You might know this feeling. You step into a specialty cheese shop. When you finally make your way to the cheese counter, you realize you have no idea what you’re doing. You don’t know what these cheeses are, you don’t know what they taste like, you don’t know what you like, you don’t know how to describe what you like.
That’s OK. Cheesemongers are there to help!
There’s not a whole lot to you have to know as you approach a cheese counter, but here are some tips for keeping it together.
1) Be ready to taste, and then taste again! Tasting as many cheeses as possible is the best way to develop your palate and cheese knowledge. If you keep track of what you taste, you can eventually develop a sense of what you like and don’t like, and understand the different cheese styles and milks. Who knows, maybe you’ll find some new, unexpected favorites.
2) Ask questions! Your local cheesemonger has spent hours, months, years learning about the cheeses laid before you, and he or she is just waiting to tell you all about them! What’s the difference between vegetarian and traditional rennet? Why are some cheeses orange and some yellow? What are those leaves wrapped around the Valdeon? What jam, wine, or beer will pair with that cheese? How do you describe the taste of that cheese? Ask, ask, ask! They, we, are here for you!
3) Be open to new cheeses and substitutes! Sometimes a shop won’t have exactly the cheese you’re looking for. Your cheesemonger can usually help you find a suitable substitute, though! For instance, a lot of times, when folks come to the shop looking for Havarti, which it doesn’t carry, I’ll point them to Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company’s Toma, since both are semi-hard, relatively mild cow’s milk cheeses. And other times, when someone is looking for Taleggio, I might suggest in parallel a lesser known, equally delicious cheese like Jasper Hill Farm’s Willoughby, another washed rind package of yum.
4) Take it in and savor the whole experience! Some cheeses have been aging over a year before reaching your lips. All of them have interesting stories and quirks. Taking the time to appreciate all the subtleties of the cheese tasting experience will make it all the more fulfilling.
5) When you’ve found the cheeses you need for that day, do it all again soon.
As I work more at the cheese shop, I’ll be delving much more into the finer details of cheese selection! :)