For those of us easily seduced by words like “washed rind,” cheese in the United States conjures up very different ideas than it may have 20 or 30 years ago. You can now dream about the eccentric creations of Lazy Lady, or Jasper Hill Farm’s Bayley Hazen Blue, or delicate little rounds of Nettle Meadow Farm’s Kunik, which the cheese authority Anne Saxelby once called “the sexiest cheese in America.”
And it is Saxelby who, as much as anyone, is responsible for the explosion of interest in America’s artisanal cheesemakers. At her shop Saxelby Cheese, she pushed domestic cheeses and helped create greater interest among people who may have previously turned their noses up at the idea of domestic bleus — and not because of its pungent aroma.
It was with tremendous sadness that many in the food world learned yesterday that Saxelby had passed away over the weekend, and reportedly had an existing heart condition. She was 40, and is survived by, among others, her husband Patrick Martins (who is the founder of Heritage Foods and Heritage Radio), and their three young children.
In 2006, Saxelby opened her shop in the original Essex Street Market, after working at Murray’s Cheese and as an apprentice on farms including Connecticut’s Cato Corner Farm, and in France with Herve Mons. (The following year, Benoit Breal came on as her business partner.) Saxelby Cheese was not only New York’s first shop that sold cheese exclusively from the United States, it was focused, even more specifically, on cheese from the Northeast. And Saxelby celebrated cheeses that were often made on the same farms from which the dairy came. She managed to break down stigma around small-batch cheese, taking it out of the luxury space and making it easier to appreciate the work that went into making it.
It was easy to get excited because, at the stall, Saxelby was a consistently warm presence. Her genial and welcoming attitude made the confusing and vast world of cheese approachable for someone like me, who didn’t know my Roquefort from my robiola.
Five years in, she was already supplying cheese to 173 restaurants, including many of the city’s best, the New York Times reported in 2011, and Saxelby Cheesemongers was named Manhattan’s Small Business of the Year.
While the Essex Street Market stall was only 100 square feet, her outsize impact cannot be overstated. As Edible Manhattan wrote in a 2012 profile, Saxelby herself operated as a “talent agent for the best local cheesemakers,” and the magazine declared that she had “helped redefine” American cheese. Speaking to the magazine, the chef Daniel Boulud called her “the most sophisticated boutique fromagère — or cheesemonger — in the U.S.”
From time to time, she even dabbled in cheesemaking herself. She made four beer-washed cheeses with Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Brewery in 2012, and in 2017 she collaborated with chef Dan Barber and Brooklyn’s Crown Finish Caves on a cheese called Bone Char Pearl, which was coated with charcoal ash. She also authored a book, The New Rules of Cheese, which was published in 2020 and which the New York Times called one of the year’s best food books.
Saxelby was a generous advocate not only for cheesemakers but for other vendors in the Essex Street Market, sharing her shine with longtime tenants in a drab building that was designed, during the LaGuardia administration, as a pen for street vendors. She also wasn’t afraid to criticize the management of the Economic Development Corporation. When the city first proposed replacing the market with a new space across the street, which eventually happened, Saxelby pushed back against it. In late 2018, she and Breal closed the original shop, electing not to relocate to the new, modern space in the Essex Crossing development. They continued to operate another location in the Chelsea Market, which had opened in 2017.
Last year during COVID, Saxelby Cheese was a founding supporter of Victory Cheese Box. Saxelby’s involvement was not particularly noteworthy at the time, but that’s only because she had already spent her entire professional life spreading the word about all of the wonderful, intoxicating cheeses that were all around us. She had, in other words, spent years changing people’s fortunes for the better. Anyone who cares about good food, and the people who make it, benefited from Saxelby’s work.