Where to find a fine fromage
Did you know there is an American Cheese Society? Neither did we. Have you ever thought about the provenance of the cow/goat/buffalo whence your cheese originated? Never crossed our minds either.
Lucky for everyone in the Vail Valley, two enterprising local frommagiers are ready to save our uneducated cheese souls.
“I’m excited for the small American farmstead cheeses right now,” says Allana Smith, pastry chef and frommagier at Larkspur. “Even in the four years that I’ve been doing it here, there have been more and more available and more and more dairies that are making them.”
During her tenure at Larkspur, Smith has taken her love of cheese and transformed it into a tasting menu the likes of which few people this side of the proverbial pond have yet to be exposed. Artisan products like Roaring ’40s Blue, Fiscalini San Joaquin Gold, Mt. Vitkos Graviera ” names one isn’t likely to have come across if one doesn’t keep one’s nose buried deep in modern cooking literature ” occupy an entire page of Larkspur’s dessert menu this year.
The cheese menu consists of six to nine artisan cheeses of which you can pick any three that strike your fancy. Smith’s hand-picked selection ranges from soft goat cheeses to rich spreadable blue cheeses, and changes regularly.
The cheeses are then paired with fruits (think “tart cherries” and smooth pears), breads (lavosh- a leavened, cracker-like flat bread, or another from Larkspur’s stable of fresh-baked breads) and preserve. The black currant preserve Smith creates in her kitchen, packed with flavor, could be a dessert unto itself. The cheeses are presented on slate, their names handwritten in chalk next to each, in keeping with their artisan provenance.
For an extra fee, Larkspur’s educated sommelier will pair your selection with a flight of three appropriate wines.
Many of Smith’s preferred choices are farmstead cheeses.
“For a cheese to be called a farmstead cheese, it’s kind of like a proprietary wine,” says Smith. “All of your cheese has to come from your milk, from your animals that are kept on your land. Which is the ideal situation because that way you have the most control. If you want (your product) to be hormone free or whatever it happens to be, you have control over how the animals are treated, and what they eat, and what the end product ends up being.”
Like a boutique winery, the product is highly coveted, and swathed in the mystique if another era.
One of Smith’s most popular selections is Sally Jackson’s Goat Cheese in Grape Leaves, the product of a small Oregon farm that produces and sells only in small quantities.
“It comes in a box full of hay,” Smith says. “And the wheels are wrapped in leaves and tied up with twine. I mean, it’s so rustic. You open the box and it just smells like a barn. She (Jackson) probably has enough animals to count on two hands.”
In the winter, many of Larkspur’s selection of cheeses can be purchased at their adjacent market, along with their house-baked breads.
The cache of artisan cheeses has not escaped the attention of the Vail Valley’s foodies. All three farmer’s markets in the Valley boast several small cheese producers offering their homegrown brands of chevre and camembert among others.
Even venues like Avon’s City Market and West Vail’s Safeway now carry a selection of rarer brands, as does Carniceria Tepic with its fresh Menonita, Cotija and Asadero. Finer restaurants around the valley, like The French Press, La Tour and Sweet Basil have cheeses on offer as well. But for the most artisan cheeses under one roof, look to Edwards sommelier-cum-Cheese Monger Pollyanna Forster. Her cheese emporium eat! is set to open in Edwards Corner.
“I want it to be like the European cheese shops where you stop in every morning and pick up small amounts of the fresh cheese you want,” she says. “And the cheeses are from milk of animals that have names.”
Pollyanna emphasizes the affordable luxury aspect of fine cheeses and is ready and willing to educate the masses on how to eat cheese.
“When people come in wondering about good cheeses I’ll start them with some of the softer and creamier cheeses and move them up to the stinkier Blues,” she says.
For the more experienced, she has tasting plates set up for people to get their fill of their favorites. Vaya Con Dios will feature a selection of Spanish cheeses, while Red White And Blue will bring you up to speed on some of the smaller American dairies offerings.
eat! is also offering a list of specialty items ranging from hard-to-find spices and oils to truffled honeys, vanilla beans, saffron and an olive and caperberry bar that will be unrivaled.
Oh, and there will be a wine list with 30 wines by the glass (and only one Chardonnay in the lot) and an accompanying wine store called drink! that will be happy to match any of your cheese purchases with a complementing wine (all of eat!’s cheeses come with a printed label telling you what kind of wine to look for to accompany a particular cheese.)
If you said Artisan cheeses sounds similar to the Micro brew movement that blew up in the 1990’s, Forster would agree with you, and offer you a Micro brew to match your cheese. drink! will be offering a comprehensive selection of handcrafted beers along with their selection of wines.
Or you can go with one of Forster’s classic pairings: A Guinness Stout to wash down your English Cheddar.
If there is one piece of advice both Forster and Smith can offer future cheese connoisseurs, it is “Don’t Wrap Your Cheese in Plastic!”
“It’s natural for the cheese to give off ammonia,” Smith says. “But it’s not natural to trap it in there with the cheese. It might be a little stinky, but … I have one area in the kitchen where I keep most of my cheeses, and it’s kind of away from cakes that I don’t want smelling like cheese and things like that.”
Both frommagiers agree that plastic is death for any cheese. They suggest a paper wrapping or even simply tinfoil.
What’s a little stink among cheese lovers?
Mike Larkin and Maia Chavez are freelance writers based in Vail.