You might say that in a thriving public market that’s been lavished with national attention and various regional and national awards, standing out as the big cheese would be hard for any vendor. But at the Flint Farmers’ Market, Hills Home Cured Cheese does just that. And they literally are the “big cheese”.
For Paul Hills and his family, running a cheese stand in a farmer’s market is something that just comes naturally. After a lifetime of involvement in various markets Hills and his family have created a destination for cheese lovers from all over.
His grandparents started as fruit and poultry vendors at the Lansing City Market, a business that was later taken over by his father. “One day my father just decided he had had enough of the the fruit and poultry business and wanted to start selling cheese,” says Hills. “He began his cheese adventure in 1961, and has never looked back since.”
Naturally, being born into the cheese business, Hills caught the bug early and over time progressed into the business. “There was no question as to what I would do with my future,” he says. “Cheese is my life.” It shows in his dedication to educating his customers and in his efforts to keep the selection of cheese that they offer new and diverse.
Keeping their 3 locations (Flint Farmers’ Market, Davison Farmer’s Market and the Lansing City Market) stocked with the latest artisanal offerings and classic cheese varieties is tough for Hills. There is a lot of thought that goes into selecting the best variety of cheeses and into keeping a good balance of old favorites paired with new and local selections.
“My father and I work closely with many artisan cheese makers and distributors,” said Hills. “As far as deciding what to offer, this is quite possibly the best part. It involves a lot of taste-testing. We attend many cheese shows to check out the local talent, and to see what cheeses are up and coming in the market.”
Tastes change over time, for both Hills Home Cured Cheese customers as well as its owners. The ability keep a variety of unique cheeses from all over the world ensures that Hills will have just what his customers are looking for. Pinpointing a favorite for Hills is very much like hitting a moving target. “I go through phases as far as favorites go,” he says. “For this holiday season, we just got in Challerhocker. This cheese is fantastic! It is a raw milk gruyere from Switzerland. It has a very sweet and nutty flavor, with a firm yet creamy texture. It would be perfect for fondue, or even paired with a local hard cider.”
It’s clear from the onset that you are talking to an expert when asking Hills for a recommendation. He and his staff take care to walk each of their customers through the intricacies and varied flavor profiles of the cheeses they offer. Samples are always in ample supply at their counter. Not to mention a great back story to many of the cheese makers that they feature. If you are looking for a cow’s milk cheese sourced from a small family farm in Iowa, they have it. If you are seeking out that unique cave ripened sheep’s milk cheese you had so many years ago on your honeymoon in Europe, well they probably have that too.
Local chefs and restaurateurs have taken notice too. With a customer base that is becoming more adventurous in their tastes and more demanding of unique menu selections, cheeses have become the perfect offering. Hills Home Cured Cheese has become a great source for many chefs looking to bring an uncommon flavor to their kitchen. “It is great to be able to work with such talented and supportive individuals,” says Hills. “I currently work with a number of local restaurants and food vendors between all three of our locations. They really have an advantage in a sense that they can find those unique cheeses that can be otherwise hard to find.”
In an age of big box stores and one sized fits all offerings from many grocery chains it is a breath of fresh air to still be able to find a specialized vendor like Hills Home Cured Cheese in a local market. Their love of the product and care in how they handle it shows through in every cheese they carry.