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Bueno Queso
Robert Aguilera (left), Julie Cappellano, and Derek Whitaker run the Bueno Queso tastings. (Dominic Chavez / Globe staff)
PAIRINGS IN THE CLASSROOM

Bueno Queso matches cheeses, wine, and beer with those who love them

CAMBRIDGE - Who knew there was a skylight in the ceiling of Middlesex Lounge? During club hours, when DJs spin electronica, soul, and obscure French pop gems from the '60s, it's too dark outside to tell. But today the sun is streaming in through that skylight, tables and wheeled lounge seats are arranged classroom style, and music has been replaced by a DVD of Sister Noella Marcellino, a.k.a. the Cheese Nun. The Bueno Queso Social Club is about to meet.

One Sunday afternoon a month, Middlesex is transformed into a gathering place for people obsessed with food - particularly cheese, wine, and beer. They're led by the passionate and good-humored trio of Robert Aguilera, general manager and head import cheese buyer at Formaggio Kitchen; Julie Cappellano, general manager and wine buyer at South End Formaggio; and Derek Whitaker, sales rep for wine wholesaler Atlantic Importing (and Cappellano's husband). The fee is $40 per person, and anyone can attend; many of the members are Formaggio regulars and people involved in the food business.

"It's a wide range of ages," says Aguilera, "but they all seem to be ultracurious, really smart shoppers, people who search out food. They all have hints and ideas, and have been a lot of places."

The club takes its name from the Buena Vista Social Club, an homage to the recording and film of the same name. The group's mission: to taste, pair, learn about, and explore the provenance of food and drink. "Join our quest to find the truth of flavor in the earth's delicious decompose-ables - 'rotten' milk, fermented grapes, wet wheat and all things cured," invites Bueno Queso's website (buenoqueso.org).

"The real focus is on the origin of the foods," says Cappellano, "where they're from, what the soil is like, what plants grow there, what the people are like. That's what makes the foods what they are. The best wines and beers and cheeses are the ones that taste like where they're from. When things lose their sense of origin, they all start to taste the same."

And so, since the first meeting in March, the club has focused on that sense of origin - pairing English cheeses with tea, tasting wine from the Jura beside cheese from that region, and comparing Tuscan wines made from the same grape but in different styles, from different vintages and different towns.

"People are learning information about food," Cappellano says, "but we also like to think they're learning how to taste food, and also about their own preferences."

Both she and Aguilera say that the August session was a highlight. It paired produce from Sparrow Arc Farm in Troy, Me., with regional cheeses, Vermont maple syrup (made by Cappellano's cousin), and beer from Maine (plus a few non-local wines), offering a multifaceted portrait of New England terroir.

The Bueno Queso team often brings in special guests. Sparrow Arc farmer Matt Linehan - who provides vegetables to Formaggio and local restaurants including No. 9 Park and L'Espalier - was there that day, answering questions about the life of a young tenant farmer (he's in his mid-20s, tattooed from his time in the Boston punk scene) as people ate the produce he'd picked that morning. Meeting the person who grew the food they were eating brought Bueno Queso members still one step closer to its origins.

"It's always nice when you get to meet the producer," says Glenn Carr, banquet chef at the Marriott Long Wharf and a Bueno Queso Social Club regular. "There's a face behind the food. It makes it more meaningful. His story, how he came from being a punk kid to a farmer, was vastly interesting. The food was very good, too, and the wine."

Linehan's heirloom tomatoes and wild arugula were served beside a pillowy heap of fresh chevre from Colrain and intense, nutty Bayley Hazen blue from Greensboro, Vt. The plate was drizzled with flowery honey from Vermont, and each flavor brought out the others. Juxtaposed with the blue, the honey accentuated the cheese's funk, while it nestled side by side with the chevre's mildness, blending more gently. And eaten with the tomatoes, it was a revelation - a mouthful of several different kinds of sweetness.

Two heirloom summer squash varieties were served on one plate, highlighting the differences in taste. Rings of wax peppers were tossed with corn and Cabot cloth-bound cheddar for a spicy-sweet salad. And big rounds of peppery radish were served with Allagash's Victoria ale, a perfect pairing common in Germany. Along the way, attendees tasted Berger gruner veltliner and Corte Marzago bardolino. Dessert was wild Maine blueberries drizzled with maple syrup.

"It was a wicked good time," Linehan says later. "I don't usually get to see people eat my food unless it's friends at a barbecue, so that was unique for me. People's questions were excellent."

Each course brought new conversation. Although there is a teaching element, Bueno Queso Social Club meetings don't operate like standard classes. They're more like discussions.

"I wanted it to be a group of people who wanted to be involved and wanted to hang out multiple times," Aguilera says. "It's really taken off that way. Every time they come, it's always something different, something new. They contribute, too. We want a social community debate."

And, says Carr, it does feel like a club. "It's unlike every club I've ever belonged to, though," he says. "There's sort of a lecture, but there's also a very intense social aspect to it. It covers educational ground, but there's a whole aspect of sharing what people think and what they know."

Bueno Queso was born in part to take people out of Formaggio and give them a bigger, less commerce-oriented space in which to taste and learn. But the club also brings them back into the store; attendees often stop by to visit Aguilera.

"Because we all meet in a different space, we've become friends," he says. "We've been having a conversation about food, and we continue it. That's what I try to foster. It's almost like we're all hanging out in a treehouse, exchanging ideas and comic books."

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

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