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Cheese Caves Help Mold a Passionate and Purposeful Life

There’s a quote from Anthony Bourdain: “You have to be a romantic to invest yourself, your money, and your time in cheese.”

I remember hearing it for the first time and getting defensive because I didn’t want to be exposed as the hopeless romantic that I am.

The truth is that I live in complete service to something that will never love me back or know that I exist, and that is both heartbreaking and deeply rewarding, and is potentially love’s highest calling. Simone de Beauvoir talks about women experiencing annihilation in love, and while her book, Second Sex, is a critique of patriarchal coupling, de Beauvoir didn’t say anything about the love between a woman and a wheel of cheese. She was French, so I have to assume she’d understand.

My first heartbreak inspired my first job in cheese. I had just graduated college with a degree in religious studies and was quickly circling the drain of existential despair that leads most people to graduate school. The truth is that I never liked school and the idea of another two to four years in academics seemed unfathomably painful. My soon-to-be-ex boyfriend told me to “relax” and “do something enjoyable for a change, like work at a cheese shop” while I figured out what I wanted from a career.

I signed on for a cheesemaking apprenticeship at a raw milk dairy farm in Massachusetts. I loved the work deeply and found that of all the places I was stealing away to cry, the creamery was not one of them. I felt a deep sense of purpose and devotion that comes naturally when you create something. The cheese didn’t care that I was too heartbroken to eat, or that I was sleeping in the farmhouse’s attic crawl space, knocking my head against the ceiling every night. The cows had to be milked regardless, the cheese had to be turned, and I desperately needed to be needed. So, there I stayed through the fall, until I fled because I couldn’t stand the smell of cow shit and it had started to snow.

Back in New York, I began working behind the counter of Lucy’s Whey in Chelsea Market. I developed crushes on most of the customers, my favorites being the single New York women who had all moved there in the 1970s and 80s. They were fun and neurotic, with boyfriends half their age and apartments all to themselves. They would talk to me like I was part of their tribe, which felt as much a blessing as it did a curse. I sold them Ameribella, Pawlet, and raclette. One of them gave me a part-time job at her jewelry store. I fell in love with Dunbarton Blue. I flirted with the men of Chelsea, knowing who preferred washed rinds, who liked the camemberts exactly three weeks after they arrived, and who came in tipsy after Friday happy hour for weekend provisions and light abuse before heading home to New Jersey. When I wasn’t behind the counter, I was trying hard at domesticity myself, moving in with a man who worked at the bookstore down the block.

Around this time, Crown Finish Caves had opened a few blocks away from my apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It specialized in cheese aging, and I was desperate to get back on the production side of things. I called the office monthly, offering to work for free in whatever capacity they needed, sterilizing equipment, washing cheeses, doing store demos. My cold calling didn’t work. They had one employee at the time and weren’t looking for more, but as luck would have it, that one employee was developing a crush on my best friend, who was a regular customer at the farmers’ market. Every good cheesemonger must know how to flirt and have an infinite capacity for love. My best friend took me to a party at the employee’s house, and after a few beers an interview was scheduled for that Monday.

I arrived at Crown Finish Caves as green as the cheeses did and I was lucky to mature alongside them for the better part of my adulthood. I started as an intern, working days in the cave and nights at a bar to make ends meet. I pleaded for the sales position when it opened up, and when that didn’t happen, I started doing it regardless. Things ended with the guy from the bookstore and once again I found myself crying in a cheese cave over a breakup. When I sold off the batches from that period, I wondered if customers could taste my despair. I told myself that by the time the wheels of Tubby were up, I would be over it. My friends helped me move into a new apartment, and two weeks into my lease I heard my landlord die through the floorboards. I got myself a therapist and tried to order all my chaos in our weekly sessions.

Meanwhile, we were creating new cheeses at work—Barnburner and Queen of Corona. We pored over lengthy R&D processes, held meetings over label designs, and had debates about price point. The cave transformed with each cheese we retired and every new one we introduced. The constant flow of inventory reminded me that I had to let go of the old to make room for the new. The wheels of Tubby sold about a year later, and I had fallen in love again. Shortly after that, the pandemic hit.

The process of cheesemaking is a science, but the business of cheesemaking is fortune telling. In a typical year, calculating how much milk you’ll need in May for cheeses you’ll sell in December isn’t all that complicated. You look at your numbers from years past and fluff them a bit to factor in your growth. For obvious reasons, this math was made nearly impossible in 2020; our crystal balls were fogged. In an attempt to be optimistic, I looked at the cheeses. Time had become elastic during the lockdown, but the mold on the Bufarolos showed up right on cue. Again, the cheese was indifferent to my needs, and for reasons beyond me I found this extremely comforting. I had found a constant in a period referred to as “strange” and “uncertain.” I wagered that whatever cheese we had to sell would be sold one way or another, so we sent in our purchase orders. We were also launching even more new cheeses, some of our best yet, each one ushering in a new wave of excitement and optimism.

The decision to close last spring did not come lightly. We agonized for months over alternative options, but nothing felt tenable in a way that would do the company justice and leave our love for one another intact. We had survived the darkest days of the pandemic, but it felt like we had run a marathon and were told that we had to keep running. I can’t speak for anyone else’s reasoning, but I had gone through enough breakups to know when it was time to call it.

When I set out to write this essay, I wanted to write about love, and all that comes with it—passion, yearning, heartbreak, and change. I also wanted to talk about cheese, and the life I built around it. I hoped that in the process of writing, I would be able to make sense of all three. After Crown Finish Caves closed, I had to decide where I would work next. Since my profession is my passion, it was a matter of the heart, which led me to myself, the hopeless romantic that I am.

Caroline Hesse

Caroline Hesse is the proprietor of the New York City–based wholesale cheese distribution company, C. Hesse Cheese, and the former director of sales at Crown Finish Caves in Brooklyn. C. Hesse Cheese seeks to act as a bridge between dairy farmers, cheesemakers, and their end customers, helping each one to tell their story and share their points of view.

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