The spectacular growth and maturation in the Artisan and Specialty cheese industry over the last decade owes much to the creativity and hard work of our homegrown cheesemakers. But there is another, less well-sung group of people without whom this revolution in gastronomy could not have taken place: the Cheesemongers.
What is a Cheesemonger? The word monger was first recorded in the 14th century when it referred to a “dealer in” or “agent” of a particular thing, usually fish, cheese or iron. The negative connotations that came later (think warmonger, whoremonger) referred to someone who “traded” or “trafficked” in some contemptable endeavor.
What is a cheesemonger?
Someone who tends and markets cheese.
Thankfully, the fish and cheesemongers were spared these negative connotations and the term has recently undergone a transformation, entering the common lexicon of foodies and spreading more and more into common use. With its medieval roots, the term is grounded and sturdy, conjuring images of toil and honest, hard work. This, I can tell you, is the case with the cheesemongers on the scene today.
Tending dozens if not hundreds of cheeses in various stages of ripeness, being able to properly care for each is not for the faint of heart. Beyond that, garnering enough knowledge to connect consumers with the right cheese by communicating the unique story behind the rind, the flavor profile, nuances and pairing partners is massively complex and overwhelming especially in ones early days behind the cheese counter.
Until quite recently there was precious little information out there about cheese in written form. A few key tomes filled my bookshelf as I worked the counter in the late 90’s, “The Cheese Primer” (1996) by Steven Jenkins being the standout.
Much of my information came in the form of scrutinizing labels and absorbing knowledge during occasional visits by cutting-edge distributor representatives from visionary companies like Neal’s Yard Dairy. I garnered what I could from co-workers who had been there awhile but there was no real “training” involved. “Here’s the cheese, go sell,” was the refrain. It truly felt like I was working in a void.
In fact, I regularly questioned my sanity and motivations; why would I, a college educated person, willingly choose this $10/hr job. Yes, I loved cheese and telling the story of cheese, but where was this going for me? From my perch in Austin, TX, I was unaware of a larger, collective shift in the cheese world happening at cheese shops around the country. It was evolving into a real Vocation.
…then a collective shift, it was evolving into a real Vocation…
The past decade has produced a monumental shift in the industry, similar to the wine and craft beer industry 20 years ago. The number of cheeses available has exploded as a supporting infrastructure has matured. Importers and Distributors have taken more of an interest in specialty foods, serving less as middlemen and more as conduits of information sharing stories about the products and producers.
The number of cheeses available has exploded as a supporting infrastructure has matured.
All of these interconnected threads have led to a sort of critical mass in the cheese world where we are seeing many exciting developments that bode well for the future of cheese.
Again paralleling the wine industry, plans are in motion to create a certification program for those involved in the trade, similar to the sommelier designation. When complete, an exam would allow people who possess a base-line of knowledge about cheese to quantify their skills, further building a professional network and raising the bar for cheese sales and awareness.
And it’s not just theory and behind the scenes action. At the 2009 American Cheese Society conference in Austin, TX, held its first annual merchandising competition, celebrating the work of Cheesemongers; five teams got to show off their skills in a contest based on the French Caseus competition which launched in 2006.
The Merchandising Competition involved the timed cutting, wrapping and displaying cheese in a case as well as cheese knowledge. Winning of the 2009 contest was Team Oregon: Steve Jones from Cheese Bar and Tom VanVorhees, Cheese Shop Manager for Rogue Creamery. The 2nd Annual competition was held at ACS Seattle 2010 with hometown heroes from Team DeLaurenti’s taking top honors.
9 teams from around the country competed in a fast and fun series of 6 challenges with hip names like “Dapper Wrapper,” “Dare to Pair” and “Slate Your Plate.” Matt Rubiner of Rubiner’s Cheese Shop in Great Barrington, MA took top honors. See a great photo essay of the event here.
It takes years before someone is really “qualified” to call him or herself a cheesemonger. Some will self-apply the term after a few weeks or months; this vexes the true professionals.
For a glimpse into the real world behind the rind, don’t miss “Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge” by Gordon Edgar. It’s an absorbing, smartly written account by an outspoken, punk rock-lovin’ cheesemonger from Rainbow Grocery, a worker-owned co-op in San Francisco. Not to be missed if you want a glimpse behind the scenes of the cheese shop.
With so many developments in the world of those who directly connect cheese to the consumer, it is clear that it is we, the cheese lovers, who will benefit most from all the happenings.