Sheri LaVigne fell in love with Paris, with cheese. She continued her courtship with cheese while living near the Bedford Cheese Shop in New York. After moving out west, LaVigne longed for a neighborhood cheese shop like Bedford. In the two years since she opened Calf and Kid Artisan Cheese Shop, LaVigne warmed her way into the hearts of locals faster than the stinkiest Parisian cheese. She shares her cheese and know-how at Capitol Hill's Melrose Market, where she and her friendly neighbors will throw a market street fest on Sunday, August 26.
Photo by Charity Lynne
If we go way back to the beginning, I actually grew up on a farm outside of Albuquerque, [New Mexico], and we had goats. I milked goats and made goat cheese with my mom. That instilled a love of homemade things for me.
In my early twenties, I was living in New York and went to France for the first time—I had some friends living out there—and that was the first time I really had cheese that was so stinky I didn't want to put it anywhere near my mouth. The first time I did that—having that smell like feet and tasting amazing, having that taste not at all what it smelled like—that just kind of opened my eyes. So I started trying different cheeses anywhere that I could.
When the Bedford Cheese shop opened up in Brooklyn, [it] was right across the street from where I was living. I modeled myself after them. They were a teeny-tiny space and their big thing was that you could sample everything before you bought it. The cheesemongers knew everything about it and you get a story with everything you tasted. The first time they started giving me samples and telling me the stories of how they were made, it just clicked. I had no idea that this end product was this whole piece of cultural history. I started buying books about cheese and learning as much as I could, and every time I learned more, I felt like I would just learn how much more there is to learn. I feel like I could keep doing this for the rest of my life and there will always be new stuff to find out.
How closely do you work with your cheesemakers?
For local cheesemakers, I work really closely with all of them. Most of them, I work directly with, which means that I physically see them and they deliver to me. I love to go out and visit their farms. I'm still a city girl, but I love to go out there and cuddle goats, and I get to dip my toe into that world a little bit.
Cheesemaking is a total labor of love. It takes so much work and you're never going to get rich off of it. So the people who decide that this is what they want to do as a career are of a really special ilk. The people that I've met that are like that are really just warm, open, loving people. I really admire all of them.
Now that you've been here for two years, how has your relationship with your fellow Melrose Market vendors grown and what are your interactions with them like?
We were all amicable from the start. We all want to see each other succeed. The thing that is wonderful about this market is that we all kind of bounce customers off each other because we're all sort of related. I have a wine shop next to my cheese shop and we'll refer people back and forth all the time.
I really love it because from a small business standpoint, being a standalone is pretty frightening. You either make it or you don't. If I'm having a slow day but the butcher (Rain Shadow Meats) is doing well, I'm going to get a trickle down from their business so there's kind of a safety net there. From when we first opened, we all know each other very well now, and we help each other out all the time. For example, I have a big wheel of cheddar sitting in the walk-in at Sitka and Spruce because I don't have room for it. I'll go break into that tomorrow and I'll give them some cheese rinds.
We're going to do a big street party on [August] 26th [from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Melrose Avenue]. We wanted to do it last summer but we weren't able to because we just had such a shitty summer. We were worried about weather. There's going to be a table outside with a beer garden and I'm going to have local cheese bites.
Last year, there was some press about listeria in our local cheeses. How do you address these issues with customers?
It's definitely calmed down a little bit now. It was a hot button issue in late 2010, early 2011. For the most part, when we did have a couple of local cheesemakers being shut down, people were just concerned, wishing they could reach out somehow and help our local cheesemakers because they already knew them and love them. So instead of having the fear reaction, it was a lot more of just concern and sadness, which was exactly how I felt. It was really awesome seeing the public react in that way.
Whenever I have someone who is pregnant and coming in asking, "I can't have raw milk cheese, what do you have?" we always have some options to go around that. But I don't get very much people coming in and worried about it. I think that just says a lot about Seattle; we're all big food people. Personally, I think there is as much risk in eating raw milk cheese as eating spinach you buy from the store.
When the closures were happening, were you able to reach out to the affected cheesemakers in a certain way?
There were two cheesemakers in Washington that had to shut down their operations. I talked to them and offered my support. I actually spoke with several other professionals in my field who have been around longer than I had and was like, "Could we start a petition and could we do anything?" The consensus was that at that point, it had gone to a place where we could not really treat it.
What did happen as a bit of a side effect of that was in June, the statewide regulations of handling certain refrigerated products was up for review and they were proposing a regulation of cheese cutting and handling—which would limit anything that is cut into to be sold in seven days—which would be horrible. It was only for certain cheeses like high moisture cheeses. [That] would put me out of business.
The thing that was great though was that all of us locally who were working for the industry, including some from Portland—it was everybody from retailers to distributors to food buyers from large companies—we all went down to the public hearings and we voiced our opinions on it. We let them know that we're here and we're going to fight this, and they ended up dropping the whole entire thing. We thought that we were lucky, if we would be able to negotiate it to something else, but they actually dropped the whole thing. We felt very powerful. We felt like it was possible to make the difference.
There are many people who have personal preferences with cheese. Do you try and push them beyond their comfort level?
We definitely feel people out. Usually people are pretty forward with where they're at. I've had somebody come in who was like, "I like Tillamook Cheddar and I haven't really had anything beyond that." So we'd be able to offer them this amazing cheddar from Vermont, which was similar to Tillamook but has a lot more flavor and is a little more bold.
We kind of base it off of, "So what have you liked in the past?" I would say that 99 percent of the times, people are very happy. Every now and then, there is just someone where we just haven't found anything that they like, and that's when I feel like I haven't done my job. It's bound to happen. I have the best job ever because I make people happy all day.
We've also done cheese making classes and they were really popular. We've put that on hiatus for the summer because it's too hot and everyone is doing stuff. So we're going to start those back up in September and everyone can check the Facebook page for more information.
If you were stuck on a desert island, which three cheeses would you want to have with you?
Absolutely Montgomery Cheddar from Neal's Yard Dairy. That was a groundbreaking cheese for me because the first time I tasted it which was about 13 years ago, that was one of the cheddars that was at the Bedford Cheese Shop. They were like, "We just got this wheel in and you have to taste it; it's just awesome." I never knew that cheddar could be this. It's this absolutely beautiful cheddar from Neal's Yard Dairy from Somerset and it's an experience. It's amazing stuff.
The other thing I would say is real raw milk Reblochon. That's a real classic French wash rind. We can get a pasteurized version here because it's aged less than 60 days, but we have a raw milk version here that is one of the most unbelievable things I've ever eaten. That was actually one of the first stinky cheeses I had in France when I was in my early 20s, and I had it again a little bit ago. A friend of mine smuggled it back for me when he went on a trip to Paris. I wondered after so many years—I've tasted so many different cheeses and my palate is so different now—whether it would still be the same and it was exactly the same. It just made me weak in the knees, just made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
For a third, I'd probably say, Caveman Blue from Rogue Creamery. They're down in Oregon. It's a raw cow's milk blue and it's just one of the most complex cow's milk blues I've ever had. It's salty, and it's got hints of bacon, lemon, and hazelnut. It's very blue and super creamy, and it smells like a sweat sock. It's super delicious.