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EATS: FINDING COMFORT IN CHEESE

It’s like my Weekender editor says: The cold months are just a great time to kick back  and enjoy a nice wheel of cheese. That’s right. There’s nothing better than packing on the pounds with one of the all-time kings of fatty foods. I’m serious. I myself am no paragon of health. I’m a guy who eats cheese with the best of ’em.

But I’ll be honest with you. I’m not all that knowledgeable about cheese. Not like, say, my dad used to be. But now that I’m older, I’m willing to broaden my cheese horizons. So it seemed like a natural progression for me to check out a reader-recommended cheese place, in Culpeper, which is a great spot for visiting gourmet shops and restaurants, not to mention antiquing.

In fact, before visiting Culpeper Cheese Company, my wife and I stopped into one of those antiques shops, where we found for sale the same Stangl Pottery “Orchard Song” dinnerware pattern my folks used for serving cheese—and everything else—for so many years. Those bold olive-green and burnt-umber brushstrokes on a white surround brought memories of food and family rushing back.

That “Orchard Song” stayed on my mind, conjuring thoughts of my dad and the weekly forays he made to the local wine-and-cheese shop. He’d bring home a different cheese each time for the family to sample—each one smellier than the last. He loved his Roquefort and Gorgonzola. I wasn’t a rebellious kid, but there was no way I was going to partake of any of those blue cheeses with him! As a result, I ended up with a preference for the mildest of cheeses: colby, Muenster, Monterey Jack. Even brie or havarti was stretching the limits for me.

Culpeper Cheese features more than 95 varieties of cheese—along with 210 craft beers and ciders, and 390 wines—in its clean, spacious, well-lit and -organized quarters. Plus they’ve got a WineStation for sampling, as well as beer on tap with growlers available for handy transport. Prepared food is more of a sideline at this point, but it’s a nice service for those shopping till they drop.

These guys really know their cheeses, as each of the featured sandwiches perfectly pairs a different cheese and meat, and is accessorized with a pickle spear and Virginia’s own Route 11 potato chips. My wife got the “Sumptuous Spain”—sliced chorizo, manchego cheese and roasted red peppers with olive tapenade on panini bread. I went with the “Fall Classic” panini with  local ham, Comté cheese (think Gruyère), apple butter and sweet pickles. We also shared a cup of cheesy, peppery “Baja Chicken Enchilada” soup that took the chill out of the autumn air.

We sipped our gourmet sodas at a beer garden-style bench and table that afforded us a nice view of such tempting cooking supplies as cheese boards, slicers and fondue sets but put us directly in the path of other patrons. The nearby wine room, with its tables and chairs, looked more commodious. Next time, we’ll know to instead rub elbows with the chardonnay set.

The store’s staff was extremely knowledgeable, attentive and helpful. My wife picked Zach’s brain on the subject of stout beer, while I talked about goat cheese with Ruth, who conferred with shop owner Jeffery Mitchell to find just the right chèvre for my needs.

It’s no wonder the store has won awards for being the best gourmet shop and best wine shop in Culpeper. If that doesn’t sound  impressive, consider this: Culpeper Cheese is located in a town where food shops pop up like wild mushrooms.

What: Culpeper Cheese Company

Address: 129 East Davis St., Culpeper

Info: culpepercheese.com

Hours:  Tuesday–Thursday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; closed Mondays

Prices: Cheese boards (up to six selections): $6–$28; Fondue for two: $22; Soup/salad: $5.95–$6.95; Panini sandwiches: $7.95–$8.95

The Scoop: Top-rated Culpeper gourmet shop offers catering, classes, wine tastings, expert service, plus great dine-in soup and sandwiches and more.

Kurt Rabin: 540/374-5000 | krabin@freelancestar.com

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