Sep 16, 201012:00 AM
Our weekly blog on the New Orleans fine dining scene
The Dream of Dairy
Photo courtesy of Robert Peyton
Pity the lactose-intolerant, for they miss out on one of the most diverse and delicious foodstuffs available to humanity. In thinking about cheese recently, it occurred to me that if milk could dream, it would dream of becoming cheese. It’s the apex to which milk can possibly aspire. I mean, yogurt’s nice, and I’m a fan of ice cream, too, but cheese is something else again.
Yes, I know I am insane.
Cheese is an ancient food. Records from early Egypt and Sumeria depict the process of turning milk into curds and whey, and cheese was an important part of the Roman diet. With some exceptions, cheese is produced anywhere that people raise animals capable of being milked. There is a legend –– with numerous variations –– that credits an Arab trader with discovering how to make cheese. The story goes that the trader stored milk in a saddlebag made from the stomach of an animal, and during a journey, the rennet in the stomach converted the milk to curds and whey. He found the whey quenched his thirst, and the curds were good to eat. Whether the story is true or not, people have been preserving the nutritional value of milk through cheese-making for thousands of years.
Before Danielle and Richard Sutton opened the St. James Cheese Co. at 5004 Prytania St. in 2006, New Orleans didn’t have a shop devoted to cheese –– and then, overnight, we had one of the best in the country. That’s because the shop has both an incredible selection of cheese and a knowledgeable, helpful staff.
Prior to moving to New Orleans, the Suttons lived in London, where Richard ran Paxton and Whitfield, a cheese shop with a 200-year history. While in England, he made connections with cheese-makers in Europe and elsewhere that allow him to offer cheeses that can’t be found anywhere else in the U.S.
At any given time, the shop has around 250 cheeses available in long glass cases or, as appropriate for the particular cheese, on marble slabs set atop stainless steel tables. The selection changes with the season, and in the fall, when cheese production is in full swing, the store may carry as many as 350. The cheeses are predominantly from Europe and the United States, but occasionally you’ll find oddities from further afield: a yak-milk cheese from Tibet, for example, or a reindeer-milk cheese from Finland.
In addition to cheeses, the shop sells charcuterie both imported and made locally; dried pastas; and condiments such as gourmet jam, jelly and honey. You can also find books on cheese and cheese-making, devices for making fondue and raclette, slate and wooden cheese boards and other things designed for the consumption and serving of cheese.
St. James also serves food, and the menu is –– predictably –– heavily focused on cheese. You can order cheese boards of three, five or seven different cheeses selected by the shop or a charcuterie plate featuring cured and smoked meats. My default practice is to order the ploughman’s lunch: slabs of cheddar, Stilton and chèvre that is at www.wine-seller.net/Site/Welcome.htmlthe moment being served with a homemade pork pie, along with chutney and a green salad.
Sandwiches include five standards and a number of specials. The regulars include Gruyère with caramelized onions on grilled multigrain bread; Beecher’s cheddar cheese with tomato, avocado, basil, smoked turkey and mayonnaise on soft ciabatta; and the shop’s version of ham and cheese: brie de meaux with ham on a buttered baguette.
Specials at the moment include a Gorgonzola with spicy coppa sausage, pears poached in Riesling, pecans and honey-butter on a baguette and pork belly with garlic mayonnaise, Taleggio cheese, shallots and arugula on ciabatta. I found the pork belly to be a little rich, but your mileage may vary.
Salads include a classic Greek salad with feta, cucumbers, red onion, cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives and Romaine; Cantal cheese shredded over apples, walnuts, French ham and mixed greens with a Dijon vinaigrette; and mixed greens tossed with the same vinaigrette, cured artichokes, black olives, salami and walnuts, with Parmigiano Reggiano grated over the whole affair.
There’s an interesting pairing of chocolate and cheese at the moment, as well: five flavored Mexican chocolates paired with five cheeses, including a yerba maté chocolate with fleur du marquis, cinnamon chocolate matched with Humbolt Fog blue and chile-infused chocolate served with Wensleydale.
When it first opened, the shop didn’t have a liquor license. That wasn’t so bad because there’s an excellent wine shop, The Wine Seller, only yards away. It is nice, however, that St. James is now able to offer 40-plus beers and maybe 35 or so wines, with 10 or so available by the glass.
I had a chance to write about the St. James for New Orleans Magazine in 2008, and I’ve been a regular customer ever since. As mentioned above, the staff members are extremely knowledgeable and always willing to help you find the perfect cheese. It doesn’t hurt that the shop’s policy is to allow customers to sample cheeses while making a decision. They’ll also give you advice on how to best store your purchases, but if you’re like me, you won’t have to worry too much about that. Cheese tends to go pretty quickly in my house.
There are more than a thousand varieties of cheese produced around the world, with vast differences in taste, texture and appearance, so it’s a good thing that we have the folks at the St. James Cheese Co. to help us make sense of it all.
The shop is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., on Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and on Sunday from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. Call them at 899-4737 for more information or to tell them you think I’m the bee’s knees.