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ON THE PLATE: Cheese, glorious cheese

No one really knows when the making of cheese came about, but the art of coagulating milk protein is certainly many thousands of years older than Vancouver older even than the pyramids of Giza and the expanse of Rome.

No one really knows when the making of cheese came about, but the art of coagulating milk protein is certainly many thousands of years older than Vancouver older even than the pyramids of Giza and the expanse of Rome. It rivals wine in its diversity, trumps bread in its versatility and theres nary a food or drink that it wont happily hitch to for the indulgent sake of deliciousness.

And what of the tremendous variety in texture and taste? It makes me weep for the lactose intolerant, who have my sincerest sympathies. Because cheese is good.

Its shocking to remember when it only ever seemed to come in three guises: white, orange and the bizarre miracle powder that makes Kraft Dinner glow.

Indeed, when I was a kid, there just wasnt much of the stuff floating around. As B.C. grew up to become the gastronomic autarky it is today, greater heterogeneity was slowly introduced through the wet genius of bocconcini and in shards of sheepy sharpish pecorino.

Weve come to love blues and suspend our loathing for all things goat. Over time and with repeated exposure, weve learned to appreciate cheese for what it is: chiefly sustenance, sure, but also a source of wondrous, endless ascertainment.

Here are several local options for browsing, tasting and learning, curated to stir and inspire the cheese-lover in you...

Its hard to leave Benton Brothers, purveyors of all things fromage, without trying something new and that has everything to do with young proprietors Jonah and Andrews infectious enthusiasm for the products they sell. My family are suckers for their squeaky cheese curds, which are perfect for poutine or will suffice as a kids lunch snack in a pinch (from Village Cheese in the Okanagan). Its good to surrender, too, to their summery, chalky St. Marcellin from Provence and dozens of other rarities. They also make terrific sandwiches that are warmed on the outside and kept cool on the inside (try the shaved bison number with curds and horseradish mayo for $7.95). Bonus: theyve just signed a deal that will see them selling their wares inside Granville Island Public Market, beginning this July.

Probably the best option for Vancouverites looking to bone up on their cheese knowledge and exposure is Les Amis, which is a sort of Disneyland to cheese lovers. Together with maestro Joe Chaput, the mother/daughter team of Alice and Allison Spurrell stock over 400 different types at any one time and have something to say about each one. They also shelve their own collection of heat-and-serve meals like blue-laced Mac & Cheese. The East Van location is adjacent to their Au Petit Chavignol wine bar, which sees cheese oozing into many menu options (their fondues are extraordinary).

A legend for Italian food-shopping on Commercial Drive, La Grotta is a fount of parmesans, mascarpones, mozzarellas, provolones, ricottas, pecorinos and a great many other Italian and international cheeses. The staff are knowledgeable, and even though they can sometimes get visibly exasperated with people who cant make up their minds during rushes, I give them top marks for earnestness. Dont leave without indulging in a design-it-yourself panini sandwich. These are what everyone is lining up for, so get creative (and dont you dare budge).

Not yet five years old, this modern icon located in Gastowns Blood Alley has become as nationally famous for its carefully curated wine list, small batch charcuterie options and broad selection of artisanal cheeses as it has for its award-winning concrete and brick design (and the notion that a restaurant doesnt need an expensive kitchen complete with hood vent and deep fryer). A slate of three cheeses of your choice with three condiments (always get the punchy Piccalilli relish) sells for $15. As a restaurant concept, its pure genius, and timed at a moment in Vancouvers culinary history when customers have never been more adventurous.

Lastly, a road trip! Its always illuminating to go straight to the source, and The Farm House dairy in Agassiz offers up a great opportunity for food wonks to learn where and how cheese is made and to meet some Guernsey, Brown Swiss and Holstein cows (and not a few goats). Make a day of it. After you take the tour, nip into their fully stocked retail store and do some shopping and tasting. Castle Blue, aged Gouda and La Florette are just a few of the cheeses available, as well as seasonal specialties that are hard to find in the city. For extra adventurous cheese aficionados, find some time to take the ferry over to Salt Spring Island, which is home to two superb dairies: Moonstruck Organic Cheese, makers of some of Canadas best blue cheeses (MoonstruckCheese.com), and Salt Spring Island Cheese Company, which produces a battery of flavoured goats cheeses, including a surface-ripened lovely called Juliette done in the Camembert style (SaltspringCheese.com).