Glenn Harrell loves everything about cheese. He loves the aroma, texture and taste, of course, but also the ever-changing nature of the product. As with wine, the flavors of aged cheese are different from one week to the next.
"In a day, there are probably six or seven good cheeses that I would say, 'Oh my god, it's ready. It's ripe. This goat cheese is fabulous it wasn't like this three weeks ago," said Harrell, manager of the Say Cheese store in Silverlake, where dozens of varieties some of them particularly pungent are on display.
Not all his customers share his enthusiasm, but the cheese movement is nonetheless making big inroads. Whether it's Chaumes, a soft French cow's milk cheese with a nutty aroma, or one of Harrell's favorites, Bleu de Termignon, cheeses are moving from the upper reaches of gastronomy to the more mainstream food lover.
"Cheese is sort of where wine was about 30 years ago," said Barbara Fairchild, editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles-based Bon App & #233;tit magazine. "People are interested in trying new flavors and ingredients."
For many years, there have been a scattering of Los Angeles cheese shops some with fiercely devoted customers and several newcomers are now trying to cash in on the trend as well. In addition, specialty cheeses are part of an expanded line of gourmet and organic foods at supermarkets such as Gelson's, Whole Foods and Bristol Farms. Cheese store owners say that rather than hurting business, the increased offerings at groceries has increased the appreciation of cheese and the sophistication of the consumers' palates.
Meanwhile, more restaurants are offering cheese selections on their menus, a feature that up until recently was the province of only the toniest eateries. Imported artisanal cheeses handcrafted cheeses made in small quantities are now becoming regulars on the menus of Meson G, Sona, A.O.C. and Campanile, which has long hosted a Thursday Grilled Cheese Night.
"Cheese is becoming a very hot thing. It's something new. It's exciting," said Felicia Gagliasso, cheese buyer for Campanile, which has seen increased sales of cheeses at its adjacent retail shop, where La Brea Bakery bread is also sold.
Artisanal sales up
Fancy cheeses got a recent boost from the Atkins craze, which allows dieters to eat high-fat cheeses even while they shun carbohydrates. Atkins dieters, and their dining partners, sought unfamiliar cheeses that met their diet restrictions. But cheese's momentum was gaining before Atkins exploded.
Americans consumed about three pounds of specialty cheese per capita in 2003, up 75 percent from 1994. Consumption of non-specialty cheeses is up just 15 percent over the same period, according to the California Milk Advisory Board.
Cheeses that were once too unusual for the American palate, such as Sara's Nevat, a soft paste cheese with a tangy flavor, are becoming common at stores and even supermarkets.
Harrell said his passion blossomed after sampling European cheeses during a vacation eight years ago. "I was so in shock with the cheeses that I tried (them) throughout Europe. It was just like heaven," he said.
The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, established in 1967 and generally considered the granddaddy of the L.A.-area cheese shops, carries mostly European varieties. "Keep in mind, the Europeans have been making cheeses for thousands of years," said owner Norbert Wabnig.
The Cheese Store carries between 400 and 600 cheeses, while the smaller Say Cheese has about 100. Those numbers can be deceptive because cheeses, like fruit, are seasonal, with some available at certain times of the years and some tasting better in certain months.
When a good cheese at its prime comes to Say Cheese, Harrell will taste it innumerable times. He laments that Bleu de Termignon, a raw milk cheese, isn't more popular. "It has its own unique taste that you would never taste with any other cheese," he said. "In my opinion, it is one of those cheeses that is in the highest category. It is like caviar. Not everyone appreciates and loves caviar."
There are certain rules for the budding cheese connoisseur. Customers are often advised to pick a cheese from each of four main groups: sheep, cow, goat and blue. The idea is to have a range from young, creamy cheeses to very hard, aged ones.
At restaurants, cheese plates are similarly constituted. The Campanile cheese menu early this month had five cheeses, among them Sara's Nevat; Roaring Forties Blue, a cow's milk blue cheese from Tasmania; and Serra de Estrela, a sheep's milk cheese from Portugal.
Specialty cheeses are far pricier than their mass market counterparts. At Monsieur Marcel, the least expensive cheese is ricotta at $4 per pound, but most cheeses run from $10 to $20 per pound. The most expensive cheese costs almost $40 per pound.
While the falling dollar has sharply pushed up some imported cheese prices, it's helped American specialty cheese makers, who for years had difficulty competing domestically because of French subsidies to its industry.
"For the first time in the renaissance of cheese-making history, we have an even playing field," said Sue Conley, co-owner and head cheese maker at Point Reyes-based Cowgirl Creamery, which sells to Campanile and other Los Angeles area restaurants.
While local specialty shops still predominantly stock European selections, more quality domestic cheeses are on shop shelves. Consider the number of competitors at the American Cheese Society's annual competition: it grew to 670 last year from 480 three years ago.
And as for etiquette, Fairchild says that newcomers should not feel intimidated by the hard-to-pronounce foreign names and exotic tastes. Just try it. "I always save room for the cheese course," Fairchild said. "They wheel out the cheeses, and I am a goner."
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