Ok, Mark, you talk a lot about working with customers, and that sounds fun and all, but I don’t go grocery shopping for the kicks, sorry. I’m not trying to be entertained or to learn the history of Alpine cheese-making. I just want to buy some cheese, ok? What’s wrong with just picking up a vacuum-sealed pack of whatever’s in the supermarket aisle?
Not a damn thing, friend. And these days it’s not just cheap processed cheese in the grocery aisle—you can often find very good stuff at the supermarket. But a visit to your local cheesemonger, even just on occasion, may inform your regular grocery shopping and might make even your workaday cheese habits more pleasant. (Seriously, ask me how to make your cheap cheese snack awesomer. I’ll tell you.) Here’s what a good cheesemonger can do for you that the grocery store typically can’t:
- Cut cheese to order. Does anyone in the grocery aisle ask if you’d like a bigger or smaller wedge than the one on sale? A monger can sell you just about any size you want AND help you decide how much you need. Whether your recipe calls for 6 oz or 1.5 lbs—or you’re trying to figure out how much to serve for eight guests—your friendly neighborhood monger has you covered. Oh, and you know that mini-wheel of soft-ripened cheese that looked so good in the grocery aisle, but you didn’t buy it because it’s expensive and probably more cheese than you want, and there’s no way to know what it tastes like or how ripe it really is? Well, I might have the same cheese or something similar—and I might be able to sell you a half or partial wheel and even give you a taste. Not a bad deal, eh?
- Provide fresh cuts straight from the wheel. You may have noticed that those vacuum-sealed blocks of cheese in the grocery aisle are a bit slimy when you open them up. They might even taste a little plasticky around the edges. There’s no telling how long they’ve been sitting on the shelf. But I can cut a fresh wedge from a loaf or a wheel just for you. I can tell you when that wheel was first cut and sometimes even when it was produced. I’ve been caring for that wheel since it arrived at the shop.
- Provide cheese that’s been well maintained. A monger cares for his or her cheese like a shepherd tends to sheep. Our cheese wheels don’t just sit around on a shelf unmonitored. We clean them, face them, wrap and re-wrap, monitor temperatures, and check regularly for off-notes in flavor and aroma. We taste each wheel and can tell you if this one’s a little riper than the last batch or perhaps has a slightly different flavor. Maybe this wheel was produced in spring rather than fall and therefore has a richer taste.
- Provide samples! For some crazy reason, the grocery store doesn’t let you open up blocks of cheese for a taste. How do you know whether you like this brand of cheddar or that other one? Buy them both? Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could taste and compare and share a sliver with your significant other to see what they think before you buy? Well, there’s a magical land where this actually happens. It’s my cheese counter (and the cheese counter of most any monger). Brang it!
- Provide knowledge. Freely and with pleasure! We mongers pride ourselves on knowing our stuff. Maybe too much so—seriously, don’t get me started on the differences in rennet unless you don’t have anywhere to be for a while and are prepared to take notes. But when we can somehow control ourselves from bursting into over-animated, long-winded, esoteric cheese-nerd lectures (I keep a muzzle behind the counter I case I have to shut myself up), we can answer your questions and guide you to exactly what you need. Maybe you’re not sure which cheeses are suitable for vegetarians. Or which use raw milk and when/why that matters (or doesn’t). Or which brie will be mildest or softest or the most mushroomy. Or what would go well with the pinot noir you already picked out. Or how to serve raclette. Or you want to know why this cheese has crunchy bits and that one’s kind of runny. Or maybe you had that one cheese that one time in Spain six years ago and you’re not sure what it was but it kinda looked like a fuzzy gray football, or did it?, and you want to find out what the hell that might have been? (Spoiler alert: I’m guessing it was garrotxa and I don’t have it, but I might know where you can find it). Or maybe all you know is that you like parm and you wanna see what else is like that. Time to talk to your cheesemonger. The slackjawed wire-shelved coolers of the dairy aisle can’t help you.
So I really do think that if you love cheese, building a relationship with your local monger can make an enormous difference. But I also believe that there’s good cheese in supermarkets and if what’s offered there meets your needs for a given occasion, have at it. Perhaps in another post I’ll even offer some tips for buying cheese at the supermarket. I mean, quick confession here—I buy cheese at the supermarket sometimes, too! I’d even argue that processed American cheese has its place in the world and deserves some credit. I recently tried a major brand’s version of provolone and thought it was pretty damn good despite fake smoke flavor. But it would be a shame to limit ourselves to the same old pre-packed blocks or slices every day. So, at least for special occasions, go chat up your monger and see what’s good. There’s a difference, after all, between good cheese and mind-blowingly good cheese.