By Ringo Firefly / Photos by Kate and Michael Auda
'Tis the season of red roses, fuzzy teddy bears and the other all-too-predictable gifts that orbit the time of Saint Valentine. But if giving flowers and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates have made you a one-trick pony in the past, it's time to ride into the holiday on a gift-horse of a different color. This year, raise your standard of Je t'aime by saying I love you with cheese.
If converting milk into cheese is a labor of love, then cheese makers are the dreamiest, creamiest romantics. Take note from the county's finest crafters (or learn a few tricks of their trade by taking a class), the curd collective who make giving heartfelt presents to loved ones pure pleasure.
The Cows Just Came Home
Treat your Valentine to Coeur de Bray, a smooth and buttery French cow's milk cheese. Similar to Camembert, but with a hint of earthy mushroom, this delicate bundle is lovingly swaddled in a snow-white, velvety rind. Hailing from the Haute-Normandie region of Northern France (82 miles north of Paris, "The City of Love") Coeur de Bray is said to date back to the invasion of Normandy, a time when French farm girls gained the affections of foot soldiers retreating from battle with the heart-shaped versions of the milky morsels. Conquer your lover by serving a wedge warm and topped with a spiced Morello cherry spread. Add a side of walnut cake, and the war will be won.
A Little Something on the Side
Get fresh with a light and tangy chèvre, a dairy delight handcrafted from farmstead goat's milk and sculpted into the shape of a tender heart. French for "small happiness," a Petit Bonheur is studded with pink peppercorns, lending tiny fits of biting flavor. Serve atop a fresh slice of bread from a cracked-grain mill loaf; add a side of drunken poached pears; and then decorate with fresh raspberries, strawberries and other red fruits. Sprinkle bits of dried cherries to create a gift guaranteed to seize an arrow from Cupid's quiver.
Where's a lovesick caseophile (aka cheese-lover, aka turophile) to turn for romantic dairy provisions? Venissimo Cheese is an enticing emporium outfitted with silky fromages, sinful chocolates and tasty incidentals.
"We always encourage our guests to try new things," says Venissimo owner and cheese wiz Gina Freize. For Valentine's Day, Venissimo is offering a class in the holy trinity of hedonism - cheese, chocolates and champagne. Enroll with your lover to experience the tasty trilogy February 14 (and again on Feb. 16) at the Flower Hill Promenade location in Del Mar.
2650 Via de la Valle, Del Mar, 858.847.9616, venissimo.com
789 West Harbor Drive, Downtown, 619.358.9081
754 West Washington St., Mission Hills, 619.491.0708
A Touch of Class
Be adventurous with moldy favorites and demystify the process of creating fresh goat cheese at Curds and Wine, where DIY means doing it at a discount February 1 through 16, when vintner's fees are half-off with the purchase of two wine-making kits.
"Guests can learn the process of cheese-making here in the shop or in the comfort of their home," says Gisela Claassen, a blue ribbon-wielding cheese-maker. For the latter, supplies and starter kits are available to-go to tinker with back at the castle.
Curds and Wine
7194 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., Kearny Mesa, 858.384.6566, curdsandwine.com
Before deciding whether to procreate, co-create a fun and flirtatious night by making a gift basket with (or for) your Valentine at La Costa Wine Company.
The cheese counter at the shop's new location in Carlsbad sells cut-to-order, farmstead selections to pair with a boutique selection of pedigreed wines and champagne. Toss in specialty chocolates, add an assortment of fine jams and honeys, and don't forget to pack a picnic blanket... or curl up in one together at home.
La Costa Wine Co.
6986 El Camino Real #2, Carlsbad, 760.431.8455, lacostawineco.com
Fire and Bice
Melt any Valentine's heart at Bice Ristorante in the Gaslamp, where Chef de Cuisine Francesca Penoncelli will stoke the romantic flame February 14 with a three-course, prix-fixe menu.
Stocked with rare and delightful formaggis Italiani, Bice's award-winning cheese bar will feature two special gems throughout the month.
Ol Sciur: A marbled, goaty cheese layered with earthy veins of blue cheese between velvety layers of ivory-white paste, all of which cloaked in a crimson rind, and then dressed in rose petals and red berries for the slow descent into lacteous bliss. Pair with the Baroque-like lusciousness of a Fruili Moscato wine; or a rich, golden Vin Santo for a real after-dinner winner.
Cocoa Cardona: This semi-firm goat's milk cheese is dusted with cocoa powder to create a symphony of flavors that waltz between sweet and savory with a fresh, milky finish. Goose-up the yum! factor by pairing with Bacio al Cioccolato ("kiss the chocolate" in Italian), Bice's featured martini made with Patron XO Cafe Dark tequila, vanilla and chocolate VanGogh Vodka and creamy gelato.
425 Island Ave., Gaslamp 619.239.2423, bicesandiego.com
Do the 'Due
Hearts and minds become one at The Melting Pot, serving soul-satisfying comfort food in the form of a liquefied pool of cheesy bliss. Take a dip with artisanal breads and seasonal vegetables, and then stroll on the dark side with chocolate fondue for dessert.
901 Fifth Ave., Gaslamp 619.234.5554, meltingpot.com
8980 University Center Ln., University City ,858.638.1700