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    Say Cheese! Laura Werlin’s Guide to San Francisco’s Best Fromage

    By David Landis–

    One of the first things that you will notice when you meet cheese connoisseur Laura Werlin in person is her ingratiating smile. Perhaps it’s because she says “cheese” all day long?

    I was lucky enough to work with the James Beard award-winning author, speaker and cheese expert years ago at KPIX-TV (CBS, San Francisco). We caught up the other day in her beautiful Pacific Heights home over—no less—a plate of delicious cheeses (a Wisconsin Montamore cheddar and a French Pyrenees goat/sheep cheese called L’Adarre Reserve, to be precise).

    The Gay Gourmet wanted to know: Where does one go to buy the best cheese in town, and what restaurants serve destination-worthy cheese plates? Always happy to provide guidance, Werlin willingly obliged, while taking the mystery out of the world of cheese in the process.

    Laura Werlin, author of The All-American Cheese & Wine Book.

    How did she become the cheese queen? “I like to say, cheese found me,” Werlin explains with a laugh. “Essentially, I got into cheese because cheese got into me as a young child. Years ago, I went to the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) conference and was inspired by the cookbook awards. I thought to myself, ‘If I were to write a book, what would it be?’ The answer was cheese, specifically American cheese.”

    “I was excited by the new cheeses coming out of America,” Werlin continues. “In 2000, I published my first book, The New American Cheese [which pays tribute to the cheese renaissance in the U.S.]. A renewed interest in American cheese began in the late 90s, prompted by chef Alice Waters as well as the farmers’ markets, where you could meet the farmers and cheesemongers—and taste those cheeses firsthand.”

    But how does one know where to go to find the top-quality cheesesand what to purchase? “The best way to buy cheese without intimidation,” says Werlin, “is to go to a cheese shop that provides tastes. I call it, ‘try before you buy.’ The cheesemonger will assist in the process and help expand your cheese horizons. As a result, you will get bolder in cheese choices.” As far as where to go to buy your cheese? “Choose a place because it’s convenient,” Werlin notes. “Having a relationship with your cheesemonger is helpful. They get to know you and they can recommend things you like.”

    Where are some of her favorite cheese shops in San Francisco? “I love Cheese Plus on Polk St. Their cheesemonger, Ray Bain, is loquacious [that’s a compliment], knows everything and will point you in all the right directions. Gordon Edgar at Rainbow Grocery also is a great authority and has written a couple of cheese books.”

    Some of her other favorites include Cowgirl Creamery in the Ferry Building and in Point Reyes, Say Cheese in Cole Valley, Gus’ Community Market (four locations: the Haight, Mission Bay, the Mission District and the outer Sunset), Mollie Stone’s in Pacific Heights, Little Vine on Grant Avenue in North Beach, and The Cheese School of San Francisco at Ghirardelli Square (where Werlin teaches), a place she dubs, “Cheese with a view.”

    She adds that farmers’ markets are always a good choice as well because “you meet the cheesemaker and can buy direct.” Farther afield, Werlin suggests visiting the Tomales Farmstead Creamery, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, the Nicasio Valley Cheese Company, Achadinha in Petaluma, and Marin French Cheese Company, which started in 1865 and is America’s oldest continuing operating cheese operation.

    And if you’re headed out to a restaurant, what are the best places for a quality cheese offering? Among Werlin’s favorites are: Mission Cheese on Valencia, Amelie on Polk Street, she’s heard good things about High Treason on Clement Street and Wine Kitchen in Nopa, Birba (which boasts a gem of a courtyard) and Absinthe Brasserie & Bar, both in Hayes Valley. There’s also the San Francisco Wine and Cheese in the same neighborhood. Werlin says it is at the top of her “have-to-try-list.”

    On the high end, Werlin recommends: Gary Danko near Ghirardelli Square (which made a name with its outstanding cheese course); Acquerello, a quiet Michelin-starred enclave on Upper Polk St. with an extensive, all-Italian cheese cart; and Perbacco, a go-to financial district destination with all northern Italian cheeses. And, there’s always the classic—Zuni Café. Zuni approaches its cheese plate differently, offering one cheese and a perfect accompaniment. “Sometimes,” explains Werlin, “focusing on one great cheese and a complementary condiment is as memorable, if not more so.”

    What wines pair well with cheese? “I’ve written a book, The All-American Cheese & Wine Book, which helps people figure it out,” says Werlin. “The Cheese School of San Francisco also has classes that teach you how to pair wines appropriately with cheese. I like to say there are some basic guidelines—and pairing textures of cheese and wine is important. Sparkling wines tend to go well with all styles of cheese—it’s a great ‘go-to’ wine for cheese. A classic pairing is a light white wine, like a Sauvignon Blanc, with goat cheese. This higher acid wine pairs well with goat cheeses, which are lemony on the palate. Another classic combination is a Sauterne with a bleu cheese like Roquefort. The contrast of a salty cheese with a sweet wine works well because salt and sweet love each other.”

    Does she have a favorite cheese? “If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” jokes Werlin. “My cheese tastes vary. But Harbison made by Jaspar Hill Farms & Cellars in Vermont is a cheese I have never failed to love every time I taste it. It’s the 2018 Best of Show winner from the American Cheese Society Annual Conference.”

    What’s next for Werlin? “I love doing corporate work, like some of the speaking engagements I’m doing with the YPO (Young Presidents’ Organization). I call myself an ‘edu-tainer.’ We have fun at offsites and conferences, where I educate people about cheese and wine pairings. In September, I’m headed to the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta, where I’ll speak about ‘creamy cheeses and the wines that love them,’ and ask the proverbial question, ‘To brie or not to brie?'”

    Finally, what advice does Werlin have for the cheese novice? “Have faith in yourself. In America, because we don’t grow up with cheese as a stand-alone food, we have fear. I encourage people not to be afraid. Try new cheeses. 99 times out of 100, you’ll make new discoveries that will make you happy.”

    A Few of Laura Werlin’s Cheese Tips

    • An atypical, but recommended, grilled cheese sandwich? Cheddar, chorizo, apples and pickled onions on Ciabatta.
    • You’ll know if brie cheese has gone bad because it will smell like ammonia; it will be soggy and gray.
    • If your cheese develops mold, you can cut that away and still eat the rest of the cheese.

    For further information about Laura Werlin, visit: https://www.laurawerlin.com/

    You can also follow Laura on Instagram @CheezeLady or as “Laura Werlin” on Facebook. Laura Werlin’s books about cheese are available via https://www.amazon.com/

    For information about cheesemongers and cheese producers in California, visit: http://cheesetrail.org/

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer and a PR executive. Follow him: @david_landis, email him at: david@landispr.com or visit online at: www.gaygourmetsf.com