Cheese mavens Allison (left) and Alice Spurrell have almost single handedly ignited Vancouver's cheese culture, Tim Pawsey photo

A sure sign that Christmas and the holidays are right around the corner is the seasonal deluge of wine tastings, including not a few Port and Sherry offerings.

The other night we went to one with a difference, put on by Vancouver’s Les Amis du Fromage.

Full disclosure: I’m a longtime friend and customer of Les Amis, having been among the early crowd that used to—had to—line up outside their door, way back when they started out. Their first store (which they opened as a sideline to their Menu Setters catering company) was not much bigger than a glorified closet, in a mini-mall on the western extremities of Vancouver’s West Side.

People tend to have forgotten that, before Alice Spurrell (who’s a certified Master of Cheese or ‘Maitre Fromager’) started giving seminars to Vancouver’s hospitality industry, there was hardly a cheese tray to be found in this town. And, as far as local cheese producers went, well, you could count them on one hand.*

Stilton wheels the size of a small lawn roller, Tim Pawsey photo

The centrepiece of this tasting, held in the spacious East Hastings store, was a trio of massive 100 lb. (45.3 kg.) wheels of Long Clawson Blue Stiltons, part of a limited run to celebrate the Melton Mowbray, UK, company’s centenary.

Les Amis never does anything by half measures and this event was no exception.

‘Alice ‘n Allison’ (and Allison’s partner Joe) teamed up with Taylor Fladgate / Fonseca, who brought a quartet of vintage Ports to try with the cheeses, not to mention a steady stream of delicious bites from Les Amis’ kitchen, cooked by chef Jenny Shearmen from Au Petit Chavignol, next door. Also on hand was Jorge Ramos, Export Director of The Fladgate Partnership.

Perfectly aged Long Clawson Stilton, served with a 1787 Sterling silver scoop, Tim Pawsey photo

Some standouts included: a cauliflower and Stilton soup, Alison’s Stilton and walnut biscuits (to which we’ve long been addicted…), Stilton cheese cake with redcurrant jelly, leek and Stilton tarts, and more. (Did we mention the Stilton?)

Tawny & Marmalade, please!

 

The best Port match of the night turned out to be Alice’s Seville Orange and Ginger marmalade on a subtle Stilton tea biscuit, with the extraordinary, intense, gently spicy and orange toned Taylor Fladgate 20 year Old Tawny (BCLS $68.99). A real treat … and certainly the highlight of the evening.

The less expensive Taylor Fladgate 10 Year Old Tawny (BCLS $39.99) also has lots of personality, with some fig notes and nutty tones. Either one—with the marmalade, of course—would make for a superb breakfast wine, although it might be even more proper later in the day….

Truly unique: certified organic Port, Tim Pawsey photo

For a more classic pairing, the plummy cassis toned Fonseca Guimaraens 2005 Vintage Port (Private stores around $70) with the Stilton was excellent. Perhaps the most unusual wine of the evening, Fonseca Terra Prima Organic Reserve Port is a rarity, and the first of its kind: The organic wine is fortified with spirit made from organically grown grapes (which isn’t usually the case) and therefore is fully certified organic. Very berried, lots of black fruit, with plum and cherry notes, easy tannins and quite round on the palate. A nice present for anyone who’s a serious organic dévotée. BCLS $31.99. And no problem pairing it with Stilton and walnuts.

Here’s the full list of Les Amis impressive credentials (from their web site): Alice Spurrell, Allison Spurrell and Joe Chaput are members of France’s prestigious Guilde des Fromagers Confrerie de Saint-Uguzon.  Alice and Allison are also members of the Confrérie des Chevaliers des Fromages de France, and the American Cheese Society (ACS).  Allison has been a judge for the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix and the ACS and she has recently received a certificate in Cheese Making Technology from the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph.

Two more well kept secrets about Les Amis:

• Allison’s frozen, home cooked ‘heat ‘n serve’ meals are a healthy life saver.

• Alice’s fondue blends are the best around. And if you’ve lost or sold those five fondue pots you were given for your wedding, they have a fancy Swiss loaner (if it’s available) free of charge.

BTW … If you haven’t yet made it to Au Petit Chavignol, here’s our review that ran in the Vancouver Courier shortly after it opened …

The Hired Belly is a firm believer in the notion of the restaurant as agent of social change—in the same way he’s convinced the last time anyone opened a restaurant around Hastings and Heatley was likely some time in the 80s.

Co-owner Joe Chaput Au Petit Chavignol, Tim Pawsey photo

 Au Petit Chavignol (845 East Hastings St., 604-255-4218, open for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch) is the brainchild of Les Amis de Fromage co-owners Allison Spurrell and her partner Joe Chaput, who for some time have dreamed of bringing a store to their neighbourhood.

Last week, having jumped the usual hurdles of health checks and licensing (and the more unusual obstacle of a full police check), the pair threw open the doors to their capacious new emporium and adjoining wine bar.

It’s a gem—the proverbial diamond in the rough. Or, maybe, make that the truffle in the woodpile.

The best time to visit? Late afternoon, when there’s still time to shop from the extensive array of cheeses, all in perfect condition, from France, Italy, Ireland and elsewhere—from almost anywhere in fact that has cheese worth tasting, including B.C.

Then, pop your purchase in the trunk (plenty of free street parking) in and head on in for the town’s ultimate cheese tasting, and more.

That these people are serious not only about their cheese but also about charcuterie is readily apparent.  In fact, first timers who might find the menu daunting should opt for the grand tasting platter, which includes an impressive cross-section of rillettes or terrine, salami and prosciutto, as well—of course—some extraordinary cheeses. And with a glass of good Riesling in hand, the world is a perfect place! Oh, did we mention that Chaput’s other passion is Riesling? (In fact, somehow we weren’t surprised to find also checking things out was Fuel’s Robert Belcham, another prime time purveyor of pork and Riesling!).

Divided into small tastes by origin of sheep, cow and goat cheese, along with a page of inventive wine paired sets, the menu adds up to a prolific choice. And that’s before we get into raclette and fondue, either of which (served with all the trimmings) make for a perfect, warming bite.

The room is bathed in a sexy red glow with a comfy mix of banquettes and tables. With easy tunes on the sound system (at a respectable volume), and the whiff of molten cheese in the air, this place could easily be addictive. (In fact, HB’s Saturday afternoon cheese expedition may never be the same again …)

Go late and you’ll find that Vancouver’s chefs are already clued in—a sure sign that Au Petit Chavignol is fast becoming the town’s hottest tasting ticket. 

Think Salt (Tasting Room) on steroids, or at least in a more fancy shaker.