Made from Scratch
Fromagerie Sophie: A Little French Bubble in San Luis Obispo
Fromagerie Sophie is located in the historic downtown of San Luis Obispo. This shop has a wide variety of international cheese and catering services. photos by John Rockwell
This is what is written on a sign hung on the back of the prep area door at Fromagerie Sophie in charming downtown San Luis Obispo:
“Cheese, Cheese, Meat, Cheese…Every customer is to receive:
1. A taste of a cheese
2. A taste of another cheese
3. A taste of a meat
4. A taste of another cheese”
Whether you’re a professed turophile, or if you’re just curious about fine cheese, visiting a fine cheese shop should be an easy, rewarding experience. Think about it: In a great cheese shop you’re in the midst of some of the most interesting living culinary treasures ever cultivated by human hands, of which many items therein have rich histories going back not decades, but millennia. Cheese shop owners who get it right should provide a friendly, comfortable, easygoing and interactive tasting experience from the moment you are greeted at the door to the time you walk out with 1/4-lb chunks (or more) of treasures individually tailored to your palate or to what you imagine your friends, family or dinner guests will like.
Visiting Fromagerie Sophie in this cozy college town hits all the notes of a great cheese shop: It may have display cases filled with around 100 styles of hard-to-find cheese and salumi, but the friendly and attentive staff makes the experience anything but intimidating. Like all great cheese shops, you will be invited into a conversation which will revolve around your favorite cheeses and flavors and of course, no conversation about cheese is complete without paste samples. In your conversation with a cheesemonger, you calibrate to one another’s flavor language so the perfect recommendations can be made.
In early April, I had a chance to speak with Paul Doering, who opened the shop in 2013 with his wife Sophie. “As you can see, we’re a European-inspired cheese shop,” says Paul. “This was Sophie’s big dream, and so it kind of happened.” My own daughter, who has visited Paris, later described the shop housed in an historic building, adorned with antique furniture for product displays, and a tree-shaded back patio reminiscent of a French cafe as “a little French bubble” in the midst of the city.
According to Doering, “Sophie’s passion is finding cheeses you won’t find just anywhere.” As I scanned the cases, I found this to be an accurate assessment of the shop’s offerings. The dry goods—jams, jellies, dried fruit, chocolates, rare vinegars, cookbooks and escargot—are housed in antique furniture collected by the owners. The display cases are neatly organized with soft cheeses as you walk in—Bries and washed-rind, with blues to the bottom—and the cases down the length of the narrow shop have the semi-firm Comtes, Alpine, Manchego and mixed-milk cheeses, and finally the cheddars. Just to be clear, we’re not talking about the grocery-store versions of this “common” style—we’re talking aged, funky, bandage-wrapped cheddars, both foreign and domestic.
“We like cheeses that are so extraordinary—if they’ve been making it for hundreds of years, it’d probably be pretty good, popular generation after generation,” says Doering. His personal favorites are the Alpines, which are the aged and firm counterparts to my own favorites, the washed-rind soft cheeses. I commented on the ever-popular Austrian Alpine “Alpine Blossom,” a gruyere-based style aged with mountain flower buds which impart a floral-spice to the typically leek-flavored paste upon aging. Doering affirmed my love for this cheese and commented on its natural beauty: “It even looks good after the blossoms fade. It starts to look like one of those lithograph ads from the 20s or 30s, it loses some color, but it’s still pretty wonderful.”
Doering seems in awe at the ability of a quality cheese to surprise customers and change their notions about a style. If you stand around in a cheese shop long enough, you know that new customers gravitate toward cheddar because it’s so well-known. But the orange bricks at the local supermarket are not the best representations of the style. Pointing toward the cheddars in the case, Doering says, “These cheddars are fun because original cheddar can have a horseradishy-finish, and since horseradish is popular, a lot of people want to try this.” Alluding to the heat and strong flavor, Doering adds: “I warn them: ‘Do you really like horseradish?’” Slowly customers learn that this cheddar is different. “I love how these cheddars have these nice big ‘flaws’ right on the outside—we call them bonus blues,” says Doering. Like all great cheesemongers, Doering knows about his producers. Fiscalini Cheese, located in Modesto, California, produces a bandage-wrapped cheddar that has earned some widespread acclaim in recent years. “What I like about what he’s doing is that he’s using organic milk and not pasteurizing it, which means his herdsmanship is top quality, and he’s going to be able to make a really good product from there,” says Doering.
I spied a round of soft washed-rind cheese from one of my favorite producers: Andante in Petaluma, California. We get limited runs of her cheese in Southern California, and I had no idea she produced a washed-rind cheese called “Rolling Oats” (I walked out of the shop that day with a round of it!). “The washed rind is always so fun,” says Doering. “It’s a little bit stinky and then you expect that to play with the flavor a little bit and it never does as much as you think it would.”
Doering is also proud of the salumi offerings at his shop. If you want charcuterie with rare/hard-to-find dry-cured meats and pates, and don’t have the time to travel to Portland Oregon, Canada or Indiana, Fromagerie Sophie is where you should go. “We love meats,” says Doering. “There’s a producer in Indianapolis, Indiana—Smoking Goose—they are fabulous. Ingenious recipes and clever and smart, and good quality goes into what they make.” They make a pork cheek and rabbit pate, and an elk and pork salami with blueberries called “Stagberry.” “We just love whatever they do,” says Doering. “Whatever they make, it’s usually worth a try.”
The shop also carries Olympia Provisions meats from Portland, Oregon and Rougie’ from Canada, which specializes in pates. As I researched for this article, I learned there’s a renaissance happening in cured meats. North America is rediscovering European styles and adding its own twists to the palate.
According to Doering, the big sellers are the bries: “Your famous French and fabulous pieces that look like something special. You just tell somebody how good it’s going to be, have them taste it, they roll their eyes into the back of their head and it’s ‘ok, we’ll take one of those,’ and then move on down. You have to ask a few questions.”
Doering reiterated the shop’s philosophy which is rooted in tasting and personal attention to the customer: “You tempt people with whatever they like and then you have to ask a few questions. Sometimes they’ll walk in from Scout Coffee (across the street) with a cup of coffee in their hands so we don’t give them the Epoisses—maybe one of the Goudas instead. We play that game to try and find out what people like so we can kind of guide them through a tour of ‘do you like stinky, do you like goat, sheep, cow, what is it that you really dig?’”
For the adventurous, there are several quarterly clubs you can join. The shop’s anchor is the
Cheese Club. According to Doering, “It’s this fantastic once-a-month club where we treat you (the client) to something you didn’t know you were going to get. That’s the whole thing. You don’t know where we’re going to take you, but we’re going to take you there. We will not gross you out, we will not poison you.” He laughs. Personally? I can’t imagine receiving anything in the shop that wouldn’t make me feel like it’s Christmas morning.
The goal of the club is building cheese knowledge and appreciation for the customer base. “You have to open some people’s minds up to other types of food. Sometimes people will buy one of the three-month memberships to give to somebody at Christmas. They’ll get three cheeses that will treat them to nine or so cheeses over a three-month period that they never even knew existed. We make the packages, we throw a party out here on the shop floor, pour wine from one of the local wineries, give them a 20% discount that night so they can do a little shopping too, but mostly it’s just a party where everybody comes in to have fun and their cheese club bags are ready to go.”
A little bit of appreciation goes a long way. “A lot of times we let the cheese do the talking for us. We’re a very samples-based business. We want to see the smile on your face when you chomp down on something that is good.”
As the first cheese shop in town in recent years, the owners are dedicated to educating customers and building permanent relationships. From what I observed on the day I visited, repeat customers are on a first-name basis. They are a small business that participates with other businesses in the community: Fromagerie Sophie provides cheeses for local events, pairings at local wineries, cheese cakes for weddings (as in stacks of Brie that form a wedding cake—it’s a thing), catering, not to mention charcuterie and ‘gourmet goodies’ clubs with a similar bent as the cheese of the month club.
For me, Fromagerie Sophie will be a regular stop whenever I visit San Luis Obispo. It’s worth a visit. If you’re traveling, bring an ice chest for the cheese you acquire. If you live in the area, welcome to the only place you need to go for the finest cheese experience.
1129 Garden Street
San Luis Obispo, CA
Mon-Sat: 10-6; Sunday: 12-5