Marie-Anne Cantin, arguably the queen of the cheese world, runs a fromagerie palace in Paris that smells of the most pungent rocquefort—and is situated in a cave made of cheese. It is impossible to leave Chez Cantin without ten pounds of Brie and chevre in your grasp and reeking of their scent as well.
France is obviously known for its wealth of cheese and cheese shops. The French do, after all, consider cheese an entire course between dinner and dessert (and for the real determined cheeseheads, is the dessert). As much as I adore cheese, a wedge of gouda cannot replace chocolate mousse, but thus is the power of the yellow wedge.
Claremont on the other hand, is more known for cheese on hamburgers. Or wedges of cheap Brie in 5C dorms that taste oh-so-good at 1 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
That is, until the arrival of the Cheese Cave this past summer. Though not an actual cave like Chez Cantin, the Cheese Cave’s diverse and rather impressive array of cheeses could almost compete with some of the giant fromagers in Beverly Hills or Manhattan. Fortunately for the Inland Empire and 5C students, it instead resides in a somewhat quiet niche at the north end of Yale Ave. It is wonderful for the Village to now have a premier cheese shop and boutique food store, yet befuddling to us passionate for food that the Village still does not have a premier restaurant. We can get great cheese for a picnic on Marston Quad, but still cannot find a place for a special dinner.
The passion for cheese, good food, and drink, along with a wonderful joie de vivre, is evident everywhere in the quaint but not overly stuffed shop established and owned by sisters Lydia and Marnie Clark. The sisters’ grandfather was an original founder of the Alta Dena Creamery (whose milk is served at 5C dining halls), and Marnie once worked as a cheesemaker, so dairy and cheese are certainly not foreign entities to these two. The enormous cow statue in the shop may be the first thing to catch your eye, but this is the Cheese Cave after all, and the dizzying array of cheeses is certainly the centerpiece.
Ranging from well-known domestic varieties such as the sublime Humboldt Fog Chevre from Cypress Grove in Northern California (yours truly’s favorite) to an eclectic array of little-known Spanish, French, and Italian varieties, it is nearly impossible to simply choose a cheese or two for a picnic. Fortunately, the shop is actually friendly and patient (what a concept!) when interacting with indecisive cheesehounds, allowing for many samples in pursuit of that perfect slice. My mind was opened by the impossibly flavorful Cahill Whiskey Cheddar, which tasted strongly of the liquor, but in a pleasant way. You won’t get drunk off this cheese, but you might end up getting addicted to it.
Each day the Cheese Cave creates three sandwiches on freshly baked baguettes from a Vietnamese bakery in Pomona. Cheese is obviously the focal point of the sandwiches. Recently, I sampled a sharp Beemster XO Cheddar paired with a wine-cured salami for one sandwich, and a creamy Cotswold cheese that paired beautifully with the sour pucker of cornichons. These are not knock-your-socks-off sandwiches that will rival the reuben at Langer’s in L.A. They are of the dainty, cute-French-baguette sandwich school, where the crunchy outside/soft interior contrast of the baguette dominates each bite, with a subtle smack from the cheese enhancing the experience.
The Cheese Cave is far more than cheese, however, and any gourmet epicurean will recognize many of the boutique and artisan brands available throughout the store. McEvoy Olive Oil, the olive oil of choice for every reputable chef today, is available, as are a number of cute jams and sauces, half a dozen haute olive varieties, and even the magnificent sea salt caramels from the Little Flower Candy Company in Pasadena.
My initial visit actually did not even result in a cheese purchase, but in acquiring some of the high-caliber wines and well-known microbrews for sale. Upland’s Dale Brothers brews are here, as are the wonderful Belgian abbey-inspired ales from Orange County’s The Bruery. Any craft brew nut—and there are certainly a lot of them at the 5Cs—will spend ten hypnotized minutes studying the beers. This is the only place in Claremont to buy the cult favorite Hitachino brews from sake makers in Japan, and on Tuesdays, the shop receives a shipment of Nest White Ale, although it sells out after two hours.
Yet in the end, this is a story about cheese, and the passion of two sisters who love cheese and each day bring charm to their tiny shop. Finally, there is a spark of joy to jolt this burgeoning gastronomic community. Yes, it may seem strange that this jolt comes in the form of a cheese shop, yet the Cheese Cave is so much more than just a place to buy a slice of cheese. It possibly could be the catalyst for Claremont’s food revolution. Let’s hope so.