Behind every cheese, there’s a good story waiting to be told. You just have to ask the right people. In this blog series, Amanda will be interviewing cheesemongers from around the country and relaying their most fantastic tales of international travel, in-shop aging, and curious customers. Last week we met Formaggio Kitchen’s jet-setting cheese expert, Valerie Gurdal. This week we sit down with culture‘s very own founder and retailer liaison, Lassa Skinner. Read on, and you’ll have a chance to win a copy of our Cheese+ ultimate pairings issue!
Lassa Skinner chooses her friends wisely. It just so happens that one of her good friends, Shauna Dowdy – owner of and cheesemaker at Marin County’s Bleating Heart Creamery - makes one of her favorite cheeses ever: Fat Bottom Girl. Coincidence? Maybe. But while we could accuse her of befriending cheesemakers solely as means to get to the good stuff (and who could blame her?), the connection is, in fact, more genuine. For someone as passionate as Lassa, it seems a love for cheese is a telltale sign of good character.
Skinner’s companionship with artisan cheese and the people who love it began long before she started culture in 2008. Though after college she worked as an archaeologist, she started her “second life” when she earned her culinary certificate at Boston University. She stuck around the area afterwards, working back- and front-of-house restaurant jobs, as a freelance caterer, and eventually, at Formaggio Kitchen.
“I was the first woman to work at the cheese counter,” she recalled. “It was tough.”
She soon decided to follow in the footsteps of movie stars and mongers alike and headed out west to find fame in California. She quickly became enamored with the Golden State’s cheese shop clientele.
“They’re very food interested and savvy,” she said. “And they’re very locally minded. That’s something that I am very drawn to. It’s why I moved here.”
At Napa Valley’s Oxbow Cheese Merchant, the kids show early signs of becoming cheese connoisseurs.
“I’m always amazed by little kids who want the stinkiest cheese possible,” said Skinner. “They love blues. At Oxbow there were a number of six- to nine-year-olds who would say, ‘the stronger the better.’”
Perhaps it is Skinner’s deeply felt connection to California cheesemakers and consumers that influences her palate. Another one of her favorites is produced by a Marin County company, Nicasio Valley Cheese.
“It’s called Foggy Morning,” she explained. “It’s a fresh cheese. It’ s very young – just six- to seven-days-old – and it has to get hand delivered. It’s this beautiful little supple, milky round. I never get tired of it.”
Though Skinner leaves a big fraction of her heart in Napa, Calif., she is always on the road as a freelance cheesemonger. Her most recent stint was in Jackson, Wyo.
“Jackson was awesome because it was so different from anywhere I know,” she said. “I had heard that the people would be more into the real basics, but that was not true. We had a lot of incredible cheeses. There are a lot of good palates up there. Not to mention moose right outside your window.”
But hopping from cheese shop to cheese shop is difficult work.
“You don’t know [the shop’s] POS [Point of Sale] system, and everyone has different ways of doing things,” Skinner explained. “The best way to be is to have enough experience that you come in confident but humble enough to know that it’s not your place.”
And, indeed, that’s just Skinner’s style. She may be intimidatingly knowledgeable, but in the end, her goal is to provide the customers with a delicious piece of cheese that suits their palates. Her advice to fellow mongers? “Shut up and listen.”
“Let the customers talk to you. Try to figure out what their palate is. Don’t overwhelm them with too much information. First and foremost, you’re there for customer service.”
In the same vein, she encourages customers to take advantage of their monger’s knowledge and be open minded.
“I always urge people to think of a particular cheese you like and pay attention to the type of milk, the texture, and the taste. Once you tell that to a monger, you’ll have hundreds of varieties to try. Be open to change; if you know you like one thing, ask what else is similar.”
Lassa’s parting words channeled her laid back California attitude.
“It’s just fermented milk. Just like how wine’s pretty much grape juice. Don’t be intimidated.”
It’s one-offs like these that make Lassa the coolest, calmest monger we know.
Has a cheesemonger convinced you to try a mysterious new cheese? Is that cheese now one of your favorites? Post your experience in the comments section, and you could win a copy of our Cheese+ pairings issue! Comments must be posted by 11:59 p.m. EDT on July 28, 2014, to be eligible to win.Photo Credit: Featured Image courtesy of Lassa Skinner