crime which contained the defendant's DNA, but also that of others.  Not being experts in genetic material, our group decided to have the long and somewhat complicated report by the DNA expert re-read to us in court.  Some jurors were convinced of the defendant’s participation in the crime by this evidence while others were not. Verdict: a hung jury resulting in a mistrial.  I suppose this conclusion was unsatisfactory for all involved, but I believe that we all sincerely tried to come to a decision and that this was the best we could do given the facts of the case.

Serving on a jury was a very valuable experience for me.  I think everyone should want and have the opportunity to be a juror at least once in their lives.  Don’t get me wrong; nothing about it is easy.  Deliberating someone’s fate, challenging and at the same time respecting fellow jurors’ opinions, hearing the judge’s nearly continual admonitions not to discuss the case outside of the deliberation room, seemingly interminable waiting…all are most taxing.  But you do feel a certain satisfaction in having performed your civic duty.  You also feel respected by the judge and attorneys for your role in the justice system.  And just maybe, you might not ever second-guess the final verdict of a jury again.

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The Jury Selection Process

About three weeks ago I received a summons in the mail informing me that I was to call the county courthouse on the weekend to see if I needed to report for jury duty.  Upon finding out that I was  required to go in, friends and family alike reacted in a nearly unanimous way: “Oh, no!”; “Poor you!”; “So sorry!”—and the like.  And while it’s true that being called in as a juror disrupts one’s daily routine, I found the whole process quite interesting.

After passing through security, we prospective jurors—a real cross-section of American races and ages— were told to proceed to the Jury Assembly Room.  We had been summoned to serve in a criminal trial which would last about a week.  In order to serve we had to fulfill three requirements: be citizens of the U.S., residents of the county, and not convicted felons.  For acting as jurors we would receive a badge to wear in the judicial center and forty dollars a day.  In addition, over the course of the trial, a court matron (in our case a friendly, smiling woman named Judy) would attend to our needs—bringing us food and drink, cough drops, and even cookies.  That being said, all seventy-four of us were led upstairs to the courtroom.   

The Superior Court judge explained that, once chosen as jurors, we would examine the facts in a second degree burglary case and determine the guilt or lack of guilt of the defendant.  (This is language that I noticed in the O. J. Simpson trial, too:  "lack of guilt" substituted for the word "innocence.")  The judge introduced the prosecutor who would present the case “for the people” and the defense attorney; he also pointed out the court reporter who records everything said in the courtroom.  He made it clear that everyone in this country is entitled to a fair trial.  The jury, therefore, performs a vital function and has a great responsibility.  No more exemptions are allowed even for doctors and nurses.  The judge noted that everyone knows that this service is inconvenient for jurors, but our job is a basic element of the justice system.  We were then asked to stand, listen to the court clerk administer the oath, and swear or affirm to tell the truth by stating “So help me God” or the more neutral “I so affirm.”

Thus began the voir dire portion of jury selection, where people are questioned to see if they are suitable jurors for the case.  In round one, twenty-one names were randomly drawn, and they were instructed to move to the jury box to be interviewed.  The first series of questions centered on the town, occupation, and marital status of prospective jurors.  In round two, the judge asked people to raise their hands if they knew the defendant, attorneys, witnesses, or police officers involved, or if they had read anything about the case.  Then, questions focused on whether anyone had good friends or relatives in the legal field or law enforcement, or had served on juries before.  We were also told to say “private” if we didn’t want to disclose in open court previous contact with the police or criminal justice system or any kind of sympathy or prejudice toward another race.  The judge stated that it was important to be honest in regard to this last question and that it was no time to be politically correct.  He also explained that both attorneys were allowed to excuse peremptorily—without giving a reason— up to five people from the jury pool.

The judge then explained that we were to draw no inference from the fact that the defendant was indicted by the Grand Jury.  The burden is always on the prosecution to present evidence to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” (and not “beyond a shadow of a doubt”) that the defendant is guilty of the crime.  Jurors were to assess the credibility and accuracy of the witnesses, including police officers, and to come to a verdict without considering possible punishment of the defendant.  As you can imagine, it was a long day at the courthouse, about nine hours.  But it was a very informative day and, I believe, a valuable experience for all Americans.  

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