photographed by NINA GALLANT | styled by KENDRA SMITH
While many kids dream of growing up to be doctor or a firefighter, there’s a reason why you won’t find a cheesemonger outfit among the Halloween costumes at the big box store: people in the cheese world often come to it from an entirely different profession. Jenn Mason was working in consumer research for enterprise companies, looking for a way to transition her skills to something more fulfilling when she hosted a wine and cheese tasting party for her 45th birthday. The party had a competitive twist: guests were tasked with creating pairings and presenting them to her. “We had people doing it in Yiddish, and Irish brogue, and like a Saturday Night Live skit—I ended up having the most amazing evening of my life,” Mason says.
The party was the push she needed. After extensive research and a weekend at the Cheese School of San Francisco, she opened her now five-year-old cheese shop, Curds and Co., in the Boston suburb of Brookline, Massachusetts. Six months later, she launched Curdbox, which offers a monthly subscription box with cheeses and pairings, accompanied by a tasting guide, a Spotify playlist and an “eat-along” podcast featuring Mason and her friend, artist Julie Fei-Fan Balzer. Most recently she introduced Boards and Co., a free, interactive online resource where anyone can learn about cheese, pairing, and board building. “We’ve taken everything we’ve learned over the last five years and made it really accessible,” she says. “It’s written in language that the everyday customer can understand, and it was never dumbed down.”
The first step on Boards and Co. is to take a quiz to learn your “cheese board personality.” There are seven, each with its own spokesperson and avatar; for example, Cleo is “The Maximalist” and Jackson is “The Artist.” Mason and her team have also renamed the traditional cheese categories to make them more approachable. Cooked and pressed cheeses are “smooth and melty,” cheddar and gouda are “friendly and flexible,” and “bloomy and brainy” are the bries and geotrichum-rind cheeses. Each category is similarly tagged with the flavor profiles that make good pairings. “It’s like mix and match,” she says. “You can pick your cheese and it will say it goes with sweet, salty, and sour, and then you can go to the shelves, where everything is labeled accordingly. We want everyone to walk out feeling like a genius.”
Pairings and experimenting with confidence are at the heart of Mason’s business. “We want cheese to be accessible and some cheeses need a partner to be accessible,” she says. “That’s why it’s Curds ‘and’ Co.; it’s cheese and the company it keeps.” Mason and her team created the following pairings, which are themed “Citrus and Spice.”
The wrinkly-rind goat milk member of this family of easy-to-love cheeses “is like the sequel of a movie that’s actually better than the original,” says Mason. Craize’s gluten-free crackers are sturdy enough to spread on, and their sweet-salty profile is an ideal match for the lemony tang of the cheese.
Made by Ecuadoran native Arturo Chiriboga, this creamy blue is a gateway cheese, says Mason. “If you like butter but you think you don’t like blue cheese, this is how we’re going to get you to like blue cheese.” Slathered on a dark chocolate cookie with a hint of chili “takes it up a notch,” she says. “You feel like the grownup your mother wanted you to be when you eat this pairing.”
This washed-rind wheel with a complex, earthy flavor near the rind and a milder, fruity interior is for lovers of funk. “Or, if you don’t like funky you can just eat the inside,” says Mason. She pairs the gooey cheese with startlingly lemony roasted almonds, a customer favorite, which “tastes like Fruity Pebbles in the best possible way.”
Produced on a lake island, this traditional farmhouse gouda is bright and grassy, with warm, bourbon-y back notes. “We’re playing off that brightness with small-batch Brins marmalade; the saffron takes the edge off the lemon and the sweetness to give it undertones of honey that goes great with the cheese” says Mason.
Hay milk and a dried flower–coated rind gives this “smooth and melty” Alpine cheese sweet notes of honey and meadow grasses. Mason likes to pair it with spicy, smoky, vegan harissa—packaged in HLTHPUNK’s handy tube—on a baguette or in an elevated grilled cheese.