By simple definition, a cheesemonger is a person who buys cheese from the dairy farmer and sells it to the consumer.
In my case, the cheese comes to me via a distributor and I “tend” the cheese until it is sold. With more fragile cheeses, I am also the person who takes care of the cheese and protects its quality and atmosphere. I determine if the cheese has become too ripe to sell and/or its quality has been compromised by other factors. Because I work at a high-volume cheese kiosk, our turnover is quick and little cheese is lost due to compromise of quality and/or other factors.
When searching for a trust-worthy cheesemonger here are a few tips:
- A cheesemonger should be knowledgeable and approachable. Too often “experts” in any field can become a bit snotty and snooty about what they know. This creates an intimidation factor that is most unnecessary and unappealing. In the old days when I went into Murray’s Cheese Shop in the Village, I was afraid to ask questions. Most of the cheesemongers were old guys who didn’t have time for the novice cheese hound. The last couple of times I have been in Manhattan I have seen a drastic change there. Now the counter is filled with younger cheesemongers who are passionate and love to “talk cheese”. That’s the way I think a cheese shop should be. That’s the way my cheese kiosk is… we love our customers (granted, some more than others… as with most things in life…)
- Your cheesemonger should encourage you to sample cheeses before you try them. At our kiosk we sample at least two cheeses every day. However, any cheese we cut and wrap can be sampled by the customer. When you’re asking someone to pay north of twenty bucks a pound for cheese, a small sample is little to ask in building a customer for life. A local Portland cheese shop, Steve’s, in the Nob Hill District is both approachable and the times I have been there, Steve and his staff have offered samples; once even giving me an unsolicited sample of a cheese they had just received and were preparing for their case. On the opposite side of the coin, in my opinion the cheesemonger at a small shop in NW Portland is quite uppity. The last time I was there and asked for a sample of a Fiscalini cheddar, the woman behind the counter was downright annoyed. The sliver she gave as a sample was almost tasteless because it was so tiny.
When buying cheese consider these points:
- Is the cheese shop/kiosk clean and well-maintained? If not, then consider another cheese source.
- Cheese selection: More is not necessarily better. Consider the quality of the cheeses offered over the quantity.
- The health of the cheese. Cheese is alive and therefore should look, smell and taste healthy. Especially with softer cheeses, consider the smell; too ripe will smell overly ammoniated and taste bitter. Also look for overly dry cheese which comes from improper care and wrapping. Mold, while not bad and normally requires simple trimming, should not be present. Moldy cheese on display reflects a lack of care on the part of the cheesemonger. (We do a “mold patrol” as part of our daily kiosk maintenance.)
- Refrigeration? Most cheese, depending on the type, stores best at 40-60° (F). Softer cheeses should be refrigerated while harder cheeses can be stored/displayed at room temperature for extended periods of time. At our kiosk we display Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano, Asiago and Pecorino Romano at room temperature during store hours and refrigerate it each night. Whole wheels of low-moisture cheeses are displayed for extended periods of time (with rotating and flipping for quality assurance).
- Other offerings. Although not necessary, it is a plus if your cheese shop/kiosk offers foods that compliment your cheese selections. At our kiosk we offer spreads/preserves, crackers, nuts, olives, dried fruits, charcuterie, pickles and other goodies that go well with cheese.
- Cost. Cheese can be expensive. It takes about 10 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of cheese. While you don’t want to over-pay; you also should not necessarily look for the cheapest place to buy cheese. Consider cost along with all of the other tips I have listed here when finding a cheesemonger that you trust.
And a final suggestion:
Track the cheeses you try. We offer a cheese tasting notes book (free from our cheese distributor) to journal the cheeses you taste and your thoughts about them. That way you can refer to your own notes when you come across cheeses a second time. You may find that a domestic Gruyere tastes differently than an imported Gruyere. This is information you might want at a later date. You can also keep track of what cheeses and wines and beers pair well for you.
Up next: Starting with the source: Got Milk…