Penny Lawson doesn't want to make too big a deal about the cheese toasties. After all, they're not the core business of Penny's Cheese Shop. That would be cheese. But here's the rub. The toasties are good. Really, really good.
If you want to look at it forensically, the supremacy of these toasties comes down to two factors: the cheese and the cheese. Yes, both the pickled-jalapeño and ham options bring much to the equation, but the real brilliance is in the fact that Lawson has so much cheese to play with, and that she puts it on the outside of the toastie as well as the inside.
The particular blend varies with the day. Last week it might have been Gruyère, raclette, Parmigiano, Ragusano, Challerhöcker, a northern-New South Wales tilsit, a comté-style semi-hard cheese from Eyre Peninsula and two cheddars. "It's a melting pot of local and international cheese," says Lawson. "Literally." The bread is Pioik, the optional ham is from Quattro Stelle, and the pickles pack a punch. The result is crisp on the outside and gooey and ridiculously complex on the inside. Someone has put a lot of thought into this sandwich.
Lawson really knows her stuff. She first went pro with cheese in 2003 at Milawa, working at the cellar door, making cheese, and running their shop in Melbourne, and in the years since has worked at a variety of well-regarded stores and markets in London and Sydney. For this, her first permanent location of her own, she has taken inspiration from Neal's Yard Dairy and La Fromagerie in London and Cowgirl Creamery in California, with a view to creating "something that will hopefully grow in time".
The Penny's Cheese Shop edit is concise, but is still hefty enough to overwhelm the neophyte cheese-fancier, so we asked Lawson for some easy entry-points for the dairy dilettante. To that end she suggests Milawa Markwood, a hard cow's milk cheese aged for two years which isn't sold anywhere else but the Milawa cellar door, the Extravagant from L'Artisan, a triple-cream that's "lush, buttery and great for celebrations", and Holy Goat La Luna, "a game-changer for those new to goat's cheese" – not too goaty and a true Australian classic.
For dairy die-hards and cheese lovers who can't get enough funk, on the other hand, Lawson points to Pecora Dairy's raw-milk Yarrawa ("lovely flaky texture, intense flavour of herbaceous grass which lingers on the palate"), the Challerhöcker ("very funky, strong … flavours of beef broth, sweet roasted onions… incredible to add to a cheeseburger") and Apostle Whey's Bay of Martyrs blue ("dense texture, flavours of butter, hazelnuts and of cow").
She also sells things to go with the cheese. Tim Malfroy's extraordinary wild honey and Pioik bread (the shop is the only place outside the Pyrmont bakery to retail the bread), crackers and quince paste, plus Papanui eggs and olives and oil from Alto.
And then, of course, there's the cheese toasties. We've tried them, and we can vouch for their excellence, but Lawson demurs: she doesn't want them to be the focus of the shop.
"Then again, I do make a freaking delicious cheese sandwich," she says. "And it would be rude not to share them."
Penny's Cheese Shop, 4 Roslyn St, Potts Point, NSW, (02) 8591 4754, pennyscheeseshop.com.au