Counter Intelligence | culture: the word on cheese
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Counter Intelligence

It was a When Harry Met Sally moment at the cheese counter. No, not that moment. The one right afterward, when a woman says, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

In this case, I was happily munching on samples from my cheesemonger, asking about new arrivals, and making my selections, when I was approached by a young, obviously well-heeled couple. “You seem to know what you’re doing,” the man ventured shyly. “We’d just like some cheese. Could you help us?”

Flummoxed, but happy to talk cheese—even with total strangers—I asked a few basic questions and made suggestions. Minutes later, they tracked me down in the sandwich line to say thanks. They’d bought everything I’d recommended.

It’s a true story and a fond memory. But I wondered, how could this happen at a place where the only thing better than the cheese selection is the expert, solicitous staff? Truth was, that couple was more comfortable talking to a fellow shopper than to a cheese seller. Such a pity.

I’ve always found cheesemongers to be friendly, passionate, knowledgeable, and eager to help everyone from artisan aficionados to newbies weaned on Kraft singles. But successful cheese selling requires a dialogue, not a monologue. To help get the exchange going, here are some encouraging tips from cheesemongers:

Don’t be intimidated.

“Don’t be afraid to say the wrong thing,” says Erin Amey, cheese and charcuterie buyer for Stinky Bklyn in New York. “Everyone says, ‘I don’t know how to talk about cheese,’ but there’s no right way to talk about cheese.”

Likewise, “don’t be afraid to point or butcher names,” says Aubrey Thomason, managing partner for Zingerman’s Creamery in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Don’t take the cheese so seriously!”

Be honest when sampling.

“Samples get a conversation going,” says Siobhan Ryan of The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills. “Your reaction tells us a lot.”

Ask about what’s in season.

If you don’t ask, then you might miss out on amazing annual specialties, such as Vacherin Mont d’Or.

Draw on your experience.

“I believe everyone has some idea of what they want— an image, texture, taste, or cultural memory,” says Christian Petty, assistant manager for Surdyk’s in Minneapolis. “I want people to tell me what they have experienced, have liked and not liked, and what they’ve read about or heard about that interests them.”

Explain your desired experience.

Which textures do you seek? Soft and runny, or drier and more crystalline? Breakable and crumbly, or more easily sliceable with a knife? “I always ask if they’re in the mood for something soft or hard, and normally, people at least have an answer for that, so we go from there,” Amey says.

Keep it simple.

Forget snobby, <cite.Sideways-type talk. “I want people to tell me flavors using simple descriptors,” Petty says. “Is it buttery, acidic (sharp), pungent, earthy, nutty, or sweet?”

Be as definitive as possible.

Amey recalls a customer request for “dusty” cheese (translation: earthy). Her recommendations: Tomme de Savoie or musty Tomme Crayeuse. Another request: a cheese that “had spent a long time in a cave,” Her recommendation: Chällerhocker. She also notes that “everybody has a different idea of what ‘sharp’ is,” adding that customers could mean tongue-prickling cheddar or an aged goat cheese. “So I ask if they want something stinky, or caramel-y, or sweet. Once we narrow it down, I give them a taste to see if we’re on track.”

Talk about your likes.

“If you say, ‘I don’t know anything; I only eat cheddar,’ we start with tastes of something that’s a cheddar style, but a little further out in flavor,” Ryan says. It’s often a matter of bridging familiarity and novelty. Similarly, if you’ve been eating Jarlsberg for 20 years, say so. “You have to probe around a bit,” Ryan says. “People get into flavor ruts.”

Mention your new favorites.

Share what you like now versus what you started out liking; it clues cheesemongers in to the evolution of your palate.

Ask for the cheesemonger’s preference.

It builds rapport and often leads to delightful discoveries. Moreover, your cheesemonger is likely to be able to recommend beverage pairings and accompaniments for a cheese if it’s among his or her personal favorites.
Think beyond price. “What we get quite a bit is, ‘What’s the most expensive cheese?’” Ryan says, noting the “Beverly Hills factor.” You may not like the most expensive one. Conversely, if you always go for the frugal choice, perhaps treat yourself to a smaller piece of something more spendy.

The bottom line?

“You know more about what you like than the cheesemonger,” Thomason says. “Help them help you.”

Robin Watson

Robin Watson is a Detroit-based features writer who makes frequent foodie trips to Minnesota's Twin Cities.