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Telling the story of cheese

Friday, June 29th, 2012 | Posted by

A painful congenital bone disease has sometimes left Doralice Handal on crutches or worse, but it has not prevented her from taking on life at a dead run.

The owner of the well-regarded Healdsburg Cheese Shop has, at only thirty-nine, carved out a niche for her knowledge of food and wine in a place full of culinary experts.

“She is one of the best things we have in Healdsburg,” says Chef Mateo Granados owner of Mateo’s Cocina Latina, who adds he often taps Handal’s cheese wisdom. “I will tell her what kind of salad I’m thinking about and she recommends cheese for me. She knows everything about a cheese. No, she knows everything about everything — and she loves what she does.”

For the last seven years, since Handal bought the store from its original owner, she has been a favorite of locals, area chefs and wineries, and through her online store, has even shipped cheese to places as far away as Japan and Barbados. Her focus, she says, has been on local producers and her love: telling their stories.

Doralice Handal with some of the many selections she handpicks for her cheese shop in Healdsburg.

“These are people who are doing amazing things,” she says of the cheesemakers and other producers she has come to know, many as friends. “They are national treasures and they don’t even know it. I want to share the whole experience.”

A graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Handal discovered her love of the specialty food world during a two-year stint at the city’s Franklin Street Whole Foods, which eventually led her to an internship at a world famous London cheese shop,  a job with one of California’s leading artisanal cheesemakers and finally the store on Center Street in Healdsburg.  The tale of how she got here is a long one that often required Handal’s particularly dry sense of humor, which earned her the cheesey nickname “Sharp and Nutty” during her stint in London.

Born in New Mexico during a summer vacation when her parents were visiting relatives, Handal spent her early years living in Ecuador where her father ran a family textile company. But her parents divorced when she was 12 and suddenly, she and her sister were thrust into a world that was foreign in all respects, not the least of which, Handal recalls, where food is concerned.

“It was serious culture shock,” says Handal who with her sister moved back to Albuquerque with her mother. “In Ecuador, everybody went home for lunch and we didn’t eat any fast food. But in the U.S., kids ate at school and they ate a lot of junk.”

Handal says her experience in Ecuador, where she and her sister attended a school with many children of diplomats and other foreigners, gave her exposure to the “world before I really knew about the world” and a glimpse into many other cultures.

It was an experience that sparked her interest in food but it’s also when her family discovered that Handal, like her mother, had osteogenesis imperfecta or O.I.  The disease, also known as “brittle bone disease” or “Lobstein syndrome,” is a genetic bone disorder that leaves bones so fragile that they can break easily. Handal says although she was careful, she grew up with all sorts of broken bones.

“I don’t remember a year when I wasn’t in a cast,” she said, though she quickly points out that she doesn’t have the worst version of it. Still, having O.I. has forced her to put her career on hold more than once.

The first time was shortly before she completed her studies at New York’s Manhattanville College where she was majoring in English lit with a minor in Italian. She was visiting Costa Rica for a friend’s wedding reception when a rambunctious dog bumped into her and accidentally knocked her to the ground. The fall shattered her right leg. She says a doctor was among the wedding guests and he was able “to straighten my leg against my will,” but they were on a coffee plantation that was an hour from the nearest city where she could get proper treatment. The solution was an excruciating painful ride to Alajuela in a pickup.

“They duck taped me to a board and put me in the back of a truck,” she recalls. “They put a piece of wood between my teeth. I was obviously in shock.”

The one positive occurred the next morning when she woke up to find her father, Dick, was at her bedside. In the years since her parents’ divorce, Handal says her relationship with her father had been contentious and she was thrilled that he was there.
“He was on a trip somewhere and my sister somehow got in touch with him,” she said. “And there he was.”

Despite the break, Handal got her degree from Manhattanville in a wheelchair then headed home to New Mexico to recover. During this time, she decided what she really wanted was to cook, and applied for a spot in the famed C.I.A. in New York, returning to the Big Apple for an interview.

But then on a rainy, hot summer day hauling herself up 57th Avenue on crutches with a friend, she slipped on a red marble entrance way outside a bank. Trying to protect her leg, which was still in a cast, she landed on her back, causing fractures in both hips. She was rushed by ambulance to Bellevue Hospital Center, but they ran into traffic en route because her accident just happened to fall on the same day as an infamous shooting of an undercover police officer on the New York City subway.

Handal says she ended up in the Bellevue emergency room next to the shooting suspect who was “handcuffed to the stretcher.”

“The whole place was crawling with cops,” says Handal noting, with her trademark sense of humor, that the crowd in the hospital included several New York city dignitaries including then Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. “It was chaos. Giuliani leaned over me and asked me if I was okay.”

The next morning she woke up to find her father there in her room, again. She stayed with family in New York for a few months then returned home thinking she would be back in New York one day. But she ended up getting into the CCA in and has made Northern California her home ever since.

It was her father who first introduced her to Healdsburg, where he now has a vineyard on West Dry Creek Road. In her years in San Francisco, Handal says she noticed many of her friends were moving up to this “town where my father lived and they were doing all sorts of amazing things. I guess it was fate.”

Handal got an associate’s degree from CCA and worked in several restaurants in San Francisco but it wasn’t until she landed a job in the Whole Foods specialty foods department, that she found her calling. The year was 1999 and the dot com bubble was just blowing up.

“It was a tremendous experience. People were spending money like crazy,” she says. “They wanted all kinds of things and it was our job to get them.”

Handal rose up in the ranks to be one of the buyers and says she learned from some fellow employees who were extremely knowledgeable about food and wine – everything from cheese to olives to caviar.

Through Whole Foods, she got an internship with London’s famed Neal’s Yard Dairy where she was so dedicated to learn, she earned the title “Crazy American” and “Sharp and Nutty” for her dry sense of humor, a term that’s used to describe cheddar. After London, she worked for Cowgirl Creamery in Pt. Reyes and then eventually set off on her own to try her hand at importing, starting with textiles and cheese from Ecuador.

But after discovering she was a “small fish in a massive pond” she started to cast around for her next endeavor. Another break landed her on her father’s couch in Healdsburg.

That’s where she met then Cheese Shop owner Susan Walrabenstein. Her father would drive her into town and she’d sit down in the back of Walrabenstein’s shop and they’d talk about life and cheese. Handal says it became clear her friend wanted out of the business and she borrowed money from family and made an offer.

“I was thinking what am I going to do with a cheese shop?” she says. “I did the research and I thought I could make it work. And here I am.”

This July 25, the shop, which is one of the few independent cheese shops in Sonoma County, will have been open for 11 years, 7 of them in Handal’s capable hands. Along with cheese, she offers a variety of other items, mostly from local producers, including wines from winemakers who are either just starting out or have very small productions.

She supplies wines to many local restaurants, including Madrona Manor, Farmhouse Inn, Les Mars Hotel and Zin Restaurant and Bar. She teaches about cheese, has done wine-and-cheese pairing with several local wineries and is one of the few people in the area that makes wedding cakes by creatively stacking cheeses which is served instead of dessert.

But she might be most at home at her shop, where she is a storyteller for the people whose products line her shelves.

“We have a loyalty to the items we believe in, to the producers we love,” she says. “We sell things we feel good about.”


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