Saturday, May 5, 2007

Venissimo: Say Cheese in Mission Hills


So, I’m standing behind the counter of Venissimo, the Mission Hills cheese shop, sampling and photographing cheese and chatting with owner Gina Frieze when a slender young woman comes through the door clutching a piece of yellow paper. She looks prepared for disappointment but states her case. “I’m looking for a rare cheese,” she says. “It’s from France and it’s called Reblochon. I need it for a recipe I want to make from my French mother-in-law. Do you have it?”

I laughed. Just half an hour before I had come in with a similar quest, only mine was for a gorgeously runny artisan cheese made by Bellwether Farms called Crescenza. I had been introduced to it many years ago at a cheese course I took at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. I long ago had given up on finding it down here because at other stores I’d been told it was too delicate to stock. My final memory of it was at a restaurant in San Francisco, which served it on warm focaccia with white truffle oil drizzled on top.

What were the results? Well, Gina beamed when she told me that Venissimo does carry Crescenza but then she had to break the news that they didn’t have it at the moment. So, pleasure delayed, at least temporarily.

And, the young woman’s Reblochon? Success. Venissimo can’t carry the unpasteurized version that her mother-in-law would recognize, given U.S. laws. However, Gina had the pasteurized version. How much did she want? The young woman wasn’t sure. She said the recipe, for a potato tart or casserole, called for three-and-a-half wheels melted over it. Gina held up a one-pound wheel and they decided three would be plenty. And, the customer also picked up blue cheese olives as a treat for herself.

As for the Reblochon, we both sampled some and sighed. A creamy cheese, its herbal flavor comes first, followed by a nutty aftertaste. Reblochon literally translated means “to pinch a cow's udder again.” It comes from the Savoie region of France, the result of some ingenious 13th-century herdsmen. Back then, dependent on landowners who insisted that all the herd’s milk was their property, farmers cleverly worked around this by only partially milking the cows. Once the controllers left, they completed the task, “re-blochaient.” Thus, the name Reblochon.

In the hour or so I spent at Venissimo on a Wednesday afternoon, customers flowed in almost continuously. And, Gina greeted almost all by name and knew what kinds of cheeses they were coming for, offering samples of others she thought they might enjoy.

It’s that kind of place. Around for three-and-a-half years, Venissimo is the result of a lifelong passion Gina has had for cheese, that comes from her Austrian mother and their family visits back to Austria and its cheese shops. Gina, who had a career in marketing with Coors and other companies, decided she wanted to follow her passion and opened the store in Mission Hills with her husband, Roger.

On average, the shop carries 120 cheeses at any one time and has carried some 800 varieties in over three years. The shop also sells a variety of cheese implements—knives, planers, spreaders, cheese wrap paper, French paper leaves, cheese boards, flags and holders.

And, there are packages of crackers, jars of olives, tapenade, honey and jams. Gina also carries Bread & Cie breads, chocolates and little cakes—fig chocolate, date walnut and fig almond. It’s a picnic or cocktail party in the making all in one place.

And, what about the cheeses? You name it and she probably carries it. I tried a number of them and here’s just some of what I found:

Roaring Forties Blue from Australia’s Kings Island Dairy. A bright, tangy blue. Great with honey, according to Gina. If that sounds a little odd, she explained that Italians will dip cheeses in honey like we dip chips in salsa. And, a note to my friend, Jolene: Venissimo carries your favorite Maytag Blue. (Below, in the middle, is the Roaring Forties surrounded by two other blues: the strong, oozy Mont Briac, on the left, and, on the right, a creamy Valdeon from Spain, cow and goat’s milk cheese wrapped in maple leaves.)

Hook’s 10-Year Cheddar. Looks like any old cheddar, but this Wisconsin cheese was a terrific surprise. I expected it to have a sharp bite to it. Instead, it was bold, sweet and had an element that made me do a double take. Crunchiness. Not a lot, but it’s there and the result of calcium lactate crystallization. Some experts say this is not a good thing and there are technologies to try to eliminate it. They’re wrong. A little crunch in a cheese adds a bit of fun to the palate.

Quebec Vintage 5-Year Aged Cheddar. This also had a bit of crunch to it. It’s a lovely cheese, a bit sharper than the Hook’s but tangy and buttery. I’ve been eating it on toast, but it would be great with pears or apples.

Il Boschetto. This is Gina’s favorite. It’s well deserved. It’s a semi-soft cheese blending sheep and cow’s milk with, get this, white truffle shavings. In short, total decadence.

Cahill Porter. Visually gorgeous with flavor to match. From Ireland’s County Limerick, the cheese is enveloped in a soft milk chocolate brown wax. Cut inside and you find a stunning mosaic, the result of Irish cheddar being pressed into Porter beer. It’s got a mellow flavor that, of course, goes well with crackers and ale. I like looking at it as much as eating it.

Cathare. From Languedoc-Rous, this ash-covered goat cheese has that subtle tang you expect from a goat cheese, but with a richness that comes from aging. The “occitane” cross stamped on the top is a symbol of the Languedoc region. (Below is the Cathare with a slice of orange Mimolette and Tomme de Savoie, a nutty skim milk cheese.)

Mimolette. Another happy discovery for me since my first sight of it—and it’s a gorgeous pumpkin orange—was at a Paris farmers market last year. I adored it then and was ecstatic to learn it can be purchased here. Also known under the name of Boule de Lille because the cheeses originally matured in cellars in Lille, France, Mimolette is similar to the Dutch Edam. It’s a semi-hard cheese that works beautifully with crackers or grated in salads.

Lemon Stilton. This is one of several fruit cheeses Venissimo carries. I also tried the Blueberry Stilton and Cranberry Wesleydale (similar to Stilton). Venissimo carries a popular Mango Stilton, but didn’t have it in that day. I ended up buying the Lemon Stilton with some ideas of how to use it. It’ll be perfect crumbled over an arugula salad with toasted walnuts and a lemon-olive oil dressing. Already I crumbled it on asparagus, which I had sautéed in olive oil and garlic and finished with lemon juice and toasted pine nuts. It was a great pairing. (Below, l to r, are the Blueberry Stilton, Lemon Stilton and Cranberry Wesleydale.)

Pecorino Foglie di Noci. Brushed in olive oil and wrapped in sheets of walnut leaves, this hearty cheese is great over pasta and Gina swoons with thoughts of it drizzled with honey. A crisp dry white Italian wine is the perfect pairing.

Speaking of pairing, when you buy cheese from Venissimo, save the register receipt. It is filled with information about the cheese, its provinence and food and wine pairing suggestions. Very smart. And, if you like, the store will keep track of your favorites and send you a newsletter and information about when they’re in stock.

Venissimo sells cheeses to restaurants like Café Chloe in downtown San Diego and Jordan Restaurant in Pacific Beach’s Tower23 Hotel, as well as the San Diego Wine and Culinary Center. Gina does cheese events at Great News and the San Diego Wine and Culinary Center. And, if you’re looking for an interesting gift, she will make gift boxes.

Venissimo is located at 754 W. Washington at Falcon St. in Mission Hills.

Have some thoughts about Venissimo or other cheese purveyors in San Diego? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below: