Since I still can’t upload photos to my blog, I guess I just need to fill the void by writing something with just text! I’ve been reflecting on what it was I loved about working with cheese. There is plenty to love, so here’s a little list:
1. My colleagues: Cheese people, or kitchen people, are just pretty funky. I had never had experience in this kind of environment before, so when I met my colleagues, I was, and still am, in admiration of them. They can look kind of scary, though. Literally all but one of my cheese/kitchen colleagues sport multiple large tattoos covering highly visible areas of their body (arms, neck, legs, shoulders). I don’t have any, and I do feel a little left out of the loop. However, I am still debating over whether the pain is worth a pretty picture scratched into my flesh. My colleagues are also some of the most imaginative, fearless people I have ever met. The chef, Monica, comes up with the most wonderful recipes, like the recent fig/frangiapane tarts with lavender ice cream. Carlos, my fellow cheesemonger, conjures up gorgeous cheese plates in the evening. Kim, my partner behind the cheese counter, was once a fashion designer, and is a knowledgeable chef as well. Vince, the restaurant manager, is also a talented hair stylist. These are people I would have never met in my usual circles. They are a great foil for my typically analytical self. They just let things go so much easier. They create sometimes not out of desire, but out of necessity. If we run out of some ingredient in the kitchen, and a delivery fails to come, the kitchen has to make do. If a customer wants me to make up a gift basket, I have no choice but to dig up some pretty things from the sometimes chaotic stores of the shop.
2. The stories: Each artisanal cheese has its own story to tell. It might be produced by a single person in the middle of nowhere, or be the pet project of independently wealthy businesspeople. The research is fascinating. Once I got into it, I realized the richness of this subject. Cheese is not really just about the cheese. It’s definitely about the people and nature that make it.
3. Cutting wheels: I love cutting open new wheels, taking my slicer, and tasting the exact middle of the wheel. That’s the best part of the cheese, and probably the best part of my job. I get to be the first person on the planet to taste THAT wheel of cheese. :)
4. Snack time any time. That is pretty self-explanatory.
5. Education. At least in my shop, we really work to educate people about what cheeses they are eating, and how it was made, and where it came from. Most people who love our cheeses just don’t know. We’ve got some books on hand to ease the process along. At the same time, I can tell when the customer just doesn’t care, so I’ll keep my mouth shut when I have to. I just think it’s important to know where your food came from. Isn’t it?
6. Weight. It’s been fun to learn to estimate how big a 1/2, 1/3, or 1/4 lb. chunk of cheese is. We get to work with cheeses of all textures and densities, so learning by sight is not always going to be helpful. I do feel much more steady with working with my hands now. That said, it is still kind of a pain to have to cut a 1/4 lb. piece of Parmesan cheese for a customer when that means cutting down from a 20 lb. chunk. It takes a lot of work, like I can feel a drop of sweat roll down my neck sometimes as I wield my double-handled knife.
7. Knife skills. To be a cheesemonger, one must absolutely master using kitchen knives. I only have a few behind the counter–my awesome Wusthof chef’s knife, which was a wedding gift, that I use for just about everything hard and semi-hard; a cheese knife with holes along the blade, and two prongs at the end, for soft cheeses; the double-handled knife for large wheels of cheese like the Goudas and Parmesan; and my cheese slicer, which I use to slice samples with. When I first started working here, it took me absolutely forever to roughly chop the 3 lbs. of apricots needed to make the apricot chutney served on the cheese plates. Now, it takes about 30 minutes, unless, of course, customers come in. I’ve also learned to slice a plateful of bread pretty fast. I haven’t timed myself, but now I think it takes me less than a second per slice. There are usually around 12 slices per plate. I feel proud I haven’t cut myself once yet this year with my chef’s knife. Any cuts I’ve gotten were from more mundane things, like the foil sealing a bottle of wine, or paper.