There are few foods in this world as sublime as a fine cheese. Cheese is found in nearly every corner of our culinary infrastructure—appetizers, hors d’oeuvre, entrees, even desserts—you find it enriching nearly every corner of the menu. On the surface, cheese may appear to be rather simple, commonplace, or ordinary—but in truth, there are not many foods with a richer origin, history, and culture as cheese. Varieties are almost innumerable and nearly every country in the world boasts a local, indigenous cheese, often entirely distinct from any other in existence.
In Central Arkansas, cheese lovers have a few options when hoping to explore the thrilling world of artisanal cheese. But perhaps no one is doing more to promote the name of cheese than the venerable Boulevard Bread, and one woman, in particular, is more well-versed in the caseus vernacular than any person on staff. Blair Graves is a woman who’s dedicated herself to the study of cheese, pouring countless hours and logging many miles in efforts to become an authority on the subject. As the leading force behind Boulevard’s extensive cheese case and importing efforts, I’ve had the privilege to get to know Graves a little better, and I’ve been able to pick her brain a bit on this, her favorite subject of discussion. And I’ve quickly realized that I have a lot more to learn about cheese.
Digging back to the bright, youthful age of 11, Graves recalls the exact moment that she fell in love with cheese. On a road trip to North Carolina, she and her family were visiting the home of American writer/poet, Carl Sandburg. Sandburg’s wife happened to raise dairy goats. Graves relates: “I remember petting the goats and my mother bought some of their cheese. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world that I was eating cheese from the goats that I’d just petted and loved the cheese. This was the beginning of my food geekdom.”
When Graves was 17, she spent 6 weeks in France, something far superior to Disneyland for the budding turophile. “I read everything I could get my hands on about French food before we left (including a book about French cheeses). When we got there, I wanted to try everything. My mother indulged my every food whim at the markets, in restaurants, and cheese shops.”
She recalls the coming to Little Rock of what was once Scott McGehee’s original neighborhood darling, Boulevard Bread. Upon hearing what sort of place McGehee had in store for Little Rock, Graves could barely contain her excitement. “I was actually Boulevard’s first customer. I went in thinking that it was open (it wasn’t) to buy some pancetta. Scott ended up just giving it to me because there was not yet a cash register. I was employed there about three weeks later.” After starting at Boulevard, Graves immersed herself in the cheese faction of the business, reading voraciously about its many facets and eating as much as she pleased, always in search of new, enlightening experiences.
Graves’ love of cheese took her around the world in hopes of broadening her knowledge, allowing her palate to mature—all of which helped shape her into one of the most knowledgeable cheesemongers I’ve come across in recent years. She worked in an Italian specialty stores in San Francisco, visiting dairies, cheese shops, and attending cheese classes, even holding weekly cheese and wine tastings. Her path paved in cheese brought her back to France, of course, as well as Corsica, Italy, Spain, and Greece— cherished times in which Graves was “wine and cheese degusting all over.” She encountered some exquisite cheeses, some of which most in America have never seen, heard, or tasted of. She grew a particular fondness for the “gorgeous, gooey, smelly, unpasteurized” French types that would likely leave some Americans running to the window for a whiff of fresh air long before a morsel ever reached their mouths.