photos by John Rockwell

If you’ve ever walked into a cheesemonger’s shop, the experience can be overwhelming and intimidating. A good shop has a variety of styles many people have never heard of or seen, from all over the world, comprised of different sizes, colors, milk types and firmness. With the mystique of high culture that surrounds cheese, one might be hesitant to visit such a place for fear of committing a cheese faux pas—for example, asking for a sharp soft cheese. But every now and then you find a place that doesn’t mind breaking some of those rules.

“I don’t adhere to a lot of ‘dos and don’ts,’” says Marnie Clarke, co-owner of Cheese Cave in downtown Claremont, California. “Really the most important part of going to a cheese shop and buying cheese is eating cheese. It should be something that is enjoyable and tastes good and makes you happy.” That may seem like a simple idea, but it can be a profound comfort for the curious who may not know the difference between a Crottin de Chavignol and a Comté, or a Reblochon and a Robiola. The cheesemonger is there to help you figure out what you like and help you find something that fits your palate.

Although Marnie Clarke—with her sister and business partner Lydia—grew up in La Verne, Cheese Cave’s seventh year at 325 Yale makes sense. “Claremont was always the place that we went to if we were going out to dinner with our family or if we were back in town,” says Clarke. In the immediate downtown area, you’ll find eclectic shops like the Folk Music Center—now owned by musician Ben Harper, whose family raised him in the instrument store—and the famous Rhino Records. Downtown is within walking distance of the Claremont Colleges. It’s a perfect place for a family business. It’s a perfect place for artisan cheese.

“Initially we thought ‘only cheese’ but as we were getting serious, we decided we needed to do some meats,” says Clarke. “We couldn’t find a good salumi anywhere with a natural casing, and all these ingredients we wanted to cook with we couldn’t find. When we found this space, it was so much bigger than what we originally thought we’d have.” As a result, the “cheese-only” concept expanded into charcuterie as well—along with some dry goods, books, cheese presentation utensils, and a small collection of beer and wine. In December of 2013, the sisters expanded again by adding a cheese shop in the ultra-hip Grand Central Market in the historic district of downtown Los Angeles, aptly named DTLA Cheese. Lydia Clarke runs that shop with business partner and chef Reed Herrick.

Marnie Clarke is more than a shop owner—she is an evangelist of cheese knowledge and somewhat of a rock star in the cheese world. She sits on the board of the California Artisan Cheese Guild, an organization whose website says its mission is to “celebrate the quality and diversity of artisan cheeses produced in California through partnerships, outreach and education.” At a recent visit to Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes, 440 miles away from Claremont, I found out that the cheesemonger helping me behind that counter, Cristy Caye, knew Marnie Clarke. Caye had been adjudicated by Clarke in the Cheesemonger Invitational Competition last year yes, such competitions exist.

As I get ready to leave the shop, I’m reminded of the communal atmosphere in Claremont’s downtown. A member of Ophelia’s Jump, the local theater company, comes in to buy some cheese and bread, and offers Clarke tickets for one of the two Shakespeare shows ‘in rep’ this summer. Cheese Cave has a special deal where you can phone in a box dinner to pick up before heading over to the Greek Theater at Pomona College. Over the course of our interview, she’s been on a first-name basis with many of the customers who visit the store.

Cheese Cave is set to expand again, not to add a restaurant or build a larger cheese counter, but to build an educational classroom in the adjacent suite where cheese and beverage classes can be held regularly. It’s a fitting and important piece for a business that already does so much to teach its customers.

Cheese Cave
325 Yale
Claremont, CA 91711

DTLA Cheese
317 S. Broadway Grand Central Market
Los Angeles, CA 90013

In part II we’ll get Clarke’s take on ways to eliminate the intimidation factor and common misconceptions customers might have when approaching the choices at the cheese counter.