When you think of the word “parmesan”, beautiful Italian pastas with shaves of flavorful, aged cheese come to mind. “Mozzarella” always makes me picture soft, creamy white cheese–perhaps melted on a pizza or served fresh on an insalata caprese. And “chevre”? Beautiful mixed green salads, maybe mixed with some dried cranberries and toasted almonds. “Feta”? Cucumber, olive and tomato salads. Yum.
Yet think “American cheese” and (unfortunately) one thing usually comes to mind: processed yellow cheddar. Sold in bulk blocks, pre-shredded or individually wrapped in plastic, this forever-friend of the cheeseburger has dominated in sales for decades and is the sole reason that Americans might forever be the laughing stock of the European cheese makers. But there is hope that the American cheese industry will gain a respectable reputation in the world of cheese, thanks to several cutting-edge West coast cheese producers who are out to prove that there is Kraft cheese… and then there is “craft cheese”. I recently took a trip to Venissimo, a boutique cheese shop in San Diego, to find out what the American cheese industry truly has to offer. It sure isn’t just cheddar.
Venissimo opened its first store in 2004. Like all other small business, owners Gina and Roger Freize faced many obstacles, but one was unique to their position: the Freizes had a difficult time persuading the owner of the retail space which they had their eyes on to rent to them. Unconvinced that a store selling JUST cheese would prosper, the retail owner finally agreed when Gina surprised him with a plate of delicious cheeses to sample. The cheeses spoke for themselves, and the rest is havarti (and camembert, and brie, and port salut) history.
The Frieze’s initial hurdle in opening Venissimo is a testament to the cheese industry (or lack thereof) in San Diego just a few years ago. Yet the success of the first Venissimo store, and the openings of additional shops in Del Mar, Long Beach and Downtown San Diego, are now a testament to the demand for artisan cheeses. The newest Venissimo store, located on G and 9th Streets in Downtown San Diego, also boasts an Academy of Cheese (AOC) where locals can take cheese courses covering (among others) the basics of cheese making, cheese and wine pairings, or cheese and beer pairings.
My mission to find great California cheeses stemmed from my day job as a English instructor at an international school. Day after my day, I would listen to my students from Europe complain that the cheeses in America were terrible, and that ALL we made was cheddar… and “something called jack”. As a lover of cheese, I had to disagree with them: I was certain that we produce high quality cheeses in the US, many in our very State. I discovered that the problem was where the students were purchasing their cheese (The supermarket? For cheese? Of COURSE they were complaining!) and I promised them an opportunity to taste truly exceptional cheeses from California… not just to prove myself right (although I have to admit that that had a little to do with it) but also to introduce them to another side of our culture which clearly was not being represented in the American supermarket.
And so, our entire class of students from Belgium, France, Holland, Brazil, Switzerland, Spain, Italy and Korea–led by one very determined American teacher–went to Venissimo.
Our cheese monger, Robbie, was an incredibly helpful and knowledgeable host. When I explained to Robbie that I was looking for some of the higher quality cheese made in California, he presented us with an array of artisan cheeses from our great State, including the Humboldt Fog blue cheese from Cypress Grove, the Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam and Red Hawk. Each cheese was absolutely fantastic, with intense flavors and incredible textures, although the highlight was most certainly the burrata which had been shipped in just the day before from a farm outside of Los Angeles. A smooth mixture of mozzarella and cream, served on a fresh baguette from Bread & Cie Bakery and topped with truffled sea salt, was one of the most outstanding mixtures of flavors and textures that I had enjoyed in quite some time.
Each of my students–from all over the globe–were impressed by the cheeses which Robbie presented. They were pleasantly shocked to see such high quality cheeses made in America, and were just as pleased to see cheeses from many of their own countries on Venissimo’s list. At the end of the day, we all agreed on several things: it is possible to buy top-notch cheeses from around the world in America, and Americans do indeed produce more than the ubiquitous blocks of yellow stuff you see in the supermarket.
Many thanks to Venissimo for hosting us and taking the time to give us a crash course in cheeses, plus an incredible tasting.