Can I Afford Good Cheese?

If you can afford cheese, then HELL YES, you can afford good cheese. I say this as someone who literally can’t afford new shoes even though mine have holes in them. If you hear squishing sounds when I walk, that’s because mop water has saturated my socks. Still, I don’t have to set aside some kind of cheese savings account so I can one day splurge on a bite of Roquefort. Cheese is expensive, yes, but if you can afford the cheap stuff, which isn’t actually cheap, then you can afford the fancy, delicious stuff. In fact, if you do it right, it’s a bargain. Consider this:

  1. The best cheeses do indeed cost much more per pound than store-brand processed cheese. But they’re also typically very powerful cheeses, so you may not need very much. A cheesemonger can cut you a very small wedge of something extraordinary for the same price as that big hunk of flavorless, overpriced cheese you were going to buy anyway. So you end up spending the same amount, receiving less cheese, but having a much better experience. Think of it this way: if you’re going to spend five bucks on cheese, you can buy a lot of forgettable cheese or you can buy a little bit of something that will be a memorable delight.
  2. Cheap cheese isn’t necessarily a good bargain. It’s often overpriced, actually. When you buy a big plastic package of shredded jack or cheddar, you’re paying a lot for the convenience. I’d guess most of the cost goes toward the packaging and the premium for having it pre-shredded. Then it molds a few days after you open it up, right? And moldy shredded cheese is done for, unlike a block of firm cheese with a bit of mold on the edge which can be cut off. But you could pay a little more per pound for good cheese from your cheesemonger and know that your money is going toward actual cheese instead of packaging—just delicious, exciting cheese—that you can grate or shred at home in a matter of a couple minutes. Plus, you can shred only what you need and the rest of the block will last longer in the fridge. Ultimately, you can get better cheese at a better value that way—when you’re not paying for a factory to shred and package your cheese for you.
  3. Let me go a step further: just don’t buy shredded cheese. Ever. It’s over-priced, molds quickly, and is always dried out. I went to the grocery and found a block of Kraft sharp cheddar next to a package of Kraft shredded sharp cheddar. I couldn’t believe they were listed at the same price! But then I noticed the small print. The bag of shredded cheese included an ounce less of cheese. For good measure, I looked at the ingredients: the shredded option included an ingredients list even longer than the block did, full as it was of cornstarch and chemical mold inhibitors. You have to pay for those. Don’t. Unless you suffer from a physical disability that makes shredding cheese by hand difficult, just shred it yourself. It takes two minutes, and another minute to clean the grater. Hell, just call me and I’ll come over and shred it for you. (But you’ll have to feed me.)
  4. If you’re looking for an assortment of cheese for a cheese plate, buying big hunks of pre-packaged stuff is going to waste money and precious (or even not-so-precious) cheese! Buy smaller wedges of several amazing cheeses from your monger and you’ll have better cheese and less waste at a comparable price.
  5. As with wine and cars and so many products, it’s entirely possible to buy something of a high quality for a middling price. Your monger can sell you something amazing for $36/lb, but probably also has something just as amazing for $18/lb. Remember when you figured out that there’s an Australian wine you like that’s cheap and also really good? Same thing with cheese. Let a monger help you find something that you love but that’s also comfortably within your budget. The difference in taste between that and a cheap block of cheese from the grocery will be great, but the difference in price may be quite minimal.
  6. Don’t be overwhelmed by the per-pound price. You’re probably not buying a whole pound, right? If all you need is a quarter pound, check this out: the price difference between a quarter pound of a $30/lb cheese vs a $20/lb cheese is only $2.50. That’s not nothing, but if you want the fancy $30/lb cheese, that extra $2.50 is probably not going to bankrupt you. I can’t tell you how many customers in my shop look at the high price of our amazing salumi products and say, “Damn, is it made of diamonds? I can’t afford to buy food at $50/lb!” I totally get that, believe me. I’m a big fan of making entire meals for under three bucks, and no stranger to the fast food dollar menu. But in reality, what happens is customers buy a tenth of a pound because such strong flavors are best savored with just a few bites, and paper-thin slices mean that you might get twenty slices in that little 1/10th of a pound. The five-dollar price they pay at the register is well worth it. I certainly haven’t heard any complaints, but we have plenty of folks coming back for more. We pay five bucks for a good beer. Five bucks for great, memorable food shouldn’t be such a shock.
  7. Consider where your money is going. Is it supporting a corporation and corporate distributors, with very little of it paying the wages of local employees or food producers? Or is it directly supporting a small, local business and its local employees and artisan food-makers? Are staff at the store well-paid, or are the low prices made possible by extremely low wages? Is the low price of the cheese a reflection of cheap, inhumane, unsustainable factory farming techniques and underpaid farmers? Or is the cheese made by principled farmers and artisan cheese-makers using sustainable practices and healthy, humanely raised animals?
  8. Do the math. I took a trip to the grocery and found that a half-pound block of store-brand sharp cheddar (store brand—not even Kraft or Sargento) cost $2.50. Wow, that’s great, right?! An organic sharp white cheddar cost $4 for slightly less cheese (6 oz, packaged to look like the 8 oz blocks). If all you need for a dish you’re making is cheap processed cheddar, either of those are a good deal, I think, but I wouldn’t bother snacking on them. In contrast, I can sell you 6 oz of an amazing Hook’s 4 Year cheddar for less than $7. Yes, that’s a big difference in price. You could buy a whole pound of the store-brand cheddar for less than that, and it’s almost $3 more than the organic white cheddar at the grocery. If I were making a ho-hum mac and cheese for myself on a Tuesday night budget, I might very well go for the cheap stuff. But if I wanted to make an especially flavorful dish or if I wanted to snack on the cheese, I’d simply spend the extra three bucks to enjoy something special—something made by artisans and aged to perfection rather than hustled out of the factory as soon as possible. And if you think about it, three bucks is a small price to significantly upgrade your cheese. If you wanted to upgrade your wine, you might go from a ten-dollar bottle to a twenty-dollar bottle or a thirty-dollar bottle. There’s no shame in buying the less expensive option, and sometimes that may be the best choice, but you shouldn’t feel like it’s a great splurge to upgrade your cheese. It’s three bucks.
  9. Good cheeses are likely more nutrient-dense and easier to digest. Aged cheeses have already done a lot of the digestive work for you. They’ve already converted lactose to lactic acid, for example, which is good news for the lactose intolerant. And cheese made from the milk of grass-fed animals is much more nutritious than that produced at factory feedlots where animals are fed only grain. You can see the difference in color and can certainly taste it. Most quality creameries use milk that is either labeled as organic or made using organic practices (many farmers don’t want to pay for the certification even if they’re following organic practices). I’d argue that the price of cheese often reflects the nutrition provided therein. Good, real cheese is full of probiotics and micronutrients, and its proteins and sugars are easier to digest than those in quickly and poorly made factory cheeses.

I know very well that we can’t all afford the foods we want. But I’d argue in the case of cheese that if we can afford cheap cheese with little nutritional value, we may be quite wise to spring for buying less of a high-quality cheese with more nutritional value and more flavor.

A Cheese Platter a Day…

… is maybe too much. But on special occasions, it’s hard to imagine guests not being overwhelmed with joy to see a spread like this.

Edible arrangements by your friendly neighborhood cheesemonger.

Real talk? The customer who bought this paid about $180. That’s not chump change, but it’s also hardly any more than he would have paid if he had bought all of these items individually and spent hours trying to arrange it so nicely for guests. And it beats the hell out of a stack of pizzas in cardboard boxes or a table filled with chips and grocery store hummus.

It’s a joy to arrange these cheese and charcuterie plates at work. I went for a tidy, geometrical look with this one. What’s in it?

Cheeses: Pecorino Wiscono, Hook’s 4 Year Cheddar, Goat Gouda from Central Coast Creamery, Brillat Savarin, Bayley Hazen Blue from Cellars at Jasper Hill. (One goat, one sheep, three cow, covering a range of styles, textures, and flavor profiles.)

Meats: Finocchiona from Spotted Trotter, Porteroni made in house, Tennshootoe from The Hamery.

Accompaniments: Mustard made in house, local wildflower honey, Marcona almonds, dried apricots and dates, cornichons, carmona mix olives, grapes, sesame crackers from Accidental Bakery.

In another post, I’ll break down how I put it all together and how you could prepare something similar yourself at home.

Cracking the Truckle

Cheesemonger happiness is preparing to cut open a new wheel. (Photo: Taylor Fregoe)

In a recent post, I gushed about Milton Creamery’s Flory’s Truckle. A couple days ago, I had the pleasure of cracking open another wheel. This one isn’t quite as aromatic and fruity as the last, but it’s still damn good. And frankly, let’s not expect real cheese to be especially consistent. It should vary for a long list of reasons (maybe I’ll address that in another post). McDonald’s is consistent. Ritz crackers are consistent. Kraft slices are consistent. But real cheese isn’t, and that’s okay. There’s always some anticipation when I open a new wheel–how will this one differ from the last? Sometimes I find something special, sometimes I’m mildly disappointed, but such is cheese.

In any case, cracking a big wheel of a beloved cheese is always a great pleasure. I feel like it deserves a parade. Sometimes I actually do take a little lap around the shop, holding the cheese above my head and making trumpet noises. It’s just so exciting! It’s an event! Clothbound cheddar is especially exciting because there’s such a buildup of anticipation as one peels the cloth away–the dust flies, the barnyard aroma fills the air. You convince a co-worker to sniff the cloth and then laugh when they make an ugly face. You cut into it, hoping not to find major flaws. You take the first taste and offer samples to co-workers and any lucky customers who happen to be in the shop.

For many cheeses, that first bite of a freshly cracked wheel is the pinnacle, the best it will ever taste. This truckle of Flory’s sat in an aging room for a year so some lucky jerk–me!!!–could finally open it up and enjoy the benefit of that long wait.

Hi, Flory, you lovely thing, you!
Flory in her element. (Photo: Katharine Azzolini)

Cheese Platter of the Day

I made only one cheese platter today, so it’s fair to call it the undisputed champion. The competition may not have been especially fierce, but I imagine things got pretty tense later when the only pearl onion on the plate was snatched up by some obnoxious party-crasher. Probably the same guy who scooped out all the triple-creme paste with a spoon. There’s always that one guy.

Mt. Tam from Cowgirl Creamery, Thomasville Tomme from Sweetgrass Dairy, Ewephoria (sheep’s milk gouda from the Netherlands), beef summer sausage made in-house at Porter Road Butcher, finocchiona from Spotted Trotter, Carmona mix olives, cornichons, Marcona almonds, Virginia peanuts, local wildflower honey, strawberry-fig jam from Blackberry Patch. 

My Official Titles at Work

Cheesemonger: Because I mong the cheese.

Cheezus: This wonderfully heretical title was granted by a butcher.

Cheese Cutter and Sausage Grabber: Also granted by a butcher. A theme emerges.

Arranger of Moldy Milk: I bestowed this title upon myself, but I deserve it, as you can see below:

valentine's day plate
Just a sweet lil’ Valentine’s Day plate for two. Harpeth Fleur from Noble Springs, Prairie Breeze from Milton Creamery, Manchego, marcona almonds, dried cherries, Soppressata from Spotted Trotter, and a bit of Tennshootoe from The Hamery. 
Not sure why olives are the centerpiece, but I didn’t hear any complaints. Blue Paradise, Goat Gouda from Central Coast Creamery, Pecorino Wiscono, Prairie Breeze, Virginia peanuts, cornichons, local honey, Black Pepper Sorghum Salami from Spotted Trotter, Porteroni made in house at Porter Road Butcher.
Tomme Chebris, Prairie Breeze, Blue Paradise, Manchego, Kunik, Marcona Almonds, local honey, Virginia peanuts, cornichons, Blackberry Patch fig jam, Roots & Branches crackers. Why do I keep closing the jars before snapping a pic?!
Oops, I forgot the cheese. (Just kidding, someone actually ordered a platter without cheese. I was cool about it, but will henceforth blame all natural disasters on this moment.)
Kat, Kyle, and I built a platter for a bajillion people. If they didn’t like it, I’m blaming the grapes.

Milton Creamery’s Flory’s Truckle

One last post from the newsletter here. This cheese… good heavens! It makes me blush. How can it be so vegetal and fruity and grassy and savory all at once?! Anyway, I gotta thank Kat for dreaming up “Mark’s Cheese Adventures” for the PRB newsletter, making it look rad, and promoting this blog. And, hey, Milton Creamery, you rock. These folks in Iowa make only two cheeses–no fussing about–but they’re both immaculate. Go Hawkeyes!

(Image: Katharine Azzolini)

You can learn more about Milton Creamery here.

Roelli’s Dunbarton Blue

Here’s another cheese description from PRB’s newsletter. Roelli is the master of the cheddar/blue hybrid, as epitomized in two of their cheeses: Dunbarton Blue and Red Rock. You’d be hard pressed (pun intended) to find anything like it. There’s Huntsman, from the UK, which is really like a layer cake of two kinds of cheeses (Double Gloucester and Blue Stilton)–not at all the same. And there’s Weinlese, a cheddar-blue combo that’s really more like a soft blue with a slight cheddar tang–again, not at all the same. Dunbarton represents American cheese-making genius–I expect it to be a long-lived classic.

(Image: Katharine Azzolini)

Check out Roelli’s website here.

Cascadia Creamery’s Glacier Blue

I wrote this description of Glacier Blue way back in July for Porter Road Butcher’s “Butcher Block Bulletin,” a regular email update for our customers. Our PR Manager, Kat (who happens to be an extraordinary cheesemonger, too!), made it look real purty. I’ll post these cheese descriptions from the newsletter on this blog, too. As for the cheese itself–I haven’t had it in the shop for a while and need to correct that omission post-haste! I miss it terribly! What a phenomenal, unique domestic blue it is–so complex that I taste something new each time I have a bite. What’s perhaps most marvelous is the toasty smokiness of it, despite having never been exposed to smoke or heat.

(Image: Katharine Azzolini)

Visit Cascadia’s very informative website here!

But Do I Really Need a Cheesemonger?

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.

That’s me being super scary and intimidating. #Don’tFearTheMonger (Photo: Katharine Azzolini)