I've lived in Paris three different years, each time across the street from a great cheese monger. These are the kind of shops where, if you request some Pouligny-St. Pierre, the clerk asks if you're serving it tonight or tomorrow and, depending on your answer, gives you a piece with the appropriate ripeness. The kind of shops where, if you want a Brie de Meaux in early September, you get a sad shake of the head: "Ah, non, Monsieur, it is not ready for two more weeks." Most American consumers don't realize that cheeses have their seasons, like fruits: pregnant cows, goats and sheep don't give their milk during the months when they nurse their newborn, their best milk comes in the weeks when the grazing grass is greenest, and many European cheeses may, by law, be produced only during certain times of the year.
Two local men, Steve Jones of Steve's Cheese, and David Schiffelbein of Curds & Whey, know all about such matters. They are the proprietors of Portland's two exclusive cheese shops, and each maître fromager has created a distinctive cheese boutique. Portland may not yet be cheese nerd heaven, but it is reaching higher, and confirmation if not canonization arrives later this month when the American Cheese Society celebrates its annual conference, "Exploring Cheese Frontiers," for three days of exhibitions, tastings, seminars, competitions and cheese-maker dinners throughout town July 19-22. Seven hundred artisanal cheeses will be shown, more than twice the number De Gaulle once designated as the reason France, with that many cheeses, was ungovernable.
Curds & Whey is located in a small, charming house in Sellwood, where several cases display more than 75 cheeses at any time. As a youngster, Schiffelbein tasted nothing but yellow brick and white brick cheeses until he reached Germany in 1989, where he suddenly learned what good cheese was all about. For him the experience was as dramatic as the collapse of the Berlin Wall; cheese epiphanies in Spain and France quickly followed. He knew he wanted a "dedicated cheese store," and he opened his shop in August 2005, a few months before Steve Jones started his. "The time was ripe," says Schiffelbein. "Portlanders are so much more sophisticated than they used to be. They were hungry for a real cheese shop, and they come from all over town, to buy, to take my course in cheese-making and to attend cheese education evenings at the shop."
While Steve's specializes in American artisanal styles, Curds & Whey tends to stock international products; half of them are "seasonal," which means they may stay on the shelf no more than a few weeks, a narrow window of opportunity. But a steady stream of other cheeses follows in their wake. Schiffelbein is a meticulous craftsman who devotes countless hours poring over his products, cutting off the tiniest speck of mold, rewrapping each piece. You need patience in his shop, but when you see the loving devotion he displays with each hallowed cheese, you know why your tasting experience will be extraordinary.
That individual attention
combines with informed buying: He'll purchase instinctively by touch and smell. He hopes eventually to age his own cheeses in the cellar beneath the house; very few American cheese sellers manage their own affinage, or ripening, but the best of them control the process with exquisite care, and their cheeses are much the better for it. One nice touch at Curds & Whey is the generous precut samples available for tasting; time after time I was lured back by
the chance to nibble on 5-year-
old tangerine-hued gouda as I
purchased my weekly supply of cheeses.
It's difficult to recommend any particular cheese, since it may be gone by the time you read this. But try asking for a gorgeous Sottocenere truffled cheese, which combines a mild mozzarellalike texture with spikes of pungent, woodsy truffles. Or Monte Enebro, a Spanish farmhouse cheese, made by one man in Navia, that tastes of grasses and flowers. Or a Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue, whose subtle ashy veining offers a smooth taste, never a sharp bite—a creamy blue you can eat by itself. Schiffelbein says chevres are at their peak in July, and especially recommends Vermont Shepherd's sheep-milk cheese and Willamette Valley's Shepherd's Knoll.
Across town at Steve's Cheese, owner Jones comes by his trade honestly: His father was a herdsman for Maytag Dairy in Iowa. Jones is another passionate cheese guru whose mission is to enlighten the palates of Portlanders. His cheese cases are tucked in the back of a large, boxy room, the front of which is occupied by bin after bin of the wines of Square Deal Wine Company on Northwest Thurman Street. It's a perfect marriage: Jones co-hosts wine tastings with cheese pairings, as well as gives cheese classes in a banquet room overlooking a garden. Moreover, both the wines and the cheeses tend to come from small producers whose tiny output means the process is tightly supervised. Jones loves to visit his cheese makers all over the country: "I want to see how they're running their herds, what breed of goats they raise, how many animals they have," he explains. He seems to be practically on a first-name basis with, say, the goats of Twig Farm in Vermont, which makes a remarkable chevre. He was one of the first 10 customers for many of his suppliers, and he attributes the quality of his offerings to his attention to those cheese makers' methods.
He's got an advanced palate, and will carry only those cheeses he wants to eat himself. That might include a rare Teleme, from Rockport, Maine, an herbacious, soft-textured delicacy; or Bethmale, a cow and goat cheese from Bordeaux, whose maker visited Portland and convinced Jones when he shared his cheese maker's secrets; or a washed-rind farmstead cow's cheese that is, in Jones' words, "slightly stinky" but is, in fact, surprisingly inoffensive, just a big, assertive cheese with lots of edgy character.
Talk to either of these men, and you'll get one of the most sensuous educations available in Portland, as well as great recommendations for educated sensuality at your own table. And if it means you can walk with a knowledgeable swagger when the real big cheeses come to town later this month, all the better.
Curds & Whey, 8036 SE 13th Ave., 231-2877. 11 am-7 pm Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5 pm Sunday. Steve's Cheese, 2321 NW Thurman St., 222-6014. 11 am-6 pm Sunday-Tuesday, 11 am-8 pm Wednesday-Saturday. The American Cheese Society annual conference runs all day Wednesday-Saturday July 19-22. For a complete list of events and times, visit www.cheesesociety.org. The society's public Festival of Cheese will be held at the Hilton Hotel Ballroom, 921 SW 6th Ave. 4-9 pm Saturday, July 22. $65 in advance, $75 door. To reserve tickets, call (502) 583-3783.
After 18 years writing for WW, freelance food critic Roger J. Porter has taken a new position at The Oregonian as one of the newspaper's four rotating food critics. This is his last WW story.