By Paul Partica, The Cheese Shop Of Centerbrook

A state that allows the sale of both wine and cheese in the same retail location might just be heaven on earth to some. Unfortunately, Connecticut is not one of those states.

Paul Partica, Cheesemonger and Owner, Cheese Shop of Centerbrook
Paul Partica, Cheesemonger and Owner, Cheese Shop of Centerbrook

The role of a cheesemonger is very similar to that of a wine connoisseur. Most of us know how to approach our local wine merchant or sommelier and have likely learned the right questions to ask. For example, you might inquire about such topics as where to store the Bordeaux or the Chardonnays. You may also have learned the basic types of wines and what you particularly like, so you can now order by this classification.

Buying cheese is the same. A cheesemonger should be well-versed in different cheese characteristics and be able to show you them by example. I break these characteristics down into 12 families of cheese. And there are no set rules regarding this; it is simply a method I have created to help organize and understand different types of cheese.

When a customer asks what’s good, they might be asking what is available in fresh condition or on special that day. It might also mean that they don’t know much about cheese, other than knowing they generally like it. It is the cheesemonger’s job is to satisfy their needs. Asking questions as to what kinds of cheese they already know they like or what characteristics they might be looking for can help determine what direction to go in in terms of showing the best in that particular family of cheeses.

I always appreciate the customer who asks something like, “What do you have in a sharp cheddar or creamy blue that’s in good condition?” This opens up the customer’s options much more than referring to a specific brand. Or you might say, “I like Danish Blue Castello; do you have something similar I might like better?” This now gives the cheesemonger a chance to do his job.

Here’s a quick list of the 12 cheese families:

Fresh                          Swiss                          Cheddar                    English

Dutch                         Port  Salut                 Tilsit                           Blue

Hard                           Soft-ripening           Washed Rind           Sheep & Goat

Another role of the cheesemonger is to carefully buy cheese based on quality and current condition. In some cases, a skilled monger aims to buy cheeses when they are still young, as in the case of soft-ripening and washed-rind cheeses. Cheese selection is of utmost importance.

I think many understand what I mean when I refer to a cheese as a Brie-style, but Brie is only one of hundreds of cheeses in the soft-ripening family.  Also included in this family are very young cheeses – about thirty days old – which start with a center core that slowly ripens and softens as the cheese ages. If this doesn’t help you, ask your favorite cheesemonger to show you a soft-ripening variety the next time you’re buying cheese.

Unfortunately, many of the Bries and Camemberts found today have been over-stabilized to meet the long shelf life required by supermarkets and are therefore poor examples of the soft-ripening family. If you like soft, creamy Brie, you might ask your cheesemonger, “What do you have in a good soft-ripening cheese today?” A proficient monger should be prepared to show you what’s available and what might meet your taste profile.

Some cheesemongers are also affineurs. The affineur is the person whose job is to control the process of ripening and aging cheese. Cheeses need to be kept under proper temperature and properly wrapped so they can mature and be sold at peak condition. It is very important the cheese does not over-ripen or dry out. This why you should always try before you buy. You may generally know the cheese but you don’t know about the history of the specific wheel in front of you.

In addition to carrying local and domestic cheeses, a good cheesemonger needs to have an ample international collection as well. Many cheeses don’t duplicate well when made in the United States. Your cheesemonger should make you aware of this. Variety is also important; an accomplished monger will carry cheeses from all families.

Another role of the cheesemonger is to create a nice pairing of cheeses for you. Asking questions of the customer such as, “What else will you be serving with the cheese; what are the beverages being served; and what time of day will they be served?” are all good inquiries in helping to determine the right cheeses for the event.

Lastly and most importantly, a cheesemonger should be a teacher. Since there are over 12,000 cheeses (and growing) in the world today, he or she should understand that the customer is not going to know most of the cheeses available. To help avoid intimidation, a good cheesemonger will offer samples and see where the customer is headed in terms of taste preferences. To learn more about cheese families, visit the blog on our website to read the article entitled “Breaking it Down: The 12 Families of Cheese.”

The Role of a Cheesemonger
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