Cheesemongering is a relatively new profession in the United States but a time-honored one in Europe.Steve Jones is the 2011 Cheesemonger Invitational champion. He has worked in cheese for some 15 years and owns the Cheese Bar in Portland, Ore.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: What does a cheesemonger do?
Steve Jones: It’s a multi-faceted position for certain. Cheese care, obviously, is first and foremost; to buy and sell cheese as quickly as possible is our take on it. To listen well to customers is probably the second most important thing. They’re going to tell you what they want, and you are then going to guide them to the right cheese.
LRK: I’ve heard you speak about cheese. You talk about doing triage with cheese when you get it into the store.
SJ: Right. We receive cheese 6 days a week at Cheese Bar, so you open up the boxes and it’s one of our favorite moments. We call it Cheese Christmas because you’re pulling all these great cheeses out of the box and every one is a surprise. Some of them you’ve never seen before -- cheeses coming in from Germany and Belgium -- and you’re totally pumped. But you open up those cheeses and you’re looking at them to make sure that the cheese isn’t too wet, isn’t too dry, isn’t cracked and hasn’t belled from sitting for too long.
And what we then do is we assess these cheeses and say: Do we need to put our hands on these? Do we need to do some rind maintenance? Do we need to get them into a different container? Do we need to dry them out a little bit? Do we need to wash them off a little bit?
Then you assess if this is a cheese you sell today, tomorrow or maybe even next week. Some cheeses are going to have a little more life. Some cheeses are going to need a little bit of aging. But there are great people out there called affineurs, who are agers, and they do that job so well that I leave most of that work to them. We have the fun job of just interfacing with the final customer.
LRK: Are these tricks we should know? If I buy a cheese, I’d love to be able to see it through your eyes, because then I can know if I need to turn it? Do I need to know if it’s belled?
SJ: A good cheesemonger should be able to help you with this, and I can definitely give you a few tricks, too. If a cheese has belled, the bottom is bulging more than the top, and so it’s been sitting probably for up to 6 weeks on its trip over from France or Italy. So you can simply do that cheese a favor by flipping it over, because gravity has pulled the weight, the fat and the moisture all down. In day or two, flipping the cheese is going to redistribute those elements and you’re going to have a happier cheese.
Also, the bottom side of a belled cheese is often going to have a fair amount of moisture and what we call "diaper rash." The bottom of the cheese is getting kind of gooey; when you flip it, you’re going to allow that to dry off a little bit.
LRK: So you have less chance of spoilage?
SJ: Yes. Then there are a lot of other things you can do in your fridge at home. The main thing I suggest is that you buy and eat your cheese as quickly as possible. That’s your best bet. But if you do end up with something that does need a little love, another thing you can do is pull off the label. If the cheese has a label right on its surface, that’s not a terribly happy environment for that cheese because that rind is a natural rind that wants to breathe; most of those labels aren’t perforated and don’t allow that breathing to happen. So by just removing that label, you’ve done the cheese a favor.
LRK: Should your cheese be wrapped? Should it be plastic-wrapped?
SJ: We highly recommend that every piece of cheese that leaves my shop leaves in perforated cheese paper. There’s one out there that consumers can buy from a brand called Formaticum. It’s a French-made paper that’s dynamite. It works really well; it’ll add a ton of life to your cheese. It allows the cheese to continue to breathe without it suffocating and without all that moisture being stuck inside. It will about double the life of your cheese.
LRK: If I can’t get that, could I perforate something like wax paper?
SJ: I would recommend wax paper or parchment paper loosely wrapped around the cheese and then tucked into a Ziploc. You’re going to want to let the cheese breathe, but you don’t want to let it in an environment that’s going to dry it out. So that Ziploc is going to keep your humidity up.
LRK: Because a refrigerator is a dry environment.
SJ: Exactly. A lot of air moving in there. And also a lot of different off-flavors. If you have fish or anything else in there, your cheese will pick it up. Just like butter picks up off-flavors, your cheese will do the same thing. That fat is a magnet.
LRK: Tell me about how you become the best cheesemonger in the world. What was that competition about?
SJ: It was crazy. It was equal parts rock concert, wrestle royale and cheese dork extravaganza. Loud music, bright lights. There were four elimination rounds. The first one was blind-tasting. You had 10 minutes to taste six cheeses and try to give six descriptors for each one. The second round was precision-cutting. You had 30 seconds to cut two pieces of cheese off of a big 10-pound block down to a quarter-pound each without a scale. Then the third was wrapping. You had 30 seconds to wrap those two pieces of cheese in cheese paper. The last was presentation, where you got to bring your A-game on your presentation side. I presented with little cones that looked like circus cones, red- and white-striped, full of bacon-caramel popcorn and a mountain cheese, and had those fanned out on a plate. And luckily I came out on top.
Ed. note: Jones' favorite American cheeses include:
Capriole, Wabash Cannonball (goat’s milk cheese from Indiana)
Samish Bay, Ladysmith (cow’s milk cheese from Washington)
Black Sheep Creamery, Mopsey’s Best (sheep’s milk cheese from Washington)
Pholia Farm, Hillis Peak (goat’s milk cheese from Oregon)
Spring Brook Farm, Reading (cow’s milk cheese from Vermont)
Maytag Dairy, blue (cow’s milk cheese from Iowa)
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