A guy from the neighborhood recently walked into St. Killian's Cheese Shop, at 3211 Lowell Boulevard, and set a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew down on the counter. "What kind of cheese would go with this?" he asked, somewhat sheepishly. Ionah de Freitas didn't bat an eye. "Brin d'Amour," she pronounced and sliced a wedge for him. He took the cheese, tucked it under his arm and walked out. Later, de Freitas marveled at the transaction. "He just wanted some cheese to take home and eat with his Mountain Dew," she said, shaking her head. "I had to think fast, and the lemony quality of that cheese just popped into my head. We get to meet the most interesting people around here."
That's one of the reasons de Freitas and her husband, Hugh O'Neill, decided to sell their popular Hugh's New American Bistro (1429 South Pearl Street, the space now occupied by Micole) this past winter to open a specialty-food shop in the Highland 'hood near their home. After nearly two decades of cooking and managing, they'd had enough of the restaurant business. "It's so glorious just coming in here each day and taking our time to unpack cheeses, tasting and laughing and enjoying ourselves," says O'Neill, who was the original chef at the now-defunct Greens on East Colfax Avenue. Soon after Greens moved to South Pearl Street in 1995, he and de Freitas took it over and renamed the restaurant Hugh's. "At some point, you have to say enough is enough," he adds. "The stress, the hours -- it was all just doing us in."
They've bounced back quickly. The two fairly leap around their shop, excitedly showing off cheese finds and sharing stories. "This one is made by this family; they just sent us the cheese and said, 'Oh, send the money whenever you can,'" de Freitas says, amazed, as she starts lifting waxed-paper-wrapped cheeses out of a cardboard box. "Oh, this is beautiful," she enthuses.
O'Neill rushes over. "Wow, look at how they do this by hand," he says, holding out a cone-shaped goat cheese that's pungent with the scents of mountain air and damp earth. "Oh, God, and smell it. This is so much better than trying to juggle a hundred things in a restaurant."
At Hugh's, the couple paid attention to details and focused on fresh, top-notch ingredients; they take the same care at St. Killian's. They handpick every item sold in the shop: multicolored pastas, gourmet olives, smoked and cured meats, Belgian chocolates, pickled vegetables, vinegars and oils and, of course, cheeses from all over the globe, which the couple try to document with pins stuck in a map on the wall. (Because O'Neill is a Dublin native, there's an unusually large selection of Irish cheeses.)
"I have to confess that we've chosen just about everything in here because we like to eat it," O'Neill says, and de Freitas chuckles. "Yeah, we try to pick things that we can steal from ourselves and take home each night to make a meal," she adds.
From the pickings here, you could certainly cobble together just about any kind of repast -- from a romantic picnic for two to a formal dinner for a family of four. I grabbed a package of the ribbon-like pasta made with saffron, beets, spinach and carrots ($9.79), a carton of imported chopped tomatoes ($3.29), a wedge of heavenly pecorino cheese studded with bits of truffle ($16 per pound), a bar of sweet butter ($4.50) from Normandy and a package of Cote d'Or lait melk chocolat ($3.75). That, along with a $2.50 loaf of French bread brought in from the nearby Denver Bread Company at 3200 Irving Street -- "Serious cheese requires serious bread," O'Neill says -- served as dinner that night for me and three others. But I also picked up a hunk of Andante Dairy's Largo ($21 per pound), an aged cow's milk with the texture and flavor of a goat cheese; a piece of Spanish Garrotxa ($16 per pound) and a slice of quince paste ($5 per pound) for the kiddies. And I tasted about a dozen more cheeses, because O'Neill and de Freitas love to give out samples, and they encourage their customers to try new things.
And these days, what's old is new again. "Right now, fondue is big," O'Neill says. "We're getting tons of people in who want Swiss cheese to make fondue. Which is just amazing, since this town went through its fondue phase in the '50s and, oh yeah, then again in the '70s, right? And here it is, back again. So we're trying to get them to think beyond Emmentaler to these great Gruyères and Appenzellers." (For more on fondue, see this week's Cafe review.) And then there's the customer who keeps asking if they'll special-order Limburger, a super-stinky cheese invented by Trappist monks in Belgium who must have been looking for something, anything, to liven things up. "This guy is a fisherman," says O'Neill, who got hooked on fly-fishing years ago, a hobby that was partially responsible for his wanting to get out of the eighty-hour-a-week restaurant business. "He says it's illegal in Colorado, but when he lived back home, somewhere in the Midwest, they would take a whole block of Limburger, put it in a net and set it down in the middle of a lake. A day or two later, there would be hundreds of fish nibbling on it, just ready to be reeled in. Since he can't do that here, he just wants the cheese to break into chunks and use as bait."
St. Killian's also gets a lot of requests for cheeses that are readily available at grocery stores. "We try to be diplomatic," de Freitas says. "If someone asks if we have Colby, I'll try to have them taste a cheese that's maybe in the same family and not too boldly flavored but that will make them say, 'Oh, that's even better.'"
But even free samples can be a tough sell. "Look at that; that's disgusting," proclaimed a well-dressed blonde, pointing to a block of Brin d'Amour covered with mold and herbs. "It looks like it's been under a rock." De Freitas asked if she'd like to try some. "Well, I guess I have to," the woman said, squeezing her eyes shut and tentatively nibbling off the side of the sample. "Oh, that's actually not bad. How much is it?"
Big cheese: Although there are fewer than a dozen cheese-oriented shops in town, the expansion of cheesy offerings at local grocers and the big cheese sections at Whole Foods (2375 East First Avenue) and Cook's Fresh Market (8000 East Belleview Avenue in Englewood) attest to a growing interest in the living, breathing, protein-packed food that is cheese.
The Cheese Company (5575 East Third Avenue) is the veteran specialty shop. After 32 years at 735 South Colorado Boulevard (with a second outlet open, briefly, at 1024 South Gaylord Street), the Cheese Company moved to the Crestmoor neighborhood two years ago. The new space is bigger, and owners Sharon Walton and her daughter, Carrie, now offer lots of prepared foods, sandwiches and soups, as well as many more cheeses -- Sharon says they usually have a hundred types on hand. But the Cheese Company doesn't have quite as many raw milk cheeses as St. Killian's or The Truffle (2906 East Sixth Avenue), a specialty shop that opened a few months ago. The Truffle recently started supplying the basic ingredients for cheese plates served at several area restaurants -- a trend that also promises to get bigger.
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But these days, the real buzz among cheese purveyors is the holdup back East on overseas cheeses. "We haven't seen Brie for a month," says Kate Kaufmann, who owns the Truffle with her husband, Dave. "They never tell us what they're doing; they just hold the stuff up until they feel like sending it, and then we have 400 pounds of cheese to deal with at once." And O'Neill went Gouda-less for a while, with no explanation forthcoming from his supplier. "One day, they just call us and tell us we can have it, and we go to the airport and pick it up," he says.
Ostensibly, the FDA is on the lookout for listeriosis, a powerful bacterial disease that can live in unpasteurized cheeses -- but it's rare to hear of an outbreak, and importers here are careful to use reliable sources. Hoof-and-mouth disease also has the FDA jiggy, however, and word is that the feds are closely inspecting everything animal-related and are confiscating both cheeses that contain meat and those that have been packed in water, out of fear that animals could have contaminated that water.
"I feel very comfortable with my suppliers," Sharon Walton says. "I eat all of these cheeses myself. And, frankly, I'd rather eat a piece of cheese than a steak, anyway."