Colorado has made many headlines lately for a specific kind of buzz, but the high preferred by Ben Hecht, market director of Denver’s Mercantile Dining & Provision, comes from the state’s mountain cheeses. Located in the newly renovated Union Station, a public market modeled after San Francisco’s Ferry Building, Mercantile offers a carefully curated selection of domestic and imported cheeses, salumi, and other craft foods, and a 75-seat restaurant. Although it’s Hecht’s first time as a cheesemonger, he has considerable experience in specialty and fermented foods.
“I adore cheese,” he says. “Like bread and wine, I’ve always had an affinity for foods that are built upon the traditions and knowledge of the past.”
One of Hecht’s main goals is to highlight the differences between cow’s, sheep’s, and goat’s milk cheeses. “With that in mind, I created for culture a plate that showcased three different milks from three different, high-altitude parts of Colorado (the cheeses are all produced at over 6,500 feet). Each communicates the distinctive qualities of the milk, production method, and terroir of its region.”
1. Cacio Pecora
Tallest cheese at center of plate
Fruition Farms – Larkspur, Colo. (6,667 ft.)
Raw sheep’s milk;Animal rennet
Located in the high-desert foothills 41 miles south of Denver, this 1940s dairy was ramshackle when Alex Seidel and Jimmy Warren purchased it in 2009. After a year-long refurbishment, they began producing cheese, among which was Cacio Pecora: a buttery, tangy pecorino aged between six months and two years. Says Hecht: “It’s a firm, crumbly cheese, with notes of wet hay, grass, and barnyard, with a finish of walnut skin—a slightly bitter nuttiness—salt, and aged meat.”
2. Buena Vista Bleu
Round cheese at right of plate
Jumpin’ Good Goat Dairy – Buena Vista, Colo. (7,965 ft.)
Pasteurized goat’s milk; Vegetable rennet
Cheesemaker and owner Dawn Jump keeps a herd of mixed-breed goats and produces a diverse line of fresh and aged cheeses. Her Buena Vista Bleu, aged in the dairy’s man-made river rock cave, is a cheese that Hecht prefers when young, at approximately two weeks of age: “At that stage, it has a creamy paste and mouthfeel, with bursts of fresh citrus and brininess, yet it also has that tanginess inherent to goat cheese,” he says.
Wedge at left of plate
James Ranch – Durango, Colo. (6,512 ft.)
Raw cow’s milk; Animal rennet
Dan James produces Dutch farmhouse-style cheeses on his family’s multigenerational ranch in the San Juan Mountains, using the rich, butter-colored milk from his 33 Jersey cows. Leyden, modeled after the traditional Dutch cheese studded with whole cumin seeds, is aged for a year and has a “sweet and lemony flavor,” says Hecht. “There’s a delicious balance between brightness, spice, and nuttiness.”
Apis IV – Elevation Beer Co.
This high-octane, moderate-bodied Quadrupel from Poncha Springs, Colo., is made with caramelized honey, which lends it a nutty complexity with notes of spice. Hecht particularly likes it with Leyden. elevationbeerco.com
Cherries in Cherry Syrup – Modern Gingham Preserves
The small-batch preserves and pickles from this Denver company are often made with backyard fruit gleaned (with permission) from neighborhood trees. Hecht loves the “sweetness and slight acidity of these jubilant and juicy cherries.” moderngingham.com