Big cheese

Ference Cheese

Flavor: A cheese emporium right under your nose
Ambiance: Feisty. Mild. Take your pick. A straightforward, deli-style interior with a helpful staff.

Bill Ference is a third-generation cheesemonger. To borrow a line from country music, he was cheese when cheese wasn’t cool. Long before the word “artisanal” was on everybody’s lips, before Mario Batali was reminding us nightly that Parmesan Reggiano is the “king of cheeses,” when America was still laboring under the veil of the Velveeta night, Ference was selling cheese to the true believers.

“When we opened in Asheville in 1964, nobody had heard of a ‘cheese shop,'” Ference explains from behind a desk in his wood-paneled office in north Asheville. He has a gray beard and a high crown of gray hair. Today, he’s dressed in a crisp lavender shirt and a blue tie patterned with gold leaves. “We sort of broke new territory here in Asheville,” he says.

Ference’s grandparents got the family started in cheese, selling in New York City’s Queensborough Bridge market. His parents opened a number of cheese shops in central Pennsylvania, around Reading, Harrisburg and Easton. Eventually, the family made its way south. Ference grew up here, graduating from Lee H. Edwards High School (now Asheville High School) in 1946.

If Asheville had no use for a cheese shop in the early ’60s, it soon learned otherwise. Within a few years, a wooden sign on the store’s Broadway Avenue front announced the “96 Varieties” of cheese within. Ference was a seek-no-further destination for cheese-lovers from here and farther afield. Shropshires, Cotswalds, Gorgonzolas, mascarpones, Limburgers: Supermarkets didn’t have them; Ference did. Father, and then son, operated along Broadway for nearly two decades as both a retail store and a distributor until the state widened the road. Eminent domain was a strong persuader, and the business moved to its current location on Weaverville Highway.

Somewhere along the way, 96 styles became 400. A few employees became a dozen, and a truck or two became a fleet. Today, Ference Cheese Incorporated delivers cheese to five southeastern states, from southwest Virginia to Athens, Ga. Top-tier local clients include the Biltmore Estate, Richmond Hill Inn and the French Broad Co-Op. In a very real sense, the company’s clientele has grown with the region and the national taste – a slow drift away from the known of the individually wrapped American slice to the pungent unknown of Roquefort and Gjetost.

“I’ve noticed in recent years, people becoming much more sophisticated in their tastes,” he says. “They seem to be better traveled, better educated and they seem to be willing to experiment. The variety and knowledge of cheese is constantly expanding.”

Ference’s storefront is unassuming. The company shares a one-story, beige building with an insurance office along a busy stretch of road. Blink and you’d miss it.

People find it, though. Late on a weekday morning, the shop is a hub of activity, with customers popping in every few minutes, setting the bell on the front door ringing. Regular customer Barbara Hoffman has driven down from Burnsville (“I buy for my friends, too”) with a pan-European order – French brie, Swiss Emmenthaler, Dutch Edam and Danish Tilsit. A clerk slices, trims and wraps her selections, while nearby, two workers sit at desks in plain view of retail customers, keeping up with commercial accounts and hand-writing orders.

“They’re a wonderful bunch,” Ference says of his employees. “They’re happy. They do their job well.”

At well over six-feet tall, Ference is a towering figure in regional cheese. His employees are accordingly deferential. They call him “Mr. Ference.” Maxine, his wife of 33 years, is as puckish and welcoming as her husband is courtly, and an encyclopedia of cheese in her own right.

Ference’s intimacy with all the permutations of spoiled milk might lead a person to believe that he would have tired of the stuff long ago. But he loves cheese. Sometimes, when he’s traveling, he pines for it.

“When I’m away from the business, I get so hungry for good cheese,” he confides. “I call up my employees or fax them and say ‘Please. Send me some cheese.’ Because the supermarket stuff just doesn’t cut it.”

Among his favorites is Stilton, a fragrant English cheese shot through with blue mold. Cheddar, another cheese with an English pedigree, is also a favorite, so long as it’s “the really, really sharp kind, aged about four years.”

Ference sells a number of other English cheeses – Cotswold, pale gold and piquant with bits of chive; slabs of double Gloucester and Stilton layered to form an orange and alabaster tower; Sage Derby, an herbed-style marbled green with chlorophyll.

“I’m not crazy about [English] cooking, but they certainly make wonderful cheeses,” he says.

There is variety to match from Italy, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Holland, Denmark and several other countries. Ference also sells Spanish cheese.

“Some years ago I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a Spanish cheese,” he says. Now he stocks a dozen varieties, including a wine-soaked queso called “the Drunken Goat.” Mexican cheeses are another, more recent, addition, as well as the artisan cheeses – local ones, predominantly – that the public is clamoring for these days.

“It’s a global market. I’m dealing not only with local artisan people, but with world situations,” Ference says. How much cheese does he move in the course of a week? “I can’t even guess,” he says.

Beyond the staples, the company markets gourmet crackers, European cookies, olives, specialty meats, olive oil and chocolate. But the focus, always, is on cheese. It is, as Ference explains, “what we’re here for.” Would that we all lived with such a sense of purpose.

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