Becoming a Curd Nerd

When I was eleven years old, Santa left a fondue machine and half a wheel of stinky French cheese in my stocking at Christmas. Most kids (and plenty of adults) would turn up their noses at the messy, sticky food. But I would have held that cheese up to my face and eaten it like corn on the cob if I hadn’t been so committed to making it last past New Year’s Eve. I’ve been a lifelong cheese-lover—the Christmas after that? Cheese of the Month Club.

When I finally had the idea to begin training as a cheesemonger in my 20s, the only real question was why it had taken me so long. What’s a cheesemonger, you ask? Think of a wine sommelier, but for cheese—cheesemongers are both specialty sellers and also incredibly knowledgeable connoisseurs. My training as a cheesemonger begin with deep research projects into types of cheese, cheese regions, cheese-making techniques, different dairy animals, aging processes… the list goes on. As I learn about each cheese, how it was made, where it came from, its creators and its inspirations, I can tell cheese-loving customers the stories behind these dairy gems and guide their tastes to total cheese satisfaction.

Cheesemongering is both a profession and an art, with a whole lot of passionate people leading the way in the industry. Yes, there is a whole cheese world out there! Unfortunately, like the world of fine wine, over the years, artisan cheese has earned a reputation for snobbery. But the wonders of real, handcrafted, artisan cheeses that live beyond your supermarket aisle Singles are both highly rewarding and shockingly accessible.

But…but…there are so many kinds!

Have you always wanted to try new cheeses and learn about their history? Dying to impress your in-laws or your partner with a drool-worthy cheese plate? Fear not—booming trends among cheese world experts make it easy to brush up on your dairy knowledge and become a true curd nerd.

Talk to your monger

For most of us, cheesemongers are the gatekeepers to the world of handcrafted cheeses. They know everything there is to know about every cheese in the case, they’ve visited dairies and kissed farm cows, and typically, they’re absolutely obsessed with cheese.  It’s even possible to be a certified connoisseur of cheese—In the United States, the American Cheese Society oversees the Certified Cheese Professional program. Applicants accumulate hundreds of working cheese hours before passing a comprehensive cheese exam to prove their knowledge of every detail about so many types of cheese, your head would spin.

Talk to your cheesemonger. A good monger knows her (or his) stuff, and can guide you through an international cheese tasting experience based solely on the variety in her display case. Add in your personal tastes—that fresh chevre you loved, parmigiano reggiano is your thing, you’re a sucker for cheddar—and chances are, the monger will blow your mind. The point here is that your cheesemonger knows way more about the cheeses you love than you do.

So you think you’re a cheddar guy. Do you know where cheddar comes from? What’s required for it to be called cheddar? Have you ever tasted a real farmhouse cheddar? How about a super aged cheddar, or a clothbound cheddar? Talk to your monger, taste with your monger, trust your monger.

Keep an open mind

Talking with your monger about what you like is a great place to start. But as important as it is to be confident about what you know and like, it’s just as crucial to keep an open mind. First of all, your monger will probably get to the heart about what it is you like about that one cheese that brought you to the counter. From there, the trajectories for tasting can follow many paths.

Was it a goat’s milk cheese that you loved? Maybe branch out to other goat’s milk cheeses from different regions. If it’s a question of aging, perhaps your next taste will keep the region and aging process but switch to a new type of animal milk. Experiment with raw milk cheeses and pasteurized milk cheeses. Playing with these factors in combination—animal species, geographical origin, aging and technique—allow you to venture into new cheese territory without jumping into the deep end on your first day.

I’ve seen mongers get frustrated when a customer proclaims to hate goat cheese. How can this be? There are so many different types of goat cheeses, in so many different textures, from such a variety of regions and with such stark difference in flavors. Chances are you don’t hate them all. Your monger will help you refine your understanding of what you like and what you don’t so that you never have to knock an entire region or type of cheese off your list just because a specific style didn’t work for you. The best cheese advice you’ll ever get? Taste with an open mind.

Pair like a pro

If you’re asking me, the perfectly paired, well-packed cheese plate is a gastronomical glory. But whether you’re putting together a cheese board for the ages or just looking for a nice wine to go with your snack, cheese pairing is an art in itself. If you’re into beer or wine or whiskey, you can pair it with cheese. Dried fruits or fresh fruits, bread and crackers and grains, honeys and jams, oils and dips, meats and charcuterie.

Figuring out what will pair well may take experience or inspiration, but you can get started with one eye on science and one eye on art. The standard starter advice is to look at geography. Are you searching for a beer to sip alongside your Dutch cheese? Ask yourself what beer they drink in the Netherlands. Munching on a Loire Valley goat’s cheese? Pair it with a Loire Valley vintage.

Some things are worth waiting for.

On a more molecular level, use this motto to guide your pairing: what grows together goes together. Spanish olives with Spanish cheeses, for example. And you can apply the motto to the animal source of your cheese, as well. Just pair the cheese with whatever the goat or cow or sheep was feeding on—green, grassy flavors for young Spring chevre; aged, farmhouse flavors for a winter cow’s milk cheese that was fed on hay.

…Relax!

If talking to your local monger and developing your own flavor palette freaks you out, maybe you’d prefer to start small. There are some seriously good cheese blogs out there, and plenty of producers and dairies keep their websites packed with cheese information. Tasted a cheese you loved? Research your new favorite makers! Are you into chemistry and how things work? Dig into the science that makes milk into many different types of cheese! Read books about cheese regions that interest you, or about cooking with cheese, or about building a cheese board, all from the comfort of your couch before you ever set out to the supermarket.

When it comes down to it, this entire process should be one that you enjoy. Look, I love cheese. Lots of people love cheese. But even the most experienced monger, having dedicated his life to this one singular food category, will understand that in the end, it’s just cheese. Taste, experiment, invent, branch out. Have fun with your cheese. Be brave with your cheese. In the end, it’s really just sour milk!

Resources & Links

There are a lot of great resources available to anyone interested in learning more about cheese. Max McCalman is considered an expert and pioneer of sorts, and his books The Cheese Plate and Cheese: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best serve as deep, insightful dives into the world of cheese. If you’re looking for something more practical, brush up on your pairing and plating skills with Tia Keenan’s The Art of the Cheese Plate.

If you’re interested in how milk turns into cheese, what differentiates each type, and where those crunchy cheese diamonds come from, Cheese Science is the site for you.

There are as many cheese blogs as there are types of cheese, and some simple searching will turn up a long list of options. Some of my favorites are Cheese Sex Death, an irreverent, provocative, and highly practical collection (Trader Joe’s cheese buying guide, anyone?); Madame Fromage‘s cheese info, recipes, pairings, and ideas, all served with a side of laughter; and Gordonzola  the blog of professional cheesemonger, cheese judge, and take-no-prisoners cheese writer, Gordon Edgar.

Just do some “cheese” Googling and you’ll find more info than you’ll ever need. You’ll move from Kraft to craft in no time!