My career as a cheese-monger was short-lived. I spent a whirlwind six months behind the counter, learning everything I could about every cheese in the case and studying each cheesemaker, farmer, and region those cheeses represented. I filled notebooks, stacked flashcards, and took home hunks of cheese daily, committing provenance and process to memory as I learned to distinguish between textures, smells, and flavors.
Years after that stint as a monger, I still try to hold on to my love of cheese learning. When I moved to Los Angeles recently, I inadvertently became the local cheese nerd. Duties included: designing elaborate cheese boards for parties, feeding party-goers perfect cheese bites, and recommending cheese selections to be served at parties to which I had not been invited. Welcome to LA.
All the same, cheese is clearly common ground in my new community. Some of the people with whom I find myself breaking bread are eager to discuss their favorite spring chevre or review the new creamery stall at the farmer’s market. But others, those yet uninitiated to the world of craft and artisan cheese, are hungry for a taste of what lies beyond the dairy aisle at the supermarket.
It’s worth mentioning that I am not a cheese snob. I have witnessed the ultimate home grits recipe, expertly whipped together by a Louisiana-born Los Angeleno who will not reveal much about his recipe other than that it demands Kraft American singles. I will never turn up my nose at pre-sliced product for sandwiches, shredded stuff for taco night, or even, on a particularly sad day, cheese in can and spelled with a “z.”
But learning to love artisan cheeses is a different sort of dairy experience. I’ve been nominated an unofficial cheese educator by these friends who have never been to a craft—that’s craft with a “c”—cheese counter before. And because there are so many cheese people more qualified than I to take on that mantle, I have made it very clear to my friends that the best I can offer is to share my passion and tell the cheese stories I know.
Once I’ve shirked the responsibility of getting anything right, my job lands very clearly in the territory of facilitation. I’m far away in both space and time form my most potent cheese knowledge years. So who is really best equipped to guide my friends’ cheese journeys? The mongers.
It’s not hard to see how that over-the-counter interaction can be intimidating. There’s a whole lexicon of words about making, aging, smelling, and tasting cheese that can feel foreign and inaccessible. But after I suggest a few of my favorites, I turn immediately to the cheesemongers. I inquire, open-minded and curious, inviting their stories, opinions, and expertise. Once that door is open, even the shyest cheese-lovers are usually ready to come out of their shells and start tasting.
Recently, that approach led me to two lasting cheese affairs. When we cracked a brand new Tomme Brulée at DTLA Cheese a few weeks ago, I fell so immediately in love that I ended up bringing home nearly half the wheel. We traced what we learned about the cheese’s torched exterior to its distinctly smoky taste, layered atop its grassy, meaty, sweet notes. But we had to trust our monger to get to this French raw sheep’s milk beauty—the suggestion arose after we’d initially set out on the pecorino path.
At the cheese counter at Eataly Los Angeles, I became fiercely loyal to one monger in particular. I had come to recognize our similar tastes, and I was excited to expose a new group of cheese lovers to her world. When they asked for something surprising, she recommended Bergamino di Bufala—none of them had ever tasted a buffalo’s milk cheese before. I now keep a stash of milky, mushroomy, bright Bergamino in my refrigerator (although it never lasts long), and sing the praises of the water buffalo every chance I get.
It is true that sometimes that sort of interaction isn’t possible with mongers. On a busy Sunday at your local cheese counter, mongers may not have time to linger. Or perhaps they’re new and less knowledgeable than you’d like—that’s happened on some of our cheese outings too. In those cases, I’ve encouraged friends to let their tastes guide them. I ask them to be honest about what they do and don’t like, we buy based on their instinctive reactions, and then we go home and Google. The internet of cheese is a wonder all its own.
Over many visits to the cheese shops of Los Angeles, our group has begun to develop its own cheese appreciation language. We have a frame of reference, after sharing many impromptu cheese boards and late-night snacks. Together, we have practiced the restraint required to smell a new cheese and inspect its texture before swallowing a sample whole. It takes patience to distinguish between a cheese’s smells and its tastes.
Some friends have felt inspired to experiment with new pairings, whether they invent a new perfect bite or decide to bring over a bottle of something. We don’t always get it right, but that’s part of the game. We’re learning together, and falling in love with a whole new world of cheese. For me, I still get that cheese immersion I loved as a monger, but with all of the pleasure and none of the responsibility. On the best days, I also stand to learn a lot from our cheese club. While I’ve been sharing my passion for dairy, someone else at the table has been sharing his passion for whiskey. Talk about a match made in cheese heaven.
Chloe Olewitz is a freelance writer covering culture, lifestyle, and the arts. Her writing has been featured in Playboy, Brooklyn Magazine, i-D, Taste Talks, and Roads & Kingdoms. Learn more about Chloe at www.chloeolewitz.com.