Cheese-lover, cheese-maker, Jedi cheese-master — most of the world’s population falls into one of these categories. Few foods have such a broad range of appeal. I’m so smitten, I’ve considered lobbying to make cheese its own food group.
Recently, I encountered some like-minded folks who’d gladly grant such a campaign serious grassroots support. The group is called Queso Diego, an assemblage of locals brought together by their affinity for and fascination with fromage. They call themselves a club, but with a membership swelling over the 100 mark, they’re more like a small army. Their current base of operations is Curds and Wine (7194 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, curdsandwine.com), a cheese- and wine-making supply store in Kearny Mesa that is both the site of monthly meetings and a shopping mecca. That’s where I caught up with them to partake in their first-anniversary festivities.
In light of that milestone, a champagne- and cheese-tasting was chosen as the proper mode of celebration. Six sparkling wines, from cava to rosé to blanc de blancs, were paired with a mountainous, drool-inspiring cheese platter comprised of triple crème brie, Tallegio, Humboldt Fog, a truffled cow’s-milk variety, and more from Venissimo Cheese’s downtown shop (which donated half of the night’s bounty).
There were also a number of cheeses on hand that had been crafted by Queso Diego members. Many, if set down in a grocery store or deli, would be indiscernible from commercially produced versions of the same style, and it’s unlikely a taste test would do much to help dispel such confusion. The homemade cheeses I sampled (bleu de chèvre, havarti, a smoked cheddar, and a vegetable ash-coated goat cheese) were delicious and exhibited the trademark nuances of traditional styles — tang, herb, sweetness, and spice.
It’s clear the members of this club harbor the utmost respect for the art of cheese-making. That said, craftspeople make up only a percentage of Queso Diego’s membership. Anybody is welcome to join up and attend the club’s monthly meetings, which consist of everything from pairings where taste profiles, compatibility, and the histories of the night’s cheeses and beverages are explained in detail, to educational events exploring cheese-making techniques, ingredients, tools, and machinery.
It’s that open and accepting nature that’s allowed Queso Diego to grow to such large numbers so quickly. Originally, it was a Google group called the San Diego Cheese-making Group, which consisted of founder Chris Banker and a handful of fellow enthusiasts. Soon, they were receiving inquiries from droves of people looking to get in on the action. Some were far more interested in consuming than creating, but that was fine with Banker, whose mission from the start was to avoid the pretension that so often accompanies artisanal delicacies like cheese and wine.
Happily, it’s evolved into every bit the casual, jovial, communal, everyman entity Banker envisioned. So, if you’re looking for a place where you can sip cocktails with your pinky up and do your best monocle-wearing aristocrat impression — while dignifiedly arguing the proper temperature at which to allow a nice gouda to age with some equally stuffy know-it-all — Queso Diego is not for you.
Members come from all walks of life with varying knowledge of cheese. Some only know they like it and want to know more…and that’s perfectly fine. Meetings are casual, allowing Queso Diegans to take as much or as little knowledge from them as wanted or needed. Lessons learned might come from the evening’s lecturers or from someone sitting across the table during the pre-event social hour.
There’s also a chance that those lessons will be about making something other than cheese. Turns out, these folks are not only into, but really good at crafting other things, from mustards to olives to wine and beer. A notable percentage of Queso Diego’s members also belong to the popular San Diego homebrew club QUAFF (Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity, quaff.org) and bring in their brews to share with the club — just like the group’s cheese- and wine-makers. Others bring in store-bought beverages or hors d’oeuvres to bolster the selection and tasting experience. Such donations are voluntary, and, as of now, there is zero cost associated with Queso Diego membership, though,this may change as rising membership will likely necessitate increased structure.
Future meeting topics will include themed tastings, including Irish cheeses with Irish-style red ales and stouts near St. Patrick’s Day, and pumpkin homebrew and cheese tastings in autumn. They’re also working on bringing in a vendor with a mobile pizza oven so they can use their homemade cheeses to create on-the-spot pies. The group is also planning a field trip to downtown’s Bice, home of the city’s only restaurant cheese bar. Another big initiative is a push to get a cheese-making competition added to the calendar of events at the 2012 edition of the San Diego County Fair.
They’re ambitious, yet the overriding philosophy is simple: come one, come all, eat, drink, and be merry. That’s my kind of club. If it sounds up your alley, too, check out Queso Diego on Facebook or at their website, quesodiego.org. ■