Cheese. It can make or break a party. Bring the stinky stuff and others may judge you in ways you never dreamed possible. Bring the Drunken Goat again and the snobs like myself will probably be all, "Oh, Drunken Goat again." Actually, most people will probably applaud you, but let’s talk about surpassing expectations for a moment. Let's talk about going local. Let's talk about being blessed to have an abundance of awesome cheeses that are made in Texas. Let's talk about going to Houston Dairymaids.
Really? How would you know about cheese, you might be asking. Well, after the better half of a decade that I spent blending salad dressings at a low country restaurant and baking gourmet cookies in a warehouse in Wilmington, North Carolina, I moved to New Orleans and wrangled a job at St. James Cheese Co. for four or so years. It's a cheese shop that pretty much revolutionized the fromage game in New Orleans post-Katrina. Today there's dozens of great restaurants with incredible cheese programs in the Crescent City.
In Houston, the person to thank for an abundance of incredible cheese boards around town — The Pass & Provisions and 13 Celsius, to name two stunners — would be ACS-certified cheese professional and owner of Houston Dairymaids, Lindsey Schechter.
Schechter herself got into the cheese business after working in restaurants for a solid decade, and she has an astute understanding of the troubles small dairies and cheesemakers have with distribution. So she seeks out great, unknown cheesemakers herself, and sources their fine products to restaurants on her own. She started as a wholesaler, but tells the Houston Press it was an easy progression into opening the retail side of her Heights-based shop in 2012.
Home to more than 150 cheeses, Houston Dairymaids is an exceptional spot for both the uninitiated and the well-versed cheese lover. Here you’ll find all the hits, from Stilton to Ossau-Iraty to America’s fashionable little darlings, Green Hill and Harbison. But even if you’re not able to just walk in and talk about what you want or desire, the staff has you covered.
The first time I walked in, I wanted to talk about something I didn't know very much about at all. Texas cheeses.
“Texas dairies don’t ship out of state that much,” Shechter informed me. I'd only ever seen Dallas-based Mozzarella Co. in New Orleans and elsewhere. For this reason alone, stepping into Dairymaids is a must for cheese nerds.
It doesn’t actually operate like most cheese shops. There aren’t cases of cheese on display. Here, the cheeses are kept in the walk-in (a few softies and pre-cut best-sellers inhabit a reach-in for easy access out front), and folks can mosey up to a tasting counter for a sample of six different cheeses that are rotated weekly. Still, the knowledge, service and goods are nothing but top-notch.
Here now are the Texas cheeses you should be eating at your next party or snack time. Make sure also to stock up on Potter's Crackers, local baguette, cookies and macarons, and Texas-made preserves and honey while here too, and you can even take home a bottle of wine that the staff can recommend for a perfect pairing with your cheese.
Pure Luck's June Joy, Chevres and Feta
Pure Luck Dairy, which is home to 100 Nubian goats and one killer cheesemaker, Amelia Sweethardt, is renowned for its feta, soft ripened goat's milk cheeses and array of fresh chevres, including June’s Joy, which is blended with honey, smoked black pepper and thyme, imparting a sweet, herbaceous flavor that's great for a breakfast cheese. It's one of Dairymaid's top sellers. However, the chevre with cracked black pepper is a best bet for those looking to add some simple pep to their typical cheese and crackers or a beet salad.
Latte Da's Caerphilly, Cotswold, and Pepper Jack
A cheese I was taken with in an odd way: Latte Da’s Caerphilly. Latte Da is a small goat dairy outside of Dallas, primarily known for its aged cheeses. Caerphilly is a Welsh cow’s milk cheese, with a cool history (like Melrose Place residents, all good cheese has a juicy backstory).
I like to call Caerphilly the rags-to-riches cheese, because it was primarily eaten by Welsh coal miners in its heyday (pre-20th century) before falling off the radar, with production moving mostly to England, that is, until a modern artisan dairy resurrected it in the early aughts, earning numerous awards and making it again a crown jewel of Caerphilly, Wales. It’s a crumbly cheese that’s salty and a little tart, pairing well with sweet, plump preserves.
Here, the goat’s milk of Latte Da’s version does offer a substantial play on that tanginess, but the cheese itself is firmer and less crumbly than its namesake, though cheesemaker Anne Jones does follow a traditional Caerphilly recipe. Still, it's sure to be a crowd-pleaser and it's truly unique. Also, the name sounds vaguely similar to carefully, which is just the sort of annoying conversation starter every cocktail party is in desperate need of.
Another great cheese by Latte Da is its goat's milk variation on English cow's milk cheese, Cotswold, which, no kidding, tastes like a sour cream and onion chip, making this an excellent choice for any sports-watching party you might be having where bros and kids are in tow.
Jones also makes a spicy goat Pepper Jack, which is another unusual and quite delicious option for those in search of a little heat. I didn't get a chance to melt any, but I have a sneaking suspicion it would make an incredible grilled cheese.
The goat’s milk beauty Hoja Santa is made by longtime Dallas-based cheesemaker Paula Lambert, who boasts an impressive roster of fresh cheeses with her Mozzarella Company. This spreadable beauty comes wrapped in Hoja Santa leaves, from a plant native to Texas and Mexico, thus imparting a mild lemony flavor to the toast-friendly cheese that begs for a sweet jam. It’s a great local take on a traditional French Banon-style cheese, which is usually wrapped in chestnut leaves.
Baby Caprino, made by CKC Farms in Blanco, is a soft-ripened goat's milk cheese with a bloomy rind ripened with ash, which means this mildly tangy wonder will start to run wild (i.e., ooze with deliciousness) when it’s really ripe. Its young cheesemaker, Chrissy Omo, who began making cheese in her teens, created Baby Caprino after a particular version she tried in Italy, Schechter says.
Redneck Cheddar, out of Dublin, Texas-based Veldhuizen Family Farm, is a subtly sweet and malty, raw cow's milk cheese, with the addition of Shiner Bohemian Black. It's a great snack cheese on its own, but this baby was meant to be melted over your next burger.
Tomme de Hood
This cow’s milk cheese from Lapin-based Eagle Mountain Farmhouse Cheese Co. is mushroomy and mildly tangy and owes its style to the French. Tommes are traditionally named for where they come from, such as the cave-aged stalwart Tomme de Savoie. In this case, the cheese hails from Hood County, where cheesemaker Dave Eagle sources milk from Sand Creek Farm's Swiss Brown cows. This is a great cheese to eat with a little slather of Native Nectar's Guajillo honey on it, which you can buy at Dairymaids as well, no cracker necessary.
2201 Airline, 713-880-4100, houstondairymaids.com
Open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (closed Sunday and Monday)