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)

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11 Responses to “How to Talk to a Cheesemonger”
  1. Great tips, especially the one about taking notes. I am constantly forgetting all the cheeses I bring home and the notebook really comes in handy. I even take pictures! I’m such a cheese geek. Stay Cheesy!

  2. Shawn Porter says:

    My fiancee and I keep talking about starting a cheese notebook; we’ve had so many amazing cheeses who’s names have been long forgotten due to our lack of due diligence. Maybe this will be my reminder!

  3. Roz Appell says:

    Please inform me of cheese tastings. I live in Cherry Hill.

  4. andrea says:

    Il foraggio è una passione come un’altra,
    io sono sempre alla ricerca di inventare e
    provare nuove vie e nuovi formaggi.

  5. I love these tips! We are cheesemakers, but we know our own cheeses best. Many of the other cheeses? I’ll always be a novice. But guess what: there’s no cheese right or wrong, just cheese joy!

  6. Laughed out loud at “Don’t bring up Jarlsberg.” I am a cheese monger/blogger in a tiny northern California town in the Gold County and every day someone asks “Do you make all of the cheeses here?” Biting holes into my tongue I respond, “No, we carry cheese from all over the world including cow, goat, and sheep milk cheeses.” Often the mention of sheep blows peoples minds. I am still explaining annatto. I love your blog.

  7. cheesemonger Ken says:

    I like the idea of a notebook of some kind. When I mention this to the under 40s who come to my counter…they recoil in horror. I suggest a note on their phone and have had much better luck.

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