Behind the Wheel
By Christine Hyatt
The spectacular growth and maturation in the artisan and specialty cheese industry over the last decade in the Northwest and other cheese-centric regions of our country owes much to the creativity and hard work of cheesemakers. But there is another, less-recognized 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 product - usually fish, cheese or iron. The negative connotations that came later (think "warmonger," "whoremonger") referred to someone who "traded" or "trafficked" in some contemptible endeavor.
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 cheesemongers on the scene today.
Caring for dozens, if not hundreds, of cheeses in various stages of ripeness is not for the faint of heart. Beyond that, garnering enough knowledge to connect consumers with the perfect cheese by communicating the unique story behind each, its flavor profile, nuances and pairing partners is massively complex and overwhelming, especially in the 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 '90s, "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. It truly felt like I was working in a void.
I regularly questioned my sanity and motivations: Why would I, a college-educated person, willingly choose this $10-an-hour job? Yes, I loved cheese and telling its story, but where was this going for me? From my perch in Austin, Tex., 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.
The past decade has produced a monumental shift in the industry, similar to the wine industry 20 years ago. The number of cheeses available has exploded as the 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.
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, this test will allow people who possess a base 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. Last year the American Cheese Society Conference in Austin 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 began in 2006.
The event involved timed cutting, wrapping and displaying cheese in a case as well as cheese knowledge. The winners of the contest just happened to be Team Oregon: Steve Jones from Cheese Bar and Tom Van Vorhees, cheese shop manager for Rogue Creamery. The second annual competition will be held at the conference in Seattle in late August.
Later this month, the first-ever Cheesemonger Invitational will take place in New York with nine national teams competing. This very Americanized competition is fast and fun, featuring six challenges with hip names like "Dapper Wrapper," "Dare to Pair" and "Slate Your Plate." Adding to the young, hip vibe, cheesemongers who are also DJs will be spinning tunes at the after party. Events like this take cheese to a whole new level.
With so many developments in the world of those directly connecting cheese to the consumer, it is clear that it is we, the cheese lovers, who will benefit most from all the happenings. ◊
Christine Hyatt is a Cheese Educator, food writer and producer of cheese-centric videos. She welcomes cheesy questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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, check out "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! Retail: $17.95.