Julia is affectionately known in the shop as “Little Red” because of her lovely red hair. She has worked at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge for 5 years and wears many hats – from cheesemonger, to classroom instructor, to buyer of chocolate, jam, honey, spices and tea.
Julia’s interest in food began early, as a young girl growing up on a small farm in eastern Oregon. It was on the farm that she learned about food in its most basic forms – between picking blackberries and making jam with her mom and sister, fishing for trout in the backyard, caring for their 30 bantam hens, or tending her own small vegetable garden next to her mother’s much larger one. In the evenings, her parents would cook everything from braised elk, to grilled whole salmon, to freshly baked bread.
When Julia moved to Boston to attend Tufts University, she missed the home-grown meals to which she was accustomed. In response, she sought out the foods that she knew and loved by going to farmers markets, joining community gardens, and discovering Formaggio Kitchen. Julia began working at the shop shortly after graduating from Tufts. She tells us that as one of the shop’s head buyers, she still relies on the principles she learned on her family’s farm: “when you know where your food comes from and who made it, it always seems to taste that much better!”
We sat down to chat with Julia about how she integrates her love of food into the holiday season. Here is what she told us:
Julia, what are your special holiday traditions?
I have two holiday traditions, depending on where I am in the country. When I’m on the east coast, I celebrate Hanukkah with my husband, Aaron, and his parents. We always travel to New York and go to our favorite Chinese tea house for brunch on Christmas day. Then, we spend the day walking around New York City!
When I’m in Oregon, I spend Christmas at my dad’s house. He always wakes us up earlier than we’d like with unique music choices (think yodeling). When we all make our way downstairs, we gather around the fireplace and exchange gifts. After the gifts, the highlight of the day is my dad’s huge brunch. We gorge ourselves and chat for hours. After we finally leave the table I head to my favorite chair and end up falling asleep as my step-brothers play music by the fire. A great tradition!
What kind of food-related gifts have you given in the past?
I love buying my dad gifts from the shop because he is the reason I became so interested in food. I usually buy him themed gifts such as canned fish, spices and chocolate. For his seafood gift, I got him a sampler of our entire selection. He loved it! His favorites were the Cole’s Sardines and the Ortiz Ventresca Tuna in olive oil. It took him a while to brave the octopus (which I found funny since he LOVES canned smoked oysters) but he finally tried it on a salad.
In his spice sampler, I got him a selection of our Turkish spices including Maraş, Urfa and Iranian Saffron. I also got him some Piment d’Espelette which became such a big hit at his office that his co-workers all placed orders with me to bring the next time I visited!
Lastly, in his chocolate sampler, I gave him a selection of American-style chocolate. He loves having a piece of dark chocolate after dinner, but found it really difficult to buy good chocolate in our hometown. I included a selection from Mast Brothers, Rogue Chocolatier and Taza Chocolate. He adored the Rogue Chocolate, but his favorite was the Taza 80%! He loved it so much that we arranged for the town’s local gourmet shop to start carrying Taza chocolate so that he could buy a bar each week!
My sister can’t eat gluten so I really enjoy finding her unique products to try that are gluten-free. She loves the products from Mulino Marino, our favorite stone-ground, organic Italian grain producer. Her favorites are the fine cornmeal (she cooked it up with my all-time favorite polenta recipe and it was a HUGE hit!), the chickpea flour (I taught her how to make panisses, a crispy French treat that tastes like a delicate French fry) and the chestnut flour which she used when making winter soups (in place of flour in a traditional roux) and in baked goods (Italian chestnut cakes). She has also really enjoyed the selection of vinegars that I have gotten her which include La Guinelle Tchin Tchin (this is her all-time favorite vinegar) and the fig vinegar from Mas de Bories. She is so much fun to shop for because she always demands a cooking lesson with each gift!
My brother used to cook a lot when he was younger, but as a budding young lawyer he doesn’t seem to have much time anymore. I don’t get him too many food items unless he can enjoy them immediately, but I did get him the Rancho Gordo chile powder one holiday season and he went crazy for it. After the holidays, his wife called me to thank me because she said it was the first time that he had cooked in months! He blew through the jar and now I bring him a new one every time I visit. If it keeps him cooking, I’ll keep giving it!
My mom is the reason why I love tea. Growing up, we always used to poke fun at her because of the crazy amount of tea she’d drink. Now at Formaggio Kitchen, I’m the one who gets poked fun at for the copious amounts of tea I drink! Each time I come home to visit I bring my mom two selections from Dammann Frères. One selection is always classic like Strong Breakfast, Mélange Anglais or Earl Grey. The second selection is always something a little more unique and rare. Some of her favorites are the Yunnan Celeste TGFOP, the Ceylon OP Pettigalia, the Everglad, the Great Earl Grey and the Fancy Oolong. I think that she likes the classic tea the best, but she really enjoys trying all of the unique teas that I bring her.
Like my mom, my husband Aaron is also a big tea drinker. Unlike my mom, however, I might have to classify Aaron as a tea snob. He naturally seems to have expensive taste (I started cutting off the price tags and he would STILL pick out the most expensive tea!). The teas that he cannot live without are the Kenyan loose leaf and the Dammann Frères Pu-Erh Imperial (2001), Oolong Jin Xuan and Jasmin Pearl.
Are you planning to give any foodie gifts this year?
This year, I have a lot of fun gifts planned. I plan to restock my mom’s spice shelves by freshening up all of her basics like paprika, peppercorns, salts, bay leaves and more!
I plan to treat my sister to a grand spice selection (my favorite 24 spices along with a custom spice rack that I made) as a housewarming gift. A new house needs new kitchen basics and I’m excited to fill her new pantry with the best items that we have.
My brother will get another round of Rancho Gordo chile powder as well as a fun selection of coffee from George Howell, Counter Culture Coffee and Barrington Roasters which he will need, seeing as he just became a new dad!
For my dad, I think that I will be getting him a selection of my favorite items I buy for the store. I’ll bring him unique things like sumac molasses, Lo Brusc Forêt des Maures honey, Potomac 82% dark chocolate, Ritual Chocolate Costa Rica, Rancho Gordo Alubia Blanca beans, olive oil from Jean-Marie Cornille, Agro di Mosto from San Giacomo and a rare Mulberry preserve from Fabrizia Lanza in Sicily!
And for Aaron? I will be getting him 2-3 bottles of Gemma‘s favorite big winter wines such as Pacina Chianti Classico, Erbaluna Barolo and Chateau le Puy Bordeaux. If he is lucky, maybe I’ll get him the Guillot Bourgogne Rouge Magnum!