Saturday, December 18, 2010

How to Talk to a Cheesemonger

 Ian Peacock
Now, let us talk confessions. Every week, people tell me that they are too intimidated to shop at cheese counters. Because they feel unschooled in the world of dairy, they buy shrink-wrapped wedges from the cold case, carefully avoiding the eyes of the cheesemonger. As one man told me recently, “It’s like dealing with a sommelier. I feel so inadequate!”

Oh, sad day! People, don’t fear the cheesemonger. Fear lawyers and astrologists, yes. But not the cheesemonger, even if he (she?) has a lot of hair on his chest.

Here’s the deal: cheesemongers don’t care about your IQ. They just want to talk cheese. If you ask them, “What’s ripe?” they get very excited. Over the last four months, I’ve interviewed half a dozen cheesemongers, and all of them say the same thing: We love it when customers ask us about cheese.

So, because this is high season at the cheese counter, I’m offering a few tips on how to buy cheese like a seasoned geek.

1.    Pretend the cheesemonger is Yoda. Cheesemongers tend to be wise and gentle creatures. Look for one with hairy ears.

2.    Ask, “So, what’s ripe?” Cheesemongers are guides to the dairy case. They know which cheeses are at their peak and which ones need more time to mature.   

3.   There are several styles of cheese. If you want to feel coolio, remember these: fresh (i.e. ricotta), bloomy (i.e. Brie), washed-rinds (read: stinky and interesting), natural rinds (dense, i.e. Mimolette), and blues.  

4.    If you want to put together a special cheese board but you don’t really know what you want, be up front. Lay out your weaknesses. The cheesemonger is like a guidance counselor that way. She’ll probably ask you what kind of wine you’ll be serving and whether you have an adventurous palate. Pick red or white, then say, “Yes.”

5.    Don’t bring up Jarlsburg. As long as you’re at a cheese counter, be a little more adventurous. 

6.   Most cheese counters offer samples. You should always eat the sample, and quite often the cheesemonger will join you. If you want to be schooled on cheese, furrow your brow and say, “Hmmm…what am I tasting?” Then the cheesemonger will say something like, “Well, I get a little butterscotch on the front end and a hint of pineapple on the finish.” Then you’ll know you are in the presence of a master cheese taster. If the cheesemonger shrugs, shrug back and go somewhere else.

7.   Don’t leave without asking for a pairing suggestion. Cheesemongers tend to be very good cooks, and they spend a lot of time looking at the items on the shelves and daydreaming about dinner. They can point out some really inventive pairings you never would have imagined – like blue cheese and chocolate.

8.   Take a risk. Buy a cheese that has a streak of ash or a funky rind. Even if you have a delicate palate, there are wonderful cheeses out there with very subtle notes (like Pantaleo) that will blow your mind.

9.   Don’t be put off by prices and don’t say, “Give me your cheapest cheddar.” That would be like walking into a wine store and saying, “Where’s your Boone’s Farm?” Cheesemongers tend to favor artisanal cheeses, which are hand-crafted – just like craft beer – and they will cost more than Kraft Singles. Ask for a quarter pound, and think of it as tithing. You’re supporting a small farmer somewhere.

10.   Bring a notebook. Yup, a notebook. You can write down what you sampled, and next time you’re at the counter you can whip it out and say, “Hmmm, I really liked the Brie de Meaux from Ile-de-France,” and off you’ll go, trying the next great cheese. 


  1. Very cool post - I live near several specialty cheese shops and keep meaning to stop in, and this list will be helpful. Especially for this "cheese and chocolate tasting party" idea that I have :).

  2. Thanks for the tips! Now I don't have to feel like QUITE the novice when I branch out my cheese knowledge.

  3. Thanks for this. Now I feel a little less shy about cheese. Great post.

  4. Yes, yes, YES!! Thanks for the guidance to help others to the Way of the Cheese-eater! I love to introduce others to cheese and so often hear people say, "I don't like bleus" or "stinky cheese aren't for me".

    The only reason not to eat interesting cheese is if you're lactose intolerant. And even then, grab some lact-aid...

  5. jenn a, basically any cheese that is aged at all has less lactose than lactaid milk! the lactose is mostly contained in the whey which is discarded during most cheesemaking processes. cheese is almost the perfect food, so get in there!!!!!!!

  6. Great scott! This guide is very much appreciated. We like talking to the cheeseheads at the Wegman's. We ask for a stinky-as-hell cheese to get aside from limburger and they gave us this fontina di something that was spot on. I'm very shy with strangers, but I mean if we have cheese in common then what can go wrong?

  7. My cheese passion that started in the dairy section at the grocery store is drawing me into cheese boutiques. It is still a bit intimidating but this post takes some of the edge off. Great post.

  8. Excellent post! As an aspiring cheesemonger and lover of all things cheese, I'm learning that one of the best ways to learn is to delve into the minds of other cheesemongers. Truly an experience!