By Donavan Hall, Long Island Beer Correspondent
A few months back, Alice and I were looking for someplace to go after taking in a movie at the Staller Center. “I wish there was some nice quiet place we could go, have a cheese plate, drink some beer, and relax,” she said.
“Let’s try Port Jeff,” I suggested. “It’s been awhile. And you’ve never been to Portside Grill.” Of course, I knew Portside Grill was never going to work on a Friday night. While they would certainly have craft beer on tap, they would be in short supply of quiet. Despite my doubts, I remained hopeful. They could be having a dead night.
We parked, shoved a few quarters into the parking meter, and headed up to the main street. “What’s that?” asked Alice pointing.
There, just a few doors down, past The Pie, was a new place: C’est Cheese (631-403-4944, 216B Main Street, Port Jefferson, NY 11777). “Looks like a cheese shop,” I said purposefully not commenting about the punny name.
“You want to try it out?” asked Alice.
“You think they have beer?” I asked. “Most cheese shops only have wine.”
“Only one way to find out,” she said.
When we saw Chimay on tap, we knew we had come home. And then we saw Dave standing behind the cheese counter. “Dave!”
Dave Conway-Lama is a fellow beer geek and homebrewer who I met at a Long Island Beer and Malt Enthusiast meeting a couple of years ago. The beer scene on Long Island being quite social meant that my path has crossed Dave’s many a time. Most recently, he had visited my brewery to see how slightly larger batches of beer are made.
That night was the first of many visits to C’est Cheese.
The Chimay Cinq Cent (white label) was great, but of the 8 taps the only local brew was the Brooklyner Weisse (which despite the suggestive name is, in fact, a hefeweizen). I said, “You guys have to get Port Jeff Brewing Company beer on tap in here.”
“We’re working on it,” said Dave. “We’d like to get the Porter.”
“Well, when you get it, I’ll put you guys in the guide.”
They made good on their promise, so I’m making good on mine. Which brings us to…
Last Thursday. Alice’s goal is to try every single one of the sandwiches at C’est Cheese. Our first sandwich was the Rueben. Hot, juicy, lots of flavor, a generous portion of cheese (as you’d expect). Last Thursday, we had the Roast Beef sandwich.
The Port Jeff Porter was indeed on tap. “I’ll have a glass of the Porter,” I said. You get these nice little round glasses at C’est Cheese. It’s different, a nice touch, and a definitely improvement over the (nearly) ubiquitous shaker pint. (No self-respecting beer bar should ever serve their beer in shaker pints. The worst is the “frosty” shaker pint.)
I left Alice in charge of the food selection — salads and sandwhiches. And I focused on what might be a good cheese pairing to go with my Port Jeff Brewing Company Porter. Smoked Gouda seemed like cheating. No, I was in the mood for a blue cheese. I asked Dave about the Stilton in the back corner of the case. “I’m thinking an English cheese to go with my English-style beer,” I said.
“This Stilton is nice,” said Dave. He was pointing at a significant wedge of speckled, steel-blue cheese labeled “Colston Bassett.” Dave shaved off a slice and handed me a taste across the bar. “It from an artisan producer in England called Neil’s Yard Dairy.”
The Stilton was mild, but full-flavored — a perfect partner for my Porter. “Bring it on!” I said.
My son picked out a Cantal, Cantalet Dore, a semi-firm cheese that reminded me of a cross between Swiss and (the French idea of) Cheddar. As it turned out the Cantal (served with grapes) was an excellent accompaniment to Sixpoint Bengali Tiger. I had to order a glass of that too just to see if my pairing instincts were right. And I’m not afraid of two fisting it when I’m working.
That’s part of the fun of going out and having a hundred different cheeses to choose from and a decent tap selection — finding a cheese you like and then looking for the ideal beer pairing. The smart shop owner will provide a palate for the taster to ply their art. And the smart shop owner will staff their establishment with intelligent folks who can field any question.
My son asked Dave, “What does aging do a cheese?”
Dave: “How long do you have?”
The short answer is that aging dries out the cheese and concentrates the flavors. Ages cheeses are typically measured in months, but there are some like Gouda that are profitably aged for years. In fact, we ordered a wedge of 5 year Gouda to take home with us.
I’ve got three or four books on cheese (one volume devoted to just the varieties indigenous to France). For me, they are reference books. I consult them after a run to my local cheese shop. The stories I read about the cheese and its history help enhance my enjoyment of the cheese. Of course, I’ve not taken my study of the cheese to the same level as I have the study of beer, but I should. Just chatting with Dave about cheese impressed on me that there is as much to say about cheese as about beer — so many varieties, so many flavors. And with the artisan food moment and relocalization of food production we’re seeing a dramatic growth in local artisan cheese production, with several producers here on Long Island.
Craft beer and cheese are no strangers. Every craft beer bar I’ve ever been to offers a cheese plate, typically the cheeses are artisan cheeses selected and purposefully paired with a specific beer. So it makes sense that a good cheese shop will offer equally good beer. The fact that C’est Cheese has eight taps pouring (mostly) craft beer gives me hope for the future good relations of cheese and beer.