Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Foodstuff Miscellany: The Wining and Dining Edition

  • Dog Day Afternoon. If you have a dog and you enjoy wine—and you’d like to enjoy them together with others—you’ve got to go to the monthly Dog Day Afternoon at the Wine Cabana in Old Town. I took my Rhodesian Ridgeback Shayna there last Sunday for the first time to hang out in their Moroccan-style patio. We met our dog park pal Tamara with her labradoodle Annie and some friends of theirs. While the humans indulged in Greg Norman Estate Shiraz from Coonawara, Australia, along with a plate of sliced provolone, salami and mixed olives, Shayna and Annie met some new canine friends, sampled some apparently tasty dog kibble (and a little of the provolone) and relished the attention of other wine/dog aficionados. There’s no set date each month for Dog Day Afternoon so go to their web site and sign up for the weekly newsletter to get a heads up for that and their many other events (Singles’ Night, Chocolate Tuesday, Library Cellar Tasting…). And, if you’re having a hard time locating rare or elusive wines, The Wine Cabana’s newest staff member, Gina Roiban, a licensed wine broker, can give you a hand. You can reach her at gina@roibanwine.com. The Wine Cabana is located at 2539 Congress St. at Twigg St.
  • RA Sushi Honors (fingers crossed) Raw Baseball Talent. RA Sushi Bar Restaurant on Broadway at Fifth in downtown San Diego has introduced a new sushi roll for Padres fans. Called, of course, the Padre Roll, it’s a blend of crab mix and cucumber, wrapped in seaweed with rice, and topped with salmon and avocado with splashes of spicy mayo. It’s a great combo. You should also try the outrageous mango ceviche (lobster, scallop, shrimp and mango salsa nestled in crispy endive leaves). To round it out, the dish has got pieces of avocado, cherry tomatoes and sautéed pine and cashew nuts. Still not enough? The scallop dynamite roll is as delicious as it is messy to eat. You’ve got kanikama, or imitation crab, and cream cheese rolled in rice and seaweed, then dipped in a light tempura batter. All this is then topped with scallop dynamite which is itself topped with eel sauce, red beet and spinach tempura flakes. If you dine at RA May 27 through June 2, you can participate in the restaurant’s third annual Nicky’s Week, a fundraiser that honors Nicky Mailliard, a young friend of the owners, who died in 2005 at age 14 from brain cancer. That week, all proceeds from the sale of Tootsy Maki rolls, edamame, pork gyoza and select beverages will be donated to benefit cancer research at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Nicky’s week ends with a silent auction on June 2 from 5 to 10 p.m. RA is located at 474 Broadway.
  • Coastal Cuisine, Baja Style. Last year, San Diego chef Deborah Schneider published Baja! Cooking on the Edge. I met Schneider at a luncheon at the Lodge at Torrey Pines a couple of weeks ago hosted by Rancho La Puerta to introduce some local media folks to their soon-to-open cooking school La Cocina Que Canta. I immediately bought a copy of the cookbook, which just last weekend received the San Diego Book Award for Best Cookbook in 2006 at the 13th annual San Diego Book Awards. If you love the flavors of Baja and want to learn how to replicate them, this is a great place to start. The book is filled with seductive recipes and equally seductive photos that will make you immediately want to either pack a bag and head south across the border or run to the kitchen and cook. A sampling of her recipes includes Shrimp tacos; Ceviche, Ensenada Style; Lobster, Puerto Nuevo Style; Coconut Calamari with Dried Orange and Sesame; and Chocolate-Jalapeño Truffles. Schneider also explains how to make many of the necessary basics—pico de gallo, tomatillo salsa, fresh tomato rice, frijoles negros (basic black beans with epazotes), flour and corn tortillas, and chicken and beef stocks. Schneider’s enthusiasm for her subject is warming; her approach is thorough and chatty—both a great blueprint and a great read. You’ll learn all about salsas and chiles, the amazing wineries of the Guadalupe Valley and the intricacies of Mexican dulces. This weekend I’m planning on making her Chipotle Grilled Chicken with Avocado Salsa for friends who are coming over for lunch. That is, unless I get seduced by Aguachiles (shrimp marinated in lime juice). Or Cucarachas (garlic shrimp in the shell). Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe: Miles of Isles in Middletown

Missing milk chocolate McVittie’s or mushy peas? Pining for pickled onions or Prawn Cocktail crisps?

Whether you’re one of the thousands of nostalgic U.K. expatriates living in San Diego County or simply an anglophile who can’t live without Devon custard, Christmas pudding or pork pies, Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe can ease your existential pain.

While the shop is located in that marvelous strip of India St., off Washington and the I-5 which is also home to El Indio, Shakespeare’s Pub, Gelato Vero and Saffron, once inside you could just as easily think you’re in a little neighborhood corner shop in Putney or Hammersmith or some other London suburb. Owner Selina Pearce tends to know customers by name and desire. Other than the fact that prices are in dollars not pounds, and afternoon tea is on a deck built around two broad eucalyptus trees, shopping at Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe is strictly a United Kingdom experience.

The shop has been owned for about a year by Pearce, who managed it since its inception in 2001 for Shakespeare’s Pub. Pearce, who is from Surrey, came to the States in 1992 after traveling around Europe. She waitressed at the pub for years before getting the idea for a little shop, which the pub owners lit on. Despite her lack of retail experience, they put her in charge. “I walked in blind,” she recalls with a laugh. “I drew and redrew plans for the health department. I didn’t even know what to order so I just ordered what I liked. Now I order what I like but also base a lot of my orders on customer requests.”

The shop became a success but as Pearce began to get a little restless and interested in starting a family with her new husband, whom she met at the pub, the pub owners surprised her by offering to sell her the shop. She took them up on the offer and hasn’t looked back. Not even with the birth of her strapping blond son Alfie nine months ago.

I first learned about Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe from the young Irish woman giving me a facial last winter. She and her boyfriend frequently shop there for crisps—potato chips—as well as biscuits, tea, ale and familiar brands of soaps and lotions. On my first visit, I ducked in briefly following a day at Art Walk last month with my friend Debra, who bought a variety of Cadbury chocolates and a jar of Fred’s Favorites Korma, a curry sauce made with tomato, onion, yogurt and coconut milk. She had the grand idea of stopping at a local market, picking up U.S. Cadbury bars and some chicken and doing a taste test at my house.

I have to say that the Korma sauce was quite good with chicken, mushrooms, broccoli and green onions. It’s very mild and I wanted more of a kick so I also added some hot sauce, which perked it right up.

After our curry, we pulled out the chocolates. Cadbury licensed Hershey’s to make chocolates in the U.S. under their brand—but the staff at Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe is quick to tell American customers that it tastes completely different from the British version. Did it? We just had to find out. Debra bought Dairy Milk with Caramel and Bournville (original plain chocolate) bars at the shop. At Albertson’s we picked up Cadbury Carmello and Royal Dark bars.

The caramel in the Dairy Milk with Caramel had a burnt sugar flavor and was nice and thick, while the Cadbury Carmello’s caramel was runnier and the chocolate had a chalky aftertaste. Debra’s verdict was that the British bar had both superior texture and flavor.

The Bournville bar had a smooth, more subtle chocolate flavor. Debra found it had honey overtones. The Royal Dark? To me, it tasted like chocolate chips. Debra thought it was stale and waxy.

So, if you want a Cadbury bar that tastes like what you bought in a vending machine at an underground station in London, get the British version.

Of course, Cadbury is far from the only candy Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe carries. There’s a rose-flavored, jelly-like Turkish delight covered in milk chocolate that, as the wrapped claims, is “full of eastern promise.” There’s Scottish Tablet, a small chalky looking bar that crumbles in the mouth and fills it with sugar. There’s Thornton’s Special Toffee, chunks of delectable brown-sugar creaminess that is just a little chewy—nothing to pull out the fillings. Pearce is especially proud of carrying this candy because Thorntons only sells it in their own shops in Britain. She gets it in twice a year—at Christmas and Easter—so get it while you can.

She’s also keen on Flakes, a crumbly chocolate stick that comes in plain milk chocolate, dipped dark and praline flavors. In Britian, you can ask for a “Flake 99” at an ice cream shop to get a couple of scoops of ice cream with a Flake stuck into it.

A customer favorite is the Cadbury Crunchie—milk chocolate with a honeycomb center. It’s stunning. It makes a wonderful crunchy sound when you take a bite and you get a punch of chocolate and honeycomb that come together as you chew. Of course, if you’re Australian you might prefer the Violet Crumble, a similar bar made by Nestle in Australia. The honeycomb theme continues with Maltesers, the British version of malted milk balls.

Finally, there’s the Fry’s Chocolate Cream, a dark chocolate bar with a “fondant” in the center. I expected a mint flavor from this white cream, but it’s just sweet. It’s very nice but I wished for more from one of Britain’s first chocolate companies.

But we get ahead of ourselves with dessert first. Among the most popular items sold at Shakespeare’s Corner Shop is, of all things, Heinz Beans with tomato sauce.

In fact, it’s their number one seller, followed closely behind by Batchelors Mushy peas. Following my experience with Debra, I decided to get a group of friends together to taste these and other products I bought there on Friday. So, I took a picnic basket filled with items to my buddies at my local dog park. I had heated up the beans and the peas and, well, I think these are the kinds of things you have to grow up with. One friend said that the beans taste just like Heinz’s American cans of vegetarian baked beans. They’re sweet and dominated by a tomato flavor.

The peas, a stunning chartreuse, tasted like bland split pea soup, according to one taster. One of us adored them. The rest of us lived happily with our spoonful before moving on.

And, what did we move on to? I brought a jar of Hayward's pickled onions, a British favorite served as a snack with cheese and crackers.

They were also a favorite among the tasters, especially since someone else did bring cheese and bread. We also shared a bunch of bags of different crisps. The pickled onion flavor tasted just like the real pickled onions we had at the table, almost like salt and vinegar chips. Excellent. The Wuster Sauce crisps had a very subtle sweet flavor—they were okay.

The Walkers Prawn Cocktail crisps in the bright pink package tasted less like prawns than tomato (the cocktail sauce?). Eh. Quavers, a cheese-flavored puff potato curlicue was nice and crunchy, and could be addictive. The most unique of the snacks bag offerings were baked Twiglets. As one friend said, these were a snack Euell Gibbons would love. Slim, knobby brown wheat sticks, they taste like what you’d think a twig tastes like. They’re crunchy but not salty and have a real unprocessed wheat flavor.

The tasting session ended with Eccles Cakes, little biscuit-looking pastries that have a raisin filling. They’re okay at room temperature but delicious heated up with some Dover Cream. And, I brought a can of Spotted Dick and two versions of Christmas pudding (very dense fruit cake)—regular, made with cider and sherry, and Luxury, made with brandy and rum.

Despite the guffaws and inevitable protests from the guys, Spotted Dick, a sponge pudding with raisins and currants (the “spots”), was a hit. The Christmas puddings were a mixed bag. I found the regular to be truly vile in texture and taste. The Luxury not only had a better flavor but also a better texture and I enjoyed it so much more as did the others in my group.

Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe also has a wide variety of jarred curries, biscuits—McVittie’s Ginger Nuts are a customer favorite—treacle (a molasses syrup), Marmite, Bovril, lovely teas from Ireland, England and even South Africa, and very popular cordials—syrups added to water.

The black currant is very popular, according to Pearce. Altogether, it’s a treasure trove of British goods—and you can also purchase baked treats like pasties and sausage rolls, as well as British cheeses, Somerville Butter, scotch eggs, kippers, haddock and pork bangers.

The shop is also a destination for afternoon tea. This is where Pearce’s staff shines. The pastries—from moist, flaky scones served with double Devon cream and jam, to mild flavored marzipan cake, heavenly double layer Bonneville chocolate fudge and a sweetly tart vanilla lemon sponge—are all made in the shop. You’ll enjoy the typical array of finger sandwiches—cucumber, salmon salad, egg salad, mature English cheddar and ham—as well as a lovely little sausage roll, a flaky pastry surrounding a sweet pork sausage made by a local British butcher. This is served with the famous Branston pickle, a sweet relish of carrots, onions, gherkins, cucumbers, cauliflower and rutabaga dressed in a tomato paste flavored with dates, barley, apples and vinegar. All this on elegant floral bone china (which Pearce sells in the store). And, of course, there's the tea. I tried four types: Cedar Life Rooibos, an delectable amber-colored, naturally decaffeinated redbush tea; Christmas Spiced, a black tea with subtle undertones of orange, lemon peel and cinnamon; Yorkshire Gold, a strong yet smooth black tea; and Gunpowder, a smoky green China tea. All were lovely in their unique way.

Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe serves afternoon tea from noon to 4 Thursday through Sunday. The adult tea is $17.95 per person, but they also have a Child’s Afternoon Tea, almost the same as the adult but $9.95. And, if you just want to savor a pot of tea with a home-baked scone and their amazing double Devon cream, you can indulge for $7.95.

Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe is located at 3719 India St.

Have some thoughts about Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe or other ethnic markets 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:

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Continent European Deli: Gastronomic Glasnost in La Jolla

Sometimes, usually when a holiday comes, I get so nostalgic for the large family gatherings of my childhood I feel I can almost will myself back in time. It’s a visceral longing for big boisterous gatherings around food so plentiful it could practically collapse a table. And, not just any food, but traditional Eastern European dishes.

I was a lucky kid growing up with two sets of grandparents close by. My grandmothers were excellent home cooks and my grandfathers loved to eat. Actually, we all did and we ate very well. Big bowls of steaming chicken soup with won-ton-like kreplach or golf-ball sized matzoh balls; platters of stuffed cabbage, sweet and juicy with a ground beef and prunes; crispy roasted chicken; tender brisket; kasha varnishkes (bow tie pasta); chopped liver or pickled herring on slices of mini rye or pumpernickel bread; utterly sinful sweet noodle kugel (pudding) made with cream cheese and sour cream. The list goes on and on. The recipes were passed down, but it’s rare that my mother, sister or I make any of them today You need to have a large clan to feed to justify that and they just aren’t around anymore.

Walking into the Continent European Deli brought a lot of those remembrances of things past back in a rush. Behind the counter is an assortment of foods I don’t often encounter anymore: smoked fish, a line up of gorgeous sausages, stuffed cabbages, sour pickled tomatoes, a variety of salads, dark rye breads, sweet and savory piroghkis, even homemade gefilte fish. Plus, shelves filled with products that anyone from Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, Latvia, Hungary, you name it in Eastern Europe, would find familiar and comforting.

Russian chocolates, cookies and candies in festive packaging filled one wall.

On the opposite wall were items ranging from deep red sour cherry preserves, perfect for topping French vanilla ice cream, to various vegetable spreads, sauces, Russian teas and canned fish.

Even cans of German cod liver that sent shivers down my spine, but which is apparently eaten as a spread on bread.

All this is the doing of owners Irina Kanevsky and Edward Serper. They opened their first shop in 1995 on University Ave. near San Diego State University. The following year, they opened a second one in La Jolla in a strip mall off Regents Rd., just north of La Jolla Village Dr. This one, larger and with a kitchen in the back, offers homemade prepared foods and pastries. That’s where I was on Friday afternoon with Irina as my culinary tour guide.

Irina, who is from an industrial town in Ukraine, came to the U.S. shortly after the Soviet Union fell. She recognizes that many of her customers are émigrés who long for the comfort of food from home, but also encourages people who may not be familiar with the cuisine to come in and try it. “I like when people are open to tasting something new,” she says.

Irina prepared a couple plates for me filled with little tastes of different salads and foodstuff. First I tried a slice of suluguni, or village cheese, a whole milk cheese (above left). It reminded me of mozzarella but saltier. Alongside the suluguni were thin slices of sausage (above right). On the top was a Moscow Servelat, a tasty mildly-seasoned, semi-smoked pork sausage. A servelat is a German or Swiss sausage, originally made with pork and brain (brain is no longer used). In the middle was a New Moscow cured salami, also pork, but with a slightly smoky flavor. Below that was something I knew well but hadn’t tasted in years, a Jewish-style beef salami, perfectly dried and wonderfully chewy. The Continent European Deli has 90 varieties of sausages at any given time.

I also sampled a little tongue sausage, ideal for a sandwich on corn rye with deli mustard, and a handsome Canadian sausage. Officially called Old Forest Salami, it’s commonly called “flower salami” because of its shape.

Continent European Deli’s salads are a delight and perfect if you’re entertaining and want prepared appetizers. I was shocked that I enjoyed the beet salad (I’ve never managed to like beets) but it was a perfect blend of beets, walnuts, prunes, garlic and mayonnaise. I also got a kick out of the beet vinaigrette salad made with beets, potatoes, pickles, carrots and sauerkraut. This unusual combination of ingredients produces what Irina says is one of her most popular dishes. It’s simultaneously sweet, salty, crunchy and chewy. Taste buds work overtime to take it all in at once and its worth it. Equally delicious are the eggplant salads. One is like an eggplant caviar; in this salad the eggplant is baked and the result is a creamy concoction perfect for spreading on crackers. The other eggplant salad is made up of pieces of sautéed eggplant that can stand on its own with a fork.

A Russian potato salad with chicken, called Olyvie, was next. Very nice flavors and also very popular in the store. The Israeli salad—eggplant, garlic and mayonnaise—is another winner. The flavors come together to create a smooth, mild taste. The mushroom salad, however, packs a garlicky punch. If you love garlic, you’ll love this. I found the beef salad—marinated, shredded and blended with garlic and other spices—unusual and delicious, maybe something I’d use in a sandwich with lettuce and thin sliced red onion. Finally came the crab salad, similar to the Olyvie but with crab instead of chicken. It was good, but I preferred the Olyvie.

Irina also heated up an oblong piroghki topped with sesame and poppy seeds and stuffed with a magnificent combination of chicken, prunes and mushrooms. These little appetizers are made with an easy to work sour cream-based dough, filled with either savory or sweet ingredients and then baked to crispy, golden flakiness.

There’s no one shape—the piroghkis at Continent European Deli come in small squares, triangles and rectangles—and here they are filled with potato (like a knish filling, but lighter), cabbage (with its grated carrots, it’s a little sweet but oddly reminiscent of sauerkraut), egg and onion or even apple (kind of like a turnover in this case, but the filling is made of just slightly crunchy slivered apples—not lumpy chunks—happily not overly sweet).

While sitting and chatting at a table with Irina, I noticed a rack next to me filled with bags with confusing contents. Since the print was in Cyrillic, I couldn’t make out what they were. Sunflower seeds, she said, laughing. Next to them were bags of buckwheat from different countries, used to make kasha, a common sidedish literally meaning “porridge.”

Looking around, I found a number of other unfamiliar products. I could happily eat any kind of smoked fish, even smoked eel (something I first discovered decades ago in Amsterdam). The deli has a wide selection, including mackerel, salmon and sturgeon. But what were those little fish in the container? Dry moiva, I was told. These are apparently a great accompaniment to beer.

And, those browned, sausage-like items on the red platter? Homemade gefilte fish. Hmmm. I’ll save that for my next trip, but I did buy one of the cheese and raisin pancakes on the platter next to the gefilte fish. Tasting it at home, I found it to be in the same family as a cheese blintz (like a crepe) and imagined combining the ricotta cheese filling of a blintz with the blintz batter to get a pancake like this.

I’m a sucker for fun packaging. I have no idea what baby bologna tastes like, but the cherubs won me over. I’ll try it soon.

Below the baby bologna and the rows of cheese above were stacks of bread.

Since I adore a good, dense black bread I selected a loaf of organic Latvian rye. Slice this very thin and toast it to get the most of its dark, nutty flavor. It’s great with a little butter and honey or sliced cheese.

So, what’s for desert? Continent European Deli has freshly made baklava and a variety of cakes and other pastries. On the candy wall, my eye caught sight of packages of chocolate-covered something, which I discovered were chocolate-covered marshmallows. I had to try one, although Irina advised me that it would be different from what I expected. Sure enough, this was not like eating the top of a Mallomar. The ingredients list “fruit sauce” along with egg whites and agar-agar chocolate. The fruit flavor is nonspecific but it’s there and very enjoyable.

I also took home what I thought was a bar of chocolate. The elegant packaging, showing two ballet dancers in front of the Bolshoi Theater, actually contains slim, individually wrapped pieces of semi-sweet chocolate with crushed hazelnuts and French brandy. These will be parceled out slowly over the weeks.

You could get lost in all the different products sold here and if you’re not from Eastern Europe, the offerings can be confusing. Don’t be put off. I found the women behind the counter to be very helpful, so ask questions and ask for tastes. The La Jolla deli has seating inside and out, so you can also sit down and enjoy a meal.

Continent European Deli is located at 4150 Regents Park Row in La Jolla and 5961 University Ave.

Have some thoughts about Continent European Deli or other ethnic markets 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:

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Foodstuff Miscellany

  • There are two spring fruits that are always anticipated and often a disappointment: cherries and apricots. Well, I just stopped over at the Farmers Outlet off Friars Road and Mission Gorge (a sister store to the one I first wrote about in Tierrasanta) to pick up some garlic and basil for a cold roasted tomato soup I'm making tonight and saw they had cherries and apricots in stock. I really liked the fact that the cherries were loose so I could buy what I could reasonably eat (those prepackaged bags you normally see are a real annoyance). I bought about half a pound of them and about a dozen fragrant, rosy little apricots and brought them home. The verdict? Go get 'em. At least, go get 'em there.
  • Lemon Stilton update: Last week, I mentioned my intent to make a salad with arugula and the Lemon Stilton from Venissimo. I had to report on this because it turned out so well. In fact, it was simply a stunning combination of flavors -- a little peppery, a little tart, a little sweet. You'll understand why when I tell you the ingredients: baby arugula from Trader Joe's, thin slices of red onion, toasted pine nuts and nasturtium leaves and flowers from my garden, topped with crumbled Lemon Stilton. The dressing was a Meyer lemon vinaigrette I concocted:
Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette

1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Juice from one Meyer lemon and one regular lemon
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 large clove of garlic, minced
1 tsp. fresh lemon thyme
1 tsp. granulated sugar
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients except olive oil, then steadily whisk it in. Let sit an hour before adding to the salad.

  • Years ago, when my parents lived in Boston and I'd visit, we'd head over to the North End -- the Italian section -- to go food shopping, eat and get a cappuccino. There was a little corner grocery there that sold barrels of snackable roasted garbanzos. The first time I bought a paper bag full, I became hooked. They're not easy to find in San Diego. At least I thought not until I made a return trip on Monday to Ker and Little India. It turns out Indians enjoy noshing on roasted garbanzos, too. You can find bags of them at the market under the Laxmi Brand (the label says "RSTD GRAM). Because they're not the typical salty American fare, they're kind of an acquired taste, but if you like crunchy snacks to munch on while at your desk or watching TV, try them. They're also very healthy.
  • If you like novels about food, pick up a copy of "The Last Chinese Chef" by Nicole Mones. It's about a recently widowed American food writer who has to go to Beijing to deal with her late husband's affairs and takes an assignment to research a profile on a young American Jewish Chinese chef. He intends to open a restaurant based on ancient Chinese cooking traditions and is translating his grandfather's celebrated book about cooking at the Imperial Court. I heard Mones interviewed on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday and after reading the first chapter on NPR's website, I ordered it from Amazon. It sounds wonderful and I always enjoy a novel with recipes! (Quick note: Contrary to what I'd read, the novel does not contain any recipes. However, the author's website does.)

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: