Cheese these days goes far beyond what many of us might have eaten as kids-bland yellow cheddar, slices of processed American cheese and Parmesan out of a sprinkle-top can. Though there's nothing wrong with these products, cheese has come of age, so to speak, with the evolution of cheese shops, cheese-and-wine pairings and cheese plates as a dessert option in restaurants.
At home, for the cooking challenged or others too busy to bother, wine-and-cheese parties make an easy entertaining option-no pots to clean and barely a mess in the kitchen. And, lest you think $20 a pound for cheese will break your budget, consider that you buy a few ounces, not a pound, of a handmade cheese from an artisan cheese maker. So treat your taste buds to the joys of real Parmesan freshly cut from a large wheel or any of the many cheeses available from San Diego's knowledgeable cheese merchants.
Hillcrest lucks out with two very good cheese stores. Taste Artisan Cheese & Gourmet Shop, next to Wine Steals on University Avenue, sells cheese from around the world, olive oils, crackers, dried Molinari salami and pates. In this almost 2-year-old casual store, owners George and Mary Palmer passionately share their knowledge to help customers try new and seasonal products. George studied cheese with The Aniata Cheese Co. owner Bob Stonebrook. The Palmers offer classes, including a recent one on beer-and-cheese pairings and an upcoming one on Spanish cheeses and wines on June 14. If you're next door sipping, try a cheese plate for $5 that might feature a slightly nutty-flavored, firm-textured Spanish sheep's milk cheese to pair with a rustic red wine or hearty ale. One table had nine different Gouda cheeses that Mary suggested are great with beers. I bought some terrific Irish blue and Parmesan cut fresh from the wheel to share with friends.
Mary believes that cheese is an affordable luxury, and she can work with any budget to introduce newcomers to the charms of fresh cheese. She suggests a picnic at home-good bread, wine and, of course, a nice cheese selection. You can taste everything before you buy, and your sales receipt keeps track of what you buy for future trips. Join the e-mail list at www.artisancheese shop.com. 1243 1?2 University Ave., Hillcrest, 619-683-2306, closed Monday.
Down the street and around the corner from the mesquite-barbecue smells of Phil's BBQ is Venissimo Cheese. Here you'll find a tiny, well-stocked, urban store with prices noted by the half pound and with a little picture of a goat, sheep or cow so that you know the type of milk used to make that particular cheese. Owners Gina and Roger Freize have an advanced system for their sales receipts that gives the name, taste, origin and what wine to serve with the cheese, as well as a record for your next trip in. Their cheeses can be found on cheese plates at Dobson's, Café Chloe and others. I particularly like the website for the "Cheese Facts" section that lists how to serve cheese (room temperature) and lots more. 754 W. Washington, Mission Hills, 619-491-0708, www.venissimo.com.
It took some sleuthing to find the 14-month-old The Wine & Cheese Shop in La Jolla, since it changed its name from The Shop when owner Henry Ota got his wine license. Ota's small selection of imported cheeses, along with prosciutto d'Parma (hand-sliced) and many hard-to-find gourmet items, including wines ranging from $9.99 to more than $200, is a favorite for locals looking for specialty food items and good sandwiches, too. 7930 Ivanhoe Ave., La Jolla, 858-456-1010.
In North County, The Aniata Cheese Co. opened three years ago in the Flower Hill Mall. When Bob Stonebrook opened the store, he started the whole cheese craze here in San Diego. His small store features cheese, salami, oils, jams and preserves, nuts, flatbreads and boutique wines. For a modest yearly fee of $40, members of the Aniata Club can participate in cheese tastings, get discounts on large wheel cheeses and more. You'll find his cheese at such wine bars and restaurants as downtown's Confidential, Gaffney's Wine Bar in Encinitas and Trisler's Wine Bar in Mission Valley. 2710 Via de la Valle, Suite B-138, Del Mar, 858-847-9616, www.aniata.com.
Carlsbad's Sonoma Valley Market features a good selection of cheeses, and they also do wine-and-cheese tastings. Chris Cook handles the cheese section while Kris Wold is the go-to person for wine. Together they pair wines, cheeses and foods from the well-stocked market. 300 Carlsbad Village Drive, Carlsbad, 760-720-7700, www.sonomavalleymarket.com.
If you're looking for fresh feta from Denmark, Greece and other countries, check out markets such as North Park Produce (3551 El Cajon Blvd, North Park, 619-516-3336) and Vine Ripe Market (8191 Fletcher Parkway Drive, La Mesa, 619-462-9900, www.vineripemarket.com). Their deli selections usually include at least six or more fresh fetas, all just a bit different in flavor.
And there's always Whole Foods, which offers a large imported selection, cut and packaged, along with organic mini-toasts, crackers and other cheese-friendly foods. Trader Joe's competes with a solid selection of cheeses, breads and crackers, all precut and packaged.
Write to marcie[at]5dollarchef[dot]com and editor[at]SDcitybeat[dot]com.