Meet Blair Graves, a cheesemonger among us | Rock Candy

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Meet Blair Graves, a cheesemonger among us

Posted By on Sun, May 12, 2013 at 8:05 AM

There are few foods in this world as sublime as a fine cheese. Cheese is found in nearly every corner of our culinary infrastructure—appetizers, hors d'oeuvre, entrees, even desserts—you find it enriching nearly every corner of the menu. On the surface, cheese may appear to be rather simple, commonplace, or ordinary—but in truth, there are not many foods with a richer origin, history, and culture as cheese. Varieties are almost innumerable and nearly every country in the world boasts a local, indigenous cheese, often entirely distinct from any other in existence.

In Central Arkansas, cheese lovers have a few options when hoping to explore the thrilling world of artisanal cheese. But perhaps no one is doing more to promote the name of cheese than the venerable Boulevard Bread, and one woman, in particular, is more well-versed in the caseus vernacular than any person on staff. Blair Graves is a woman who’s dedicated herself to the study of cheese, pouring countless hours and logging many miles in efforts to become an authority on the subject. As the leading force behind Boulevard’s extensive cheese case and importing efforts, I’ve had the privilege to get to know Graves a little better, and I’ve been able to pick her brain a bit on this, her favorite subject of discussion. And I’ve quickly realized that I have a lot more to learn about cheese.

Digging back to the bright, youthful age of 11, Graves recalls the exact moment that she fell in love with cheese. On a road trip to North Carolina, she and her family were visiting the home of American writer/poet, Carl Sandburg. Sandburg’s wife happened to raise dairy goats. Graves relates: “I remember petting the goats and my mother bought some of their cheese. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world that I was eating cheese from the goats that I'd just petted and loved the cheese. This was the beginning of my food geekdom.”

When Graves was 17, she spent 6 weeks in France, something far superior to Disneyland for the budding turophile. “I read everything I could get my hands on about French food before we left (including a book about French cheeses). When we got there, I wanted to try everything. My mother indulged my every food whim at the markets, in restaurants, and cheese shops.”

She recalls the coming to Little Rock of what was once Scott McGehee’s original neighborhood darling, Boulevard Bread. Upon hearing what sort of place McGehee had in store for Little Rock, Graves could barely contain her excitement. “I was actually Boulevard's first customer. I went in thinking that it was open (it wasn't) to buy some pancetta. Scott ended up just giving it to me because there was not yet a cash register. I was employed there about three weeks later.” After starting at Boulevard, Graves immersed herself in the cheese faction of the business, reading voraciously about its many facets and eating as much as she pleased, always in search of new, enlightening experiences.

Graves’ love of cheese took her around the world in hopes of broadening her knowledge, allowing her palate to mature—all of which helped shape her into one of the most knowledgeable cheesemongers I’ve come across in recent years. She worked in an Italian specialty stores in San Francisco, visiting dairies, cheese shops, and attending cheese classes, even holding weekly cheese and wine tastings. Her path paved in cheese brought her back to France, of course, as well as Corsica, Italy, Spain, and Greece— cherished times in which Graves was “wine and cheese degusting all over.” She encountered some exquisite cheeses, some of which most in America have never seen, heard, or tasted of. She grew a particular fondness for the “gorgeous, gooey, smelly, unpasteurized” French types that would likely leave some Americans running to the window for a whiff of fresh air long before a morsel ever reached their mouths.

As I spoke with Blair, I quickly got a sense that she is a person that Little Rock is fortunate to have in its midst, but also a resource that should not go underutilized. Indeed, Graves harbors a wealth of knowledge and passion for something I’d hope really starts to make some headway in Central Arkansas. I bothered her a bit into sharing some general advice for anyone anxious to more fully explore the exciting things cheese has to offer, and how one becomes a bit more savvy in cheese and wine pairing:

“Generally, I think that people get a little too worked up about perfectly pairing wine and cheeses. People worry about it too much—it’s really just about what you like.”

“But there are some good rules of thumb: If you are going with European wines, you’d want to pair them with cheeses from that same region. For example, if you’re serving Comté Gruyère, which is from the Jura region in eastern France, you’d want to find a Jura wine.”

“This rule becomes a little more difficult with American wines and cheeses, but there are still good rules of thumb to go by here. If you’re using a cheese that’s really gooey and creamy, with a high butterfat content (Brie, St. Andre), you’d like to pair it with a wine that has a good acid content to help cut through that richness…something like a lighter-bodied red, like Pinot, or a white.

“The salt in cheese activates tannins in wine, so you’ll want to try to avoid really salty, hard cheese with an oakey, muscley wine, like a Cabernet…the flavors drown each other out. In general, I find whites are easier to pair with cheese, and actually, beers can pair really well with cheeses as well, especially the washed-rind cheeses, like Taleggio, Chimey, or anything with an orange, tacky rind…those really like beer.”

“You can read all day long about cheese, but the best way to learn about it is just to taste it. Visit with your cheesemonger frequently. They’ll be able to get a feel for your tastes and what you like and help steer you in the right direction. Experiment with a spectrum of textures, or sample various animals of origin—goat, sheep, or cow.”

Graves admits that the cheese world can be a bit daunting and intimidating to those less experienced with the craft, but she promises to spend as much time as necessary with customers at the cheese case as necessary. Graves now oversees the buying and maintenance of the cheese case and teaches cheese seminars for the staff, and she hopes to again begin leading tastings similar to those she directed in California in the near future. You can meet Blair Graves and bask in her cheese wisdom for yourself at Boulevard’s upcoming “A Pint, A Wedge” event that we mentioned previously, which incorporates craft beers from Arkansas Craft Distributors, grilled meats from Hillcrest Artisan Meats, and live music. The event is being held this Saturday, May 18th at Bernice Gardens from 1 to 3 pm. Tickets can be purchased by stopping in or calling The Heights location of Boulevard Bread (501-663-5951).

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