Like Dave Bowman taking his final steps into the Obelisk in A Space Odyssey: 2001 and being almost speechless, a cheese shop, a great cheese shop, should be like a portal to a whole new world. A place that can transport you into new flavors, discoveries and surprises and leave you not quite the same as you were before. And like the dimension he ventured into, there should always be a higher intelligence, guiding you along the way where you need it, exposing you to things you’d not normally have seen (or tasted). That’s not likely to happen at in the cheese section of, say, your local Safeway. It’s not going to reliably happen, if at all, at a cheese counter or an cheese ‘island’ at some of the higher end groceries.
That, my friend, requires a real, honest-to-goodness cheese shop, and hopefully one headed up by someone like Danika Gordon, owner and font of all cheese knowledge, at Vivant Fine Cheese (805-226-5530) tucked away at 821 Pine, suite B, just off downtown in Paso Robles, CA.
Cheese, as wonderful and deep a creation as it can be, can also be intimidating, on the level of wine, for those who aren’t familiar with it. One can be confronted by seemingly innumerable slices, rounds and wrapped up little cuts and chunks of it, of all imaginable shapes, colors and sizes. There’s a lot of it out there, and a guide can get you where you want to go. You just have to overcome any hesitancy about asking.
That’s where people like Danika come in. She’s not just a local, she’s a native of the Central Coast. She’s been involved with cheese and dairy from the industrial distribution level to the retail boutique level with artisanal, smaller producers to making her own (and it’s gooooood). I came to her with questions. She had the answers.
Can you introduce me to cheeses that are locally produced in the Central Coast?
Can you give me the story behind the producers of those cheeses?
Can I try all these cheeses at your store?
“Absolutely can do.”
And I did. And they are fantastic.
Turns out, there are three small(ish) producers of cheese in Paso Robles area: Central Coast Creamery, Stepladder Creamery and Vivant itself, with its first product, a honey Chevre, now available at Vivant. She had everything they made and led my through a tasting of seven of their various cheeses, ranging from Rioly Run, a beer-bathed cow’s milk cheese in a Gruyere style, to the exquisite Big Rock Blue to Holy Cow, a fantastic take on what first comes on as Emmenthaler, but has its own unique notes and finish.
What brought these all together for me was the knowlege she had of where each cheese came from, the story behind them, the styles they represent and even what they might be be paired with. Side note: although I didn’t take the plunge, Vivant also offer wine and cheese pairings, on site, to best show how each particular cheese might match up to a number of different local wines.
That adds up to a pretty towering presence in the local winery scene as well. Quite apart from the store that sells cheese to the public, Vivant is intimately involed with most of the top wineries in the area as the supplier of cheese for their pairings and events. When it comes to who the big players trust for the right advice and the right cheese, look no further. Those sort of relationships and that sort of trust at that level translate directly down to what you’ll find at the more immediate level of walking into the store and availing yourself to her knowledge and advice as to what might suit you. Vivant, quite apart from the local people I was interested in, has well over 150 cheeses from all over the cheese making world, making a fit for your taste almost a foregone conclusion. Adding to that they can create cheese-themed lunches or plates to take away, and there’s pretty much no cheese-need that cannot be fulfilled.
On a final note: don’t feel indequate in your knowledge of cheese. Ask, ask, ASK! An expert like Danika is like a sommelier; not there to be intimidating, but rather there to help you make the best possible choice based on what you like, and to help you uncover new tastes and savor new things you didn’t know you would like.
That’s why she’s there, thankfully, and that’s why I can’t imagine a better introduction to the fantastic cheeses of the Central Coast.