Photographed by Mallory Scyphers
Louise Converse’s first cheese memory is of Stilton. That seems appropriate for Artisan Cheese Company’s proprietor, who is originally from England and Scotland. And while Converse doesn’t recommend Stilton in particular on the following cheese plate, she does include a Swiss blue. That’s also not surprising for this monger, who thinks about cheeses and their pairings in a classic sense.
“A lot of what we do, first and foremost, is to want the cheese to have a conversation with our mouths,” she says. Then, when it comes time to add condiments and accompaniments, “the sum of two parts must have harmony and no clashes.”
After 25-plus years in various senior administrator positions at Harvard University, Converse opened Artisan Cheese Company in Sarasota, Florida, in March 2012. A decade later, it’s still one of the few independently owned, hand-cut-to-order cheese shops in the state, although it moved and expanded in 2018 into a larger, full-service space.
In selecting cheeses, natural wines, and pantry items, and in designing her in-demand cheese trays, Converse calls upon her multi-pronged past: Her experience running transnational conferences in England and Europe for Harvard, during which she’d pop into whatever specialty shops she could find. Her studies are in printmaking, graphic design, and the history of art and architecture, both as an undergrad and graduate. And like many people who eventually find themselves full-time in hospitality, her early years were spent working in restaurants.
But despite her very hands-on approach as sole owner and monger, she still cultivates a sense of romance. “I am under no illusion that I am anything but in honorable and magical service to the cheese,” she says. “Everything I do here is to shine a light on the cheese, and to be its storyteller.”
Converse calls this spruce cambium bark-wrapped bloomy rind cheese a “year- round go-to.” She says that you can make it a bit different on the board by bruléeing the top of the paste with molasses or cane sugar. You can also add complexity by partnering it with fragrant charcuterie like the juniper-flavored salami from Vermont Salumi.
Using the same cow’s milk that meets quality standards for Le Gruyère AOP, cheesemaker Michael Hanke makes this grey- marbled, spreadable, double- cream blue. Converse balances the zestier nuances of the cheese with the Quince + Apple Company’s Raspberry Rose Preserve. “The slight pepper note of the blue is balanced by the floral notes of cherry and slight citrus,” she says.
Converse describes this cheese as having “a lovely lactic mouthfeel with a citric tang.” The paprika, which dusts the flat top and runs through the middle as a small, thin spiky line, also provides a faint smokiness. She says, “It’s absolutely luscious on its own. It has a lot to say. But I like to come behind it with a local honey or honeycomb.”
Initially piquant and pungent on the palate, this clothbound cheddar offers fruit-and-nut back notes that practically call out for partnering with one or the other. Here, Converse chooses to highlight the fruitiness of the cheese by bringing Rancho Meladuco dates to the board. “Tender and juicy, the dates draw out the deeper complex notes of the cheese,” she says.
With this “perfectly aged, at-the-peak-of- its-moment” Gouda from cheesemaker and cheese book author Betty Koster, Converse likes to experiment. The toffee notes cry out for a daring pairing with Brins Banana Jam. The unusual combination, she says, is reminiscent of Bananas Foster, and—dare we say—fire.