This past January, Sarah Munly was crowned the winner of the curd-crazed bacchanalia that is the Cheesemonger Invitational. She’s participated in the competition a total of three times, which might brand her a “curd nerd,” but you won’t find her sporting any cheese-themed ink. “I’m not decked out in cheese tattoos at this point, so I don’t have that same shine as some mongers,” she says. We’d argue that shine is subjective. Munly is proof that becoming a decorated cheesemonger is as much about craft and consciousness as it is about showmanship. Chief among what drives her: food accessibility. We caught Munly on the eve of her new professional journey as a member of the leadership team at Good Company Cheese Bar & Bistro in Newberg, Oregon.
culture: What were the best and most stressful moments of the 2020 Cheesemonger Invitational?
SARAH MUNLEY: So, six people make it onto the final stage, and of those six people, four of them were ladies. Which, historically speaking, is not the case—it’s usually the opposite. So, we had a really strong crew of women representing as mongers this year, which I think was really wonderful. I would say the most stressful for me was being onstage. I don’t mind small groups, but once you get into a lot of people ,it’s like ahhh, I don’t really want to be up here! You’re trying to represent who you are where you don’t necessarily feel as comfortable as you would like to.
How has your life been different since your CMI win? Or has it? (Besides COVID.)
SM: I’m definitely an introvert, and I’m not huge on social media. So, the number of people reaching out to me and making connections blew my mind. Also, I still kind of feel like I don’t know how I did it. Like, did they like me, did I deserve it, or were they just tired of me competing?laughs
I know all about that imposter syndrome, but chuck that out the window. What was your theme this year?
SM:I really wanted to push the element of women in the food industry and recognize them. I was trying to do a timeline, but it turns out we don’t record women’s accomplishments throughout history very well—
You don’t say.
SM:—so instead of that, I went with the theme of goddesses. I had three different goddesses: one for my beverage, one for my bite, and one for my plate. Cheese and Culture by Paul Kindstedt talks about the goddesses of dairy and how important they were in Mesopotamia. There was a whole lot of mulling over, like, how am I going to get this point across without it being heavy-handed or superficial? Other years I feel like I focused so much on what’s going to be the perfect pairing, buying a bunch of ingredients, which I think is one of the downsides of doing something like CMI. If you don’t have access in your workplace or you don’t have an expendable budget, it makes it really hard to come up with something that you’re really excited about. You get really worried, or you spend too much money on it, so finding a balance is important.
That seems like something the CMI organizers can’t really ignore.
SM: Right. So, my plate, which was a dedication to the Sumerian goddess Inanna, was sort of a Mediterranean thing: It had fresh pomegranates, dates, honeycomb, and I made a pistachio shortbread. But none of the elements were really obscure. Nothing was beyond the average person’s ability to understand why it would go with cheese. And I think that that may actually have benefited me. There’s something really exciting about using those obscure, unique ingredients that chefs are able to make or create, but using things that anybody can come across is also making it accessible, which is important.
The theme of the Winter issue of culture is Dessert, but at the moment, access to certain foods, ingredients, and resources is limited. How would you recommend experiencing luxury during a time like this?
SM: I feel like this is the year that simple things, like Raclette, really take off—because what’s sexier than hot, melting, molten cheese? But you shouldn’t have to go out and buy a $200 Raclette machine, so finding a way to do it with a cast iron skillet can simplify it, but still make it feel special. Or, if you don’t have Raclette, see how many different cheeses you can play with, to make each meal a little bit different.
I love the use of cheese in desserts too, like in sweet baked goods. I think it’s an underutilized ingredient.
SM: I completely agree. A while ago, the Mobile Monger Janee’ Muha made these chocolate chip cookies that had Gouda in them. And I keep thinking about that, like how you could do a Basque sheep’s milk cheese with almonds and sour cherries, and that could be an amazing, fun cookie.
That’s what we’re trying to harness in this issue, like: OK, it’s gonna be a weird holiday season, but there are still simple things that you can do that will make you feel at least a little bit of luxury and comfort that you might normally have better access to.
SM: We already see it with people making bread at home, so what are they going to be doing for holiday baked goods? Like, how can we incorporate cheese to make things just a little more elevated? I can see like a chèvre pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, and you make a handful of little ones to share with the people that you wish you were sharing the table with.
So, if things continue as they are for the foreseeable future, what do you see as the future of mongering?
SM: I think that we are transitioning to more digital ways of doing things. I definitely think that there are going to be more services that will help consumers connect with your farmers or your producers or your local shops. I think there’s going to be a lot of people who are so stressed out that they don’t even want to take the time to pick the cheese. But they trust the person who’s behind the counter, even if the counter happens to be behind a screen right now, and they’re going to let you pick their selections for them. My hope is that there’s a strong enough community of mongers out there that can find a way to reach out to their communities and continue to sell the products that we want to support. Because if we don’t keep selling those products we’re going to lose them. We lose those farmers, we lose those traditions. And those traditions are part of why I entered cheese to begin with: the connection with the food, the people, and the land—that’s what it’s about.
Have you seen any newer resources for mongers that would help educate them during this time, when they might not be able to attend a class in person, or travel abroad?
SM: There’s definitely a lot of mongers who’ve been taking it upon themselves to educate, using their social media accounts to share cheeses that they’re excited about with the public. Columbia Cheese, Adam Moskowitz and his crew—they’re doing a great job connecting mongers to producers, some from other countries. I mean, in a way, we’re able to meet cheesemakers that we never would have thought to meet because we’re being pushed into this digital world. It’s really great to be able to tune in and see what Spring Brook Farm looks like, or, oh—all of a sudden I’m in Switzerland!
As a food media outlet, and one in such a small niche, culture is trying to do a better job of reaching and representing BIPOC artisans, and making our information more accessible to communities we might not have been able to reach historically. We’re always open to new ideas.
SM: You know FoodCorps? They go into communities and teach kids about growing vegetables. There should be a way for us to teach kids about cheese, no matter what their background is. Get people connected with it somehow. Start small. I think the key to making a difference in the world of food is starting small.
PAIR LIKE A WINNER
Chac Chel’s Bite (Mayan goddess of creation, water, corn, & cacao)
Friend in Cheeses Jam Co. Prickly Purple Heart Jam
Landmark Creamery Rebel Miel: a semi-soft sheep’s milk cheese washed in Paint It Black Braggot, a stout-mead blend from Giant Jones Brewing & Bos Meadery
El Sabor de Oaxaca Authentic Mexican Mole Sauce
Sweety drop pepper
Drizzle of honey