Let's be clear here -- this wasn't some hoity-toity gastronomical monstrosity. We're not talking about an artisan whole-grain French baguette loaded with filet mignon or brisket au jus. Nor was this live Maine lobster stuffed into some exotic spiced Indian naan. This was a lowly cheese sandwich, the least expensive item at the deli counter, ringing up a paltry $2.99 at the checkout line.
It just so happens that the supermarket I frequent is home to a deli counter that also doubles as a sub sandwich shop. It's a match made in heaven, because you can get a sandwich stuffed with any combination of cheese and meat offered for sale. You want a pastrami and Roquefort sandwich? Done. Blood sausage and mortadella with horseradish limberger? Not a problem. Nothing is too esoteric, and no combination is off limits. This is just the sort of place where you'll find bona fide Spanish Manchego cheese at twenty bucks for a quarter pound.
Yes, it is a pricey cheese. You can pick your jaws up off the ground now.
While several companies produce the less expensive "Manchego-style" cheese, the product is not bona fide Manchego unless it complies with exacting criteria. Real Manchego cheese, among other qualifications, is produced from particular sheep on exclusive farms in Spain. The result is a firm block of ivory cheese that tastes like butter with a hint of nuttiness.
Given that this is a quality cheese and also that I'm habitually light in the pockets, a devious idea occurred to me while standing in the deli line. I could come away with a half-pound of Manchego (about fifty dollars' worth) for a scant three dollars if I asked for it to be put in a sandwich.
My number was called. I sidled up to the deli counter and asked for a foot-long cheese sandwich. The deli man reached under the counter for some generic cheddar and I called out to him, stopping him partway. As straight-faced as I could muster, I pointed, discreetly, to the next shelf over, the one with all the high-end cheeses from parts of Europe with names I'll never learn to pronounce. The deli man's eyes flitted to that shelf and then back to meet mine, as if to say those cheeses were out of my price range.
"Manchego, please," I said, driving the point home.
Grudgingly, the man trundled to the next shelf and yanked out the block of Manchego. Weighing about five pounds, the block in his hands was a small fortune in cheese. He worked the deli slicer with a craftsman's precision, shaving off generous slices of cheese from the block.
"You know that's gonna cost you extra, right?" he muttered as he handed me the sandwich.
"No," I said, taking it. I was half-turned to leave when he spoke up.
"You mean, no, you didn't know that, or no, it's not costing you extra?" he asked, but his tone made clear that the question was purely rhetorical.
I turned back to face him. "Which do you think?"
He muttered something I couldn't hear, but the look on his face was enough to tell me he wasn't amused.
It was no small feat to contain myself at the checkout aisle. The sandwich rang up as a $2.99 cheese sandwich, which it simultaneously was and was not. It was a cheese sandwich. It was not $2.99.
I got home and dissected the sandwich, carefully removing the Manchego and wrapping it up in foil. That weekend I invited over some friends from work for wine and cheese. The wine was nothing special -- it was that stuff somewhere between grape juice and vinegar that comes in a gallon jug -- but the cheese was the showstopper.
None of them would have suspected I'd brought the cheese home in a sandwich. None of them believed me when I told them.