How to Talk to a Cheesemonger
Every week, people tell me that they are too intimidated to shop at cheese counters. Because they feel unschooled in the world of dairy, they buy shrink-wrapped wedges from the cold case, carefully avoiding the eyes of the cheesemonger. As one man told me recently, “It’s like dealing with a sommelier. I feel so inadequate!”
Oh, sad day! People, don’t fear the cheesemonger. Fear lawyers and astrologists, yes. But not the cheesemonger, even if he (she?) has a lot of hair on his chest.
Here’s the deal: cheesemongers don’t care about your IQ. They just want to talk cheese. Here are a few tips on how to buy cheese like a seasoned geek:
- Pretend the cheesemonger is Yoda. Cheesemongers tend to be wise and gentle creatures. Look for one with hairy ears.
- Ask, “So, what’s in season?” Cheesemongers are guides to the dairy case. They know which cheeses are at their peak and which ones are fresh.
- Learn about the basic cheese styles. Remember these: fresh (i.e. ricotta), bloomy (i.e. Brie), washed-rinds (read: stinky and interesting), natural rinds (dense, i.e. Mimolette), and blues.
- Lay out your weaknesses. The cheesemonger is like a guidance counselor. She’ll probably ask you what kind of wine you’ll be serving and whether you have an adventurous palate. Pick red or white, then say, “Yes.”
- Don’t bring up Jarlsburg. As long as you’re at a cheese counter, be a little more adventurous.
- Always eat the sample. Quite often the cheesemonger will join you. If you want to be schooled on cheese, furrow your brow and say, “Hmmm…what am I tasting?” Then the cheesemonger will say something like, “Well, I get a little butterscotch on the front end and a hint of pineapple on the finish.” Then you’ll know you are in the presence of a master cheese taster. If the cheesemonger shrugs, shrug back and go somewhere else.
- Ask for pairing suggestions. Cheesemongers tend to be very good cooks, and they spend a lot of time looking at the items on the shelves and daydreaming about dinner. They can point out some really inventive pairings you never would have imagined – like blue cheese and chocolate.
- Take a risk. Buy a cheese that has a streak of ash or a funky rind. Even if you have a delicate palate, there are wonderful cheeses out there with very subtle notes (like Pantaleo) that will blow your mind.
- Don’t be put off by prices. And don’t say, “Give me your cheapest cheddar.” That would be like walking into a wine store and saying, “Where’s your Boone’s Farm?” Cheesemongers tend to favor artisanal cheeses, which are hand-crafted – just like craft beer – and they will cost more than Kraft Singles. Think of it as tithing. You’re supporting a small farmer somewhere.
- Bring a notebook. Yup, a notebook. You can write down what you sampled, and next time you’re at the counter you can whip it out and say, “Hmmm, I really liked the Brie de Meaux from Ile-de-France,” and off you’ll go, trying the next great cheese.
Photo: Cheesemonger Ian Peacock of Di Bruno Bros. (photo credit: Tenaya Darlington)