Looking for a Cuenca restaurant that pairs the best cheese and wine? Check out El Club del Queso

Aug 21, 2023 | 0 comments

Many choose to eat and drink outside at El Club del Queso due to the mild weather in Cuenca.

By Stephen Vargha 

Known as the Dean of American Cookery, James Beard once said, “Good cheese needs good companions.”

Many expats in Cuenca yearn for that companionship.

They found it difficult to get quality cheese in the city.

Until now.

El Club del Queso has a large refrigerator for their 35 varieties of cheese.

“We started small with a place on Calle Rafael Torres Beltrán,” said Maria Augusta Naula. “The people really liked the concept of El Club del Queso.”

Thirty-two-year-old Naula is the co-owner of a popular cheese and wine shop and restaurant. She and her childhood friend Erika Bermeo, 33, met in school 20 years ago.

They grew up on the opposite sides of the city with Naula living in Turi and Bermeo growing up near the Catholic University of Cuenca. The two lost contact after graduation with Naula going to the University of Cuenca to study astronomy and Bermeo going to the University of Azuay for graphic designing.

After graduation, Naula became a sommelier (wine steward) and manager, at El Mercado. During her four years at the El Centro restaurant, she needed a graphic designer for the menus, so she contacted her childhood friend, Bermeo.

The Covid pandemic temporarily shut down the country, including El Mercado. Naula was out of a job.

The majority of customers at El Club del Queso are Ecuadorian.

“I was very bored. So, in June 2020, I decided to sell cheese to Cuenca and cities around Azuay province,” said Naula. “I asked Erika if she wanted to help.”

“We started with 17 boxes of cheese,” said Bermeo. “The plan was to have three types of cheeses. Two would be Ecuadorian and the other one would be an international cheese.”

Their very first box was Bueste Gouda, Chachan Cheddar, Ile de France Camembert, Bread of Tosta (used for a Spanish-style slice of toasted bread, topped with whatever ingredients you have on hand), and homemade marinated eggplant.

“Friends made the original marinated eggplant,” said Bermeo. “Now, our chef makes it in house.”

Along with the cheeses, the two friends were offering sourdough bread, Ecuadorian chocolates, homemade marinated eggplant, and olive oil. The cheeses were rotated with nothing being the same as the previous month.

There are many tables to sit at in the idyllic outdoor setting.

The following June, restaurants in Ecuador were allowed to open with limited capacity. Bermeo and Naula opened a small place in what many call El Vergel. Just east of the ECU 911 building, it could only hold 18 people.

Both felt El Club del Queso was the logical name for their restaurant. “The business started like a subscription, so it was like a club,” said Bermeo. “And we would teach people about cheese, mainly Ecuadorians.”

They brought in Ecuadorian cheese producers to educate their customers. Now, it is affordable cheese samplers.

“We bring in cheeses no one else has,” said Bermeo. “We do not have the cheese that everyone else in Cuenca is selling.”

“We have about 35 different types of cheeses,” Naula added.

Santa Anita Park makes for a nice setting to enjoy some cheese and wine.

The two are proud of their selection of international and domestic cheeses that are spicy, filled with herbs, smoky, have truffles, or with garlic.

Not only do they sell Ile de France Camembert, but they also sell the French company’s Roquefort and Brie.

Italy is represented with Pecorino (a hard, salty cheese made from sheep’s milk), Parmigiano Reggiano, and Grana Padano (a cheese from northern Italy that is similar to Parmigiano Reggiano).

They get their Ibérico, a Manchego-style cheese made from a blend of cow, goat, and sheep’s milk, from Spain.

Quality Ecuadorian cheeses are well-represented at El Club del Queso. Their clients are small producers throughout the country, including La Verde Oveja, in Cotacachi.

“We have various styles of Gouda from Napo province (northeastern Ecuador),” said Naula. “There is an excellent Swiss-style cheese from Quesos de Montaña Yanayacu, in Ibarra province.”

Everything the kitchen prepares at El Club del Queso involves cheese.

“From Quito, we have La Luciana Delicatessen’s Queso Oaxaca Natural,” said Bermeo. “The cheese is like a Mozzarella but comes in a ball of string.”

Maybe what the two friends are most proud of is cheese from El Queso Chueco. It is a family project, with the cheese factory located at Enchanted Galápagos Lodge on Santa Cruz Island.

El Queso Chueco was the winner among Ecuadorian cheeses at the recent National Cheese Fair for their Crescent Moon cheese (Camembert style).

“We have their Parmigiano, Swiss, Vacherin (the essential ingredient of the classic Swiss fondue), and cheddar,” said Bermeo. “Their cheddar is aged six to eight months and is affordably priced.”

“Transportation is very expensive from the Galápagos, so we have to make a big order,” said Naula. “It takes about two months to go across the ocean and down to Cuenca.”

Their most expensive bottle of wine is Territorio Luthier’s Ribera del Duero from Castilla y León, Spain. It has 4.5 out of 5 at Vivino.

June seems to be the big month for the two friends. Two months ago, El Club del Queso moved down the street to its big and comfortable location next to Santa Anita Park.

“In the afternoon, we get a lot of business from parents taking their kids to the neighborhood park,” said Bermeo. “The whole area started to be popular about a year ago.”

As the French very well know, wine goes well with cheese. El Club del Queso totally agrees as it has 350 different wine labels. France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Argentina, Chile, and the United States (California) are all present at El Club del Queso.

Their most expensive bottle of wine is a red wine made from Tempranillo and Grenache. Territorio Luthier’s Ribera del Duero from Castilla y León, Spain is $520. Many bottles of wine at El Club del Queso start at $25.

You can find some high-quality cheese from La Verde Oveja, including its popular Andean Ash sheep’s milk cheese.

If you feel overwhelmed, Naula can help. In October, she placed third in the national sommelier competition in Quito.

“Day-one was a written exam, blind tasting of wines, describing them, giving the grape varieties, and say what appellation they were from,” said Naula. “We had to open a sparkling wine, present it to the judges and talk about it. Then, we had to taste cheeses and pair them with wines.”

Naula made the finals, which were the top-three entrants. There were more blind wine tastings and judges asking questions. There was even a blind taste with spirits.

Her expertise helps the customers, which are mainly Ecuadorians. “Cuencanos do not drink a lot of wine. They think it is expensive or only for special times,” said Naula. “It is our job to change their minds and for them to understand how wonderful wines are.”

El Queso Chueco is from Santa Cruz Island, in the Galápagos. Its cheddar is aged six to eight months.

Of course, their restaurant’s menu is dairy-centric. “Our specialty is cheese, so we make all sorts of foods with cheese,” said Naula.

“The ‘Vegetarian’ is our most popular item,” said Bermeo. “It is an open sandwich on country bread with pesto, blue cheese cream, French spinach, and candied tomatoes.”

Another favorite is their tenderloin sandwich, which is thinly sliced tenderloin on sourdough bread with caramelized onions, black garlic butter, mushrooms, and gouda cheese. All of their soups are very popular, too.

The two young friends feel they have found a niche with their cheeses and restaurant. They think that the idyllic setting next to the shaded park coupled with their high-quality cheeses will make it a popular place for Cuencanos and expats alike.

El Club del Queso has one of the biggest wine selections at a restaurant in Cuenca with 350 vineyards represented.

_______________________

El Club del Queso, Rafael Torres Beltrán 4/08 y Víctor León Vivar (next to Santa Anita Park), Cuenca, 099-995-1120 (Reservations are recommended via WhatsApp). Hours are Monday-Wednesday, 12 Noon to 10 p.m., and Thursday-Saturday, 12 Noon to 11 p.m.  

Photos by Stephen Vargha 

Stephen Vargha’s book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats. His blog, “Becoming Cuenca,” supplements his book with the latest information and photos by him.

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