I met Cathy and Elliott Pavlos, architects-turned-restaurateurs, and owners of Irvine's Lucca café and deli, during their Wine and Cheese Pairing 101 at Bloomingdales on Saturday. I had been envisaging a low-key gathering of shoppers and foodies (not that they're mutually exclusive, I hasten to add), but when I sidled up 15 minutes into the session I quickly realized that it was a more serious event, with seating, big flat-screen TVs with direct feeds and earnest-looking gourmets making notes. By the end I was expecting an exam.
For those of you who missed the event and never know what kind of cheese plate to assemble, some crib notes: 1) It's best to serve cheese in odd numbers eg three or five kinds for a small group, 2) Aim for 1 to 2 ounces per person, and 3) Mix it up: try serving a cow, a goat, a sheep and a blue--or a soft, a semi-soft and a hard.
Passing on the wine (I've never been able to drink in the day), I dived straight into some delightful cheeses and breads--a snapshot of the weekly changing selection served at Lucca, which includes some laudably obscure varieties.
They were all divine, but my tastebuds were really tickled by the award-winning Cocoa Cardona, an aged goat cheese made by Car Valley Cheese, a century-old, family-run creamery in Wisconsin. I knew the state was a huge producer of cheese (in fact, it's the country's biggest), but this particular variety had passed me by. Incredible, seeing as it combines two of my favorite things.
It may sound sickly, but it's not--although small doses are best. To make the Cocoa Cardona, a small amount of cocoa powder is rubbed onto the rind, creating a thin but discernable layer that contrasts brilliantly with the bite of the cheese.
And what better way to get rid of the awful dilemma at the end of a meal: cheese or dessert? Have both in one go!
But don't take my word for it--if you have a spare eight minutes, check out this clip of the guys at Gimme Something To Eat "reviewing" the Cocoa Cardona in what seems to be a cinéma vérité version of Beavis & Butthead.
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But, seeing as those two distributors only sell to retailers, Cathy suggests Trader Joe's, Whole Foods (if you have the budget) or--wait for it--Costco. I initially chuckled at this (as did she), but it turns out they do have some pretty good artisan selections. No Cocoa Cardona currently, but the very helpful staff at my local (Fountain Valley) store did tell me it occasionally shows up as part of their "Cheese Roadshow".
Yes, folks, Cheese Roadshow!!!