I suppose the most universal definition would be the simplest: a cheesemonger sells cheese. But for me, and for many cheesemongers, it’s more of a calling than that. I won’t be selling cheese on this blog, but I will definitely be cheesemongering here, so there must be more to the definition than selling products.
Being a cheesemonger means being a resource for all things cheese. It means being the go-to person for information, ideas, advice, answers, samples, and of course a freshly-cut wedge of something delightful to take home.
I’m especially interested in the educational aspect of cheesemongering. It was in a past life that I made my living as an English professor, but I never lost my love of teaching. I’m never happier than when I’m answering questions or guiding a customer to the perfect wedge in the perfect size with the perfect plan for enjoying it. I love nerding out over the cheese counter with fellow turophiles (cheese lovers!), a bite of perfectly ripened stracapra in hand. Sure, I’m happy when customers buy cheese, but I’m not on commission—I don’t need to up-sell or pressure anyone. What really inspires me is making sure that customers are learning about their own preferences and experiencing some new mouth-bomb of flavor, perhaps learning a bit about cheese in the process. My pride swells when a customer returns to gush about what a great time they had sharing that wedge of blue they bought last week, and how the pairings and serving suggestions I offered were perfect, and how they couldn’t wait to return to talk cheese and try something else.
So that’s what a cheesemonger is. But what do we actually do all day? Well, go ahead and make the obvious joke, it’s fine, really: we cut the cheese. Yes. We do. All day.
We also care for the cheese, making sure it looks, smells, and tastes ideal by the time it goes home with a customer—that involves cleaning (or facing, as we say) the cheese, keeping our tools and coolers clean, wrapping, re-wrapping, keeping up with dates to make sure nothing stays in the case too long, tasting occasionally for off-notes and to check ripeness.
And, of course, we spend a lot of time talking with customers, sharing cheeses, putting sample pairings together. We learn all we can about the cheeses we order and the ones we want to order. And most of us are nerds, so we keep up with what’s new in the cheese world through books and websites and blogs.
We also get really good at cutting and wrapping, at picking up on slight differences in taste and aroma, at eye-balling what a third-pound wedge will look like.
I enjoy all of it—even the constant cleaning. Rigorous dedication to food safety is part of what I can do for my customers, after all. But what I love most, of course, is helping customers make choices and try new things and feel excited and confident about the cheese tray they’re planning to serve at home.
Not a bad gig, right? I make people happy all day! I am to adults what costumed Disney characters are to children at Disney World (without all the crying when it turns out a six-foot Goofy with a rigid, plastic face is actually just creepy).