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Oh, for the love of Cheeses!

A religious experience downtown: Ventura’s pungent paradise of fromage.

By Ivor Davis — Photos by Gary and Pierre Silva

 

ho can forget the classic Monty Python sketch where a ravenous John Cleese bounds into a new cheese shop and, like any enthusiastic fromage lover, tries to order a chunk of the house specialty? There’s only one problem: each time he asks for a cheese—and his requests are precise and endless—the owner offers a multitude of lame excuses, but not a single cheese.

Well, I am happy to report that starving Brie, Camembert, Manchega, Port Salut, and Stilton fans will face no such shortage in Ventura. To avoid any possible confusion, let’s immediately stipulate that we are not talking Chuck E. Cheese or the Cheesecake Factory here. This is serious stuff, from the milk of serious and carefully fed cows, sheep, and goats, even an occasional buffalo, and it requires serious cheese lovers to do them justice.

Once upon a time, cheese in Ventura meant an unappetizing hunk of Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Gouda, or Swiss (even, bite your tongue, Kraft slices). But in the last couple of years the term artisan has crept into the cheese lexicon, and now cheese tasting has joined wine tasting as de rigeur for those tuned in to the food scene.

The good news is that within less than one square mile of Downtown Ventura, cheese rules. Take your pick of a handful of locales where you can devour cheeses from all over the world paired with the perfect wine. In this fair city we now have enough cheese venues to warm your heart and boost your cholesterol to happily high levels.

Take for example the establishment run by Kelly Briglio and Tina Lebar. Paradise Pantry on Main Street houses about as good a selection of cheeses as anywhere in the county. Whatever cheese you choose, Ms. Briglio, who started off as the chef and cheese plate enabler at nearby Westside Cellar, and Lebar, who managed that eatery, will try to keep the cheese board full.

How about Monte Enerbro, a blue goat cheese from Spain? Spread it on French bread and wash it down with a crisp 2007 Sancerre La Merisiere. Or you might try something closer to home such as Pond Hopper, made in Oregon from what else—Hops. It goes especially well with Rhone varietals, Grenaches, and Syrah. And even with ales and lagers.

Maybe your taste runs to Cahill Porter cow cheese from the Auld Sod (that’s Ireland to you). This one actually looks like cheese with a chocolate rind, and as you might guess from such a description it goes down splendidly with a hearty red wine or a good stout.

Try Humboldt Fog from Northern California, which is appreciated best with something along the lines of Champalou Vouvray, a sparkling wine from the Chenin grape. Or if you fancy something a little less, how should I say it, “distinctive,” perhaps restrict your nibbling to France’s mild Swiss Fol Epi, which goes great with a nice Rhone. My favorite is a Castel Magno from Italy that was first produced three thousand years ago.

Paradise Pantry is still something of a secret in Ventura, but its fans are growing. It’s an intimate hangout with room for twenty-plus, so reservations are advised, particularly on weekends.

After two years at Westside Cellar, Briglio and Lebar decided to put their faith in Cheeses. Thanks to a grant from Women’s Economic Ventures (see p. 21) and a little help from the City of Ventura, they are slicing and pouring with verve and wisdom. “My knowledge of cheeses started out as a learn-on-the-job experience,” notes Briglio, who is a self-taught chef. “We make a great combo at the Pantry,” she says slightly tongue-in-cheek. “Tina knows cheese and wine; I know more about how to drink wine.”

Along the way they have become the eminence grises of the local cheese world, so that many area restaurants order their cheese from them. Besides matching wine and cheese, Paradise Pantry offers imaginative food and wine tasting sessions. Their clientele has grown rapidly and they now have their own wine club online at ParadisePantry.com.

In all they have some seventy-five cheeses to choose from. Wine flights served with cheese plates are modestly priced, ranging from eight to ten dollars. Pretty reasonable when a simple glass of wine can run you well over ten dollars.

For the more carnivorous customers, cheese plates at the Pantry can be supplemented with an assortment of meats including prosciutto and ham. Pate lovers will be in nirvana with the ten-dollar sampler: country pate, wild mushroom and pistachio pate with marsala figs, and pate with black truffle served with cornichons, walnuts, and crostini. Or for the Vegans: wild mushroom and pistachio pate with marsala figs.

Additional nibbles include smoked salmon, roasted shallots, and caper spread served with baguette and crostini. And if like me you are an olive freak, don’t miss the sampler, with Castelventuranos, White Gaetas, and marinated Pichoine and Nicoise olives.

Cheese samplers come in different sizes, priced accordingly from ten to fifty dollars (for a party platter that serves ten). And if wine makes you giddy, there’s also a wide selection of beers to go with the cheeses. Try Delerium Tremens from Belgium or Young’s Double Chocolate Stout from the UK. For those with a religious bent (and fans of Monty Python) there’s Holy Grail English Ale.

When Europeans have been worshiping at the altar of cheese for thousands of years, why has it taken us here in California so long to catch on? “It has taken time,” says Kelly, “but that’s not surprising. America is just a much younger country.”

07-01-2009

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