Cheesy trivia: Festival tempts the palate

Cheese is not just for crackers anymore. As the 2nd Annual Artisan Cheese and Wine Festival will prove on Saturday September 18 (See Calendar, page 43), cheese is playing a starring role in our local version of Alice Waters' "delicious revolution."

Like that food pioneer and activist, whose revolutionary all-organic, all-local California restaurant, Chez Panisse, started a wave of source-conscious trends in the '70s, Slow Food Old Dominion and its committed supporters are working to shrink the gap between the goat and the goat cheese eater.

Faithful to the educational goals of this international movement, Slow Food O.D. preaches that, rather than simply tossing cartons, boxes, and bags blindly into a supermarket shopping cart, we should first consider the source.

"There is such a disconnect between us and our food nowadays," says chèvre-maker-chef and Slow Food leader Gail Hobbs-Page. "We believe people benefit from knowing where their food is coming from."

The former chef of Hamiltons' and the Mark Addy Inn, Hobbs-Page has begun channeling her passion for goats and delicious organic foods into the new cheese-making operation at the Maple Hill Farm in Scottsville. Hobbs-Page may be perfect for the part. She has actually been herding and milking goats for years on a small experimental scale at her home just eight miles from Maple Hill. "This opportunity was the perfect way to combine my love of animals with making a living," she says.

Of course, cheese making is not the easiest way to make a buck, especially when you go the controversial grass-fed route like she's doing at the Dave Matthews-owned farmstead. Grass-feeding is better for the animals (it "lets goats be goats") and results in a tastier, organic product, but it is also extremely time and resource-consuming. Which is why most cheese makers, even many of the farmstead ones, opt for grain-feeding and limited roaming.

Hobbs-Page and her team are busy with genetics these days, figuring out which combination of the three goat breeds-­ Alpine, La Mancha, Nubian– will produce milk with optimum butter fat and strong flavor. Suddenly a cheese that Steve Jenkins, author of The Cheese Primer, calls the "easiest recipe in the entire Pantheon of cheese making" seems quite complex indeed.

Jenkins will be sharing his animated opinions about cheese with nibblers and wine sippers at Saturday's cheese festival at Veritas Vineyards from 11am-4pm. A veritable fromage guru who's traveled the world for the past 25 years in search of the choicest curds, Jenkins started the cheese counter at Dean and Deluca and his book must be "the cheese bible" since Hobbs-Page keeps it on her bedside table.

Complementing the Festival's eight cheese makers and their wares will be local wine merchant Robert Harllee, who will talk about pairing wines and cheeses, and Hobbs-Page herself, whose cooking demo will prove that cheese can enrich food

Dieters who've been avoiding cheese for fear of its fat content will be happy to know that new research conducted by Dr. Robert P. Heaney of Creighton University offers convincing proof that calcium products like cheese, milk and yogurt, actually help lose weight. Time to feast on fromage!

Speaking of our local chapel of cheese, Feast! is currently undergoing expansions of a promising sort. Kate Collier, who owns this specialty shop in the Main Street Market with husband Eric Gertner, says they plan to inaugurate their next-door addition in October of 2005.

Offerings will include an expanded lunch and appetizer menu (cheese and charcuterie boards, savory tarts, salads), a new produce section, a new sandwich bar, a special room for aging cheeses and meats, expanded galleria seating, and a new wine bar.

Steve Jenkins must be proud. Jenkins, who is attending the Slow Food event thanks to Collier's invitation, has actually been her mentor since she first said "cheese."

Kate Collier of Feast! welcomes cheese guru Steve Jenkins,