Here’s a telling sign about the popularity of cheese in America: cheesemongering has become an Olympic sport. Well, almost. Every summer, the folks who work behind cheese counters gather for The Cheesemonger Invitational. It’s where muscle meets Manchego. For one grueling evening, they compete for the title of champion cheesemonger.
To win, a monger must break down wheels into perfect hunks, prepare a perfect pairing for the judges, and name six mystery bites in a blind tasting — among other challenges. This year’s winner, Emily Acosta, is the first dame to make dairy case history. Here’s what she says about training, guava paste, and the craft cheesemaker who inspires her most…
When you were a kid, did you ever think you’d grow up to be a Master Cheesemonger?
Even as an adult, I had no idea I’d grow up to be a Master Cheesemonger! Honestly, when I was a kid I used to think Velveeta was fancy cheese because my mom would only buy it for special occasions. My family is from Cuba, and somehow Velveeta was quintessentially American, and I guess therefore fancy and modern. I didn’t have a clue a whole world of cheese existed beyond shredded low moisture mozzarella and Kraft singles.
I’ve loved all things dairy since I can remember, but I discovered my passion for cheese (real cheese!) after taking cheese classes at Whole Foods, the Astor Center, and Murray’s Cheese here in New York. The more I tasted and learned, the more I needed to taste and learn. It’s hard to go back once you’ve eaten foods of a certain quality, tradition, and general deliciousness. Eventually, I realized that I needed to share my passion and newfound knowledge with as many people as possible, so I quit my office job to become a cheesemonger fulltime!
How did you come to work at Eataly, one of the greatest cheese counters in New York?!
I had been a monger at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in New York and left that job to be a bookkeeper. It became clear pretty quickly that I had made a huge mistake: I missed the cheese and thrill of educating customers about it. I found my way to Eataly through a friend who worked there as a monger and decided to take the job while finishing my last semester in the Food Studies Master’s Program at NYU. I’m so grateful I did since I’m still here almost two years later!
What kind of training did you undertake to prepare for the Cheesemonger Invitational?
I didn’t train too much leading up to the competition. Given the volume of customers at Eataly, I’ve learned how to cut and wrap cheese very quickly and precisely. Plus, I’m always reading about cheese and tasting cheese anyway, so I was pretty well prepared. I did make my coworkers try several iterations of my perfect bite leading up to the competition, which eventually became St. Pete’s Blue cheese on top of a guava pastry with turrón and a fresh slice of Granny Smith Apple.
What was your proudest moment of the competition?
I was really proud of how I did on the blind-tasting portion of the competition, perhaps because it was the least familiar of the events in the competition. I’m used to selling cheese, cutting cheese, answering tough questions about cheese, etc., but tasting a small bit of cheese and identifying whether its pasteurized, where it comes from, what cheese its most similar to – that’s a real challenge! It’s a testament to how much cheese I actually eat that I was able to do well!
What was the most unnerving moment of the competition?
For the final round, we were told to make a cheese sign and be ready to introduce ourselves through the cheese we had selected. I had very quickly written lyrics to the tune of “Let It Go” about my favorite cheese of the moment, Cinerino, just in case I made it to the final rounds. I hadn’t really thought about how terrifying it would actually be to sing it in front of a warehouse full of strangers, cheese peers, and cheese idols. I love to sing and sing behind the counter all day long, but I’m absolutely terrified of singing in front of people I don’t know. When I realized I had no other plan but to present my a capella cheese song, I almost passed out!
Can you describe one or two of your favorite cheese pairings?
I used guava in my perfect bite because in real life, I eat guava and cheese all the time. I love tropical fruits with cheese! I could probably live on guava paste and Comté for the rest of my life. Or grilled bananas and Comté… or dulce de papaya and Comté…
Outside of the cheese world, what is your super power or hidden talent?
My two passions in life are cheese and Excel spreadsheets. I love spreadsheets so much. It’s super nerdy.
If there were a Cheesmaker Invitational, is there a craft producer you’d pull into the spotlight?
Jos Vulto of Vulto Creamery makes one of my favorite cheeses, Ouleout. I recently went up to Walton, NY, to make cheese with him for a day. He’s not only an incredibly talented cheesemaker (Ouleout with slices of apple – amazing) but a beautiful person, too. It’s an honor to sell his cheeses at Eataly.
As the winner of this year’s CMI championship, Acosta wins a free trip to England with Cheese Journeys. Big congrats, Emily!
Part II of a seasonal collaboration with illustrator Johanna Kindvall:
Summer is the season to eat cheese in the wild. In June, Johanna and I both spent time in southern Italy, albeit separately, enjoying durable cheeses on picnic blankets (see her post on the subject). We both agree: what is lovelier than eating Pecorino in a pasture strewn with wildflowers?
As you eat, you can taste the grassiness of the milk, and the experience become doubly sensual. If you can’t picnic near actual ewes, stare up at the clouds and picture a pastoral life. In the summer, shepherds throughout Europe still lead animals into the hills to feast on wild grasses and herbs (mint, fennel, dill). Animals that gobble gorgeous feed produce beautiful milk. And thus, the best cheeses come to be.
For a summer picnic, I love to buy cheeses made from grass-fed milk. Farmers’ markets are a great source for these beauties, and so is a cheese counter that specializes in artisan cheese. You can also learn to discern grass-fed cow’s milk cheese just by sight; cows cannot digest beta carotene, so they produce golden summer milk. If you see a butter-yellow cow’s milk cheese, chances are it was made from a grass-fed gal.
Picnic cheeses should be easy to pack and easy to pair. Here are a few suggestions for summer cheese combinations that you can toss into a hamper and assemble quickly. If you have your wits about you, grab some toothpicks and a Swiss Army knife. Otherwise, just grab a baguette and a blanket for the grass.
- Mozzarella balls in brine are a lovely first bite. You can skewer them with cherry tomatoes and fresh basil – or try strawberries and basil – then drizzle them with balsamic vinegar. This is lovely with Prosecco.
- Fresh ricotta comes alive with fresh herbs and sea salt. Pack some thyme from your windowsill, or forage in the wild. Bring a bottle of extra virgin olive oil for drizzling. Also, you can stuff fresh ricotta into peach halves or apricot halves, or use the fruit as scoops. Try topping these with toasted almonds and honey.
- Soft cheeses that come in balsa wood boxes (Camembert) or little crocks (Saint-Marcellin) or leaves (Banon, Robiola) are excellent picnic mates. They are gooey enough to spread with a stick, if need be, and they all pair wonderfully with dried fruit, nuts, and honey. Try this: Camembert, green apples, walnuts, honey, and a jug of dry hard cider.
- Swiss Army knife cheeses include Provolone, Caciocavallo, Pecorino and other sturdy birdies. Choose one or two hunks and load up on olives, cured meat, celery sticks, pickled mushrooms, and olive oil crackers. A bottle of red? Enough said.
- Gooey blue, like Gorgonzola Dolce, makes for a lovely dessert, especially with graham crackers and honey or cherry jam. A goat’s milk blue, like Cremificato Verde Capra, is also a good choice because it’s light. Try packing some dark chocolate and candied nuts, or bring a box of juicy dates and stuff them with blue cheese and almonds.
A note on storing cheeses for picnics: Before you head out to the field, set your hunks on frozen water bottles or a chilled bottle of wine. Sheep’s milk cheeses, like Pecorino, tend to sweat in the sun, so keep them covered with a cloth. Needless to say, it’s handy to bring a cutting board on picnics. Stash one in your glove compartment and you will always be prepared for spontaneous al fresco snacks.
Check out the links below for earlier collaborations with Johanna:
Your Spring Goat Cheese Primer (part 1)
Yes, dear readers, I have returned from my cheese odyssey — with a confession. Although I carried my laptop across an ocean, I only opened it once. And though I planned to post about Puglia and the workshops that brought a number of you with me to Italy’s “boot heel,” well, what can I say? There were meadows to explore. And picnics to prepare. And sheep to milk.
I have returned from Puglia with dusty clothes and ricotta under my fingernails. With new friends in my address book. With memories of three-hour meals. Oh, the three-hour meals! I have never eaten so well for so many days, with so much laughter.
And I have never craved sleep so much since my return. Over the last few days, I have slept the sleep of milk-drunk lambs.
In my dreams, I keep revisiting the cheeses of Puglia (Pecorino, Caciocavallo, Ricotta Forte). And hearing the voice of Tonio, our exuberant host, and Santina, a local cheesemaker, who showed us how to make cheese in the wildest way: with fig branches instead of rennet.
The thing I love most about this odyssey is that it took us from the digital realm — this blog, and the broader internet — into the field. Walking in the hoofsteps of grazing ewes, we learned why the Pecorino around Matera and Altamura tasted so complex. The meadows were full of wild herbs and grains, from chamomile and red clover to wheat and oats.
Tonio Creanza, our host, made sure that we connected the food we ate to the land around us. His field lectures and his local contacts — from cheesemakers to shepherds — helped us not only to eat well but to see more deeply. Great meals begin with agriculture, and the emphasis is really on “culture.” When a region protects its landscape and values stewards of the land, the food culture thrives.
Having Pennsylvania cheesemaker, Sue Miller, along for the ride helped us understand the importance of this connection. There’s a reason why Italy champions “agritourism” and why people, like us, flock to it. Regional specialties, billboard-free landscapes, and knowledgeable locals who are eager to share their passions — these things enliven the senses and fulfill a longing for authenticity in a way no theme park can.
To everyone who took part in supporting this adventure — from the bakers to the butchers, from the participants to the co-organizers, and to you at your desk – Grazie! This odyssey never would have happened without curiosity and generosity.
Over the coming weeks, I look forward to sharing more stories and images. I hope they inspire more dairy dreamers to travel in search of new cheeses, to seek out pasture picnics, and to visit off-the-beaten-path parts of the world where live cultures thrive.
To learn more about our host, visit the website of Messors.
To discover more about the region, visit Puglia’s official site.
Remember back in October when I floated the kooky idea of leading a digital storytelling workshop in Puglia with my friend Aimee Knight? Well, darlings, my valise is packed. Flight leaves tonight. Thanks to you, the first Live Cultures workshop filled. Then, we filled a second.
We plan to Intstagram our journey. Here’s how to follow the story as it unfolds:
- Madame Fromage: @MmeFromage
- Live Cultures: @LiveCultures (we just set this up)
For the next two weeks, we’ll be staying at Messors, a sheep farm in rural Puglia. The stars will be bright, but the internet will be wonky so I may or may not be able to post on this site from the road. You can be sure to hear all about our experiences when we return, from the cheeses to the wines to our walks with the local shepherd and our meals by the sea.
In the meantime, stay in touch and try a new hunk or two. And if you think you might want to glide off to Puglia next summer, drop me a comment. I’ll add you to our list of cheese-loving travelers.
Madame Fromage will be away until June 22, 2014. After her Live Cultures Workshop in Puglia, she’ll travel to the coast of Brittany and to East Sussex to nibble, nibble, nibble.
If you’ve ever wanted to travel to cheddar country and stay in a manor house, get out your duffel. In late September, I’ll be off to Somerset, England for a week-long cheddar tour centered around traditional British cheese and drink. Here’s the best part: four of the six nights, we’ll stay at North Cadbury Court, the manor house belonging to James Montgomery (below), maker of Britain’s premier cheddar.
The house, which has been in the Montgomery family for years, has 21 rooms and was used in the filming of Jane Austen’s Persuasion for Masterpiece Theatre. But wait, there’s more. The land around the house is believed to be the original Camelot. So you can eat cheddar in Camelot — how is that for a pairing?
This odyssey is presented by Cheese Journeys, a company headed by Anna Juhl, a former cheese-shop owner and the matriarch of a U.S. cheese family involved in importing great European cheeses. Juhl’s collaborator is Chris George, formerly of Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. Chris and his wife are expecting this fall…which is why Yours Truly is stepping in.
Somerset and London Cheese Tour, September 22-28
- 6 nights in England (4 nights at North Cadbury Court, 2 in London)
- Tastings of cheese, wine, cider, wild beer, and whiskey
- Feasts prepared with local ingredients, including period recipes
- Visits with cheddar legends James Montgomery, Mary Quicke, and Tom Calver of Westcombe cheddar
- Day trips to markets, cheese shops, and a local smokery
- Gastronomic workshops led by makers, sommeliers, and experts in the field
For pricing, a full itinerary, and booking information please visit Cheese Journeys.
Photo credits: Chris George