Say Cheese!

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Something cheesy is going on in Corona del Mar, but that’s a good thing for those who love fromage.

Vin Goat opened its specialty cheese shop on Coast Highway just two months ago, but it’s already received a warm welcome from locals and visitors who appreciate the more than 100 varieties of artisanal cheeses on display.

I purchased several cheeses at Vin Goat a few weeks after they opened, but Stasha had not yet had the pleasure of perusing their selections, so we stopped by recently to check out the boutique. While there, we talked shop with co-owner Hans-Erich Vogel, the resident cheese expert who attended the Cheese School in San Francisco and completed its professional program.

“What a great space – it’s so bright and open,” commented Stasha as we entered and were greeted by Erich. “You seem to fit right into the neighborhood, but even so – why Corona del Mar?”

“This has always been the area we wanted to open a cheese store,” Erich explained. “I grew up in the area, and always felt that this would be a great location for something like this. At one point we started to look elsewhere because we had problems finding a good location that had foot traffic and parking, but we came back because this was the place we wanted to be.”

“I understand you’ve had good support from the community,” I stated.

“Unbelievable –  it’s like being in a small town,” he replied. “When we were under construction, people would come by and tell us they couldn’t wait until we opened. And once we opened, it was overwhelming the number of people who said welcome to the neighborhood. We could not have had a better welcome.”

“You have outstanding imported fromage – little known gems that are some of my favorites, as well as stellar local gourmet selections,” said Stasha as she peered into the temperature-controlled glass cases that displayed the various cheeses. “I know cheese can be intimidating for some people …“

“Kind of like selecting the proper wine,” I interrupted.

“Exactly,” continued Stasha. “I gather that Vin Goat is committed to helping people get cheese saavy and confident enough to break out of their comfort zones. How do you facilitate people’s tastes if they’re used to a basic type or brand of cheese that they might purchase in any supermarket?”

“We want to be as friendly and open about it as we can,” said Erich. “If your favorite is Monterey jack, we can find a cheese that’s close to that. We had a guy in the store today that said he loves pepper jack, so I was able to guide him to some great cheeses that were in that style.”

“On your website, you mention that you love the stories behind the cheeses, and the cultures that created them,” said Stasha.

“Exactly,” agreed Erich. “It’s like taking a little trip with each meal. For example, if we offer a cheese from Sardinia, we want to know its story: what is the cheese-making process, what do the Sardinians eat with the cheese, how is it incorporated into their cuisine.”

“Your website also mentioned your definition of the phrase ‘artisanal cheese,’ which I think is fantastic, considering it is used so loosely these days and can be a confusing concept for some people,” said Stasha.

“The word ‘artisanal’ has indeed become a marketing phrase, so when we say our cheeses are artisanal, there has to be something behind it,” noted Erich. “We carry cheese that is hand-selected from specialty importers and producers – made by hand in small batches. The cheesemakers are skilled craftsmen who use traditional techniques, passed down for generations. Artisanal cheeses are created, aged and ripened to fully develop their one-or-a-kind flavors. The farmstead cheese that we carry is a type of artisan cheese that is literally ‘from the farm.’ The cheese is made using only milk from the producer’s own herds of goats, sheep and cows.”

“I’m getting a cheesy education today,” I quipped. “Do you have any favorites?”

            “Too many to name, but if I was stranded somewhere remote, what I would call my ‘desert island cheese’ is the Epoisses de Bourgogne, a cheese made in the village Époisses, in Côte-d’Or, France. It’s a pungent un-pasteurized cows-milk cheese. I also love Montenegro. I fell in love with it in cheese school and have been trying to get it forever. I finally succeeded.”

In addition to carrying a variety of fresh breads, Vin Goat recently started doing charcuterie, and some time this summer they’ll add wines and conduct wine and cheese tastings. They’ll also keep adding to their collection of cheeses, bringing the number up to nearly 200 different varieties in a few months.

Part of the shop is devoted to specialty olive oils, vinegars and assorted accouterments (jams, jellies, chutneys, mustards, crackers and dried fruits) that pair perfectly with the cheeses.

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