Slinging cheese is never dull. The challenge of it is why I love it so much. After working for more than six years as a cheese monger, there are still cheeses that I haven’t eaten and old loves that are seasonally produced, offering surprises from year to year.
People ask me all the time, “How did you learn so much about cheese?” It’s easy. You eat it. You eat a lot of it—in very small portions over years and years. You live and breathe it. I wash my hands constantly, and I will still smell like cheese.
“What is that you are wearing?” a man asks. “Eau de Stilton, Colston Bassett to be specific,” I reply.
I read about cheese for sure but, like a folk tradition, the hook to learning about cheese comes from stories. It often is the narratives of place, myth, and quirky stories cheese-makers and affineurs tell that pull you in. I learned, and still do learn, from the people that have been working in cheese for longer than I have. I learned volumes from a guy named Carl. He first worked in a small cheese shop that had low traffic, and he read everything he could get his hands on and ate everything in reach. When he traveled, he traveled to find cheese. He is a walking encyclopedia, and I was lucky to be the sponge standing in his shadow when I first began.
One funny thing I noticed Carl doing was talking to the cheese like it was a person. If he had his hands on a wheel that needed some love and care, he would say things like, “Come here little guy. We are going to get you fixed up.” I’d laugh at what a nut he was. Years later in another shop, there I stood with Anthony in my own shadow. Anthony had recently joined our cheese team. I held a wheel of French brebis that needed a bit of brushing and cleaning done to its rind. I was talking to myself and Anthony said, “I like that you call the cheese ‘my friend.’” I never realized when this started, but I refer to the cheeses as my friends. “I’m sorry to do this to you my friend, but it must be done, and you will feel so much better for it.”
Chicago has fantastic local distributors. Add to that the good ole FedEx and UPS, the choices of cheeses one can purchase for retail is overwhelmingly huge. Hundreds and hundreds for sure. Because of the explosion of cheese interest and production here in the states, Europe is now sending over more cheese than ever. The choices are endless. It’s hard to believe that given all of the choices there would be a cheese that has eluded me.
May I introduce the one that got away: French emmentaler.
Emmental is the quintessential Swiss cheese—the one with the huge holes that illustrators are fond of drawing. If there is a mouse in the story, it is almost always illustrated eating emmental. It is written (ahem) that it was made as early as 50 BC, but there is only actual evidence of it existing in the 13th century. (For the record, any cheese made in Switzerland is “Swiss,” and there are many (over 400 of them.)
It is a mammoth cheese—a behemoth. It can weigh between 132 to 220 pounds. Its height is 8 to 12 inches tall and 27 to 44 inches in diameter, depending on the maker. Recently, a monger at the shop where I work broke her wrist moving a half of one on her own. Don’t try this at home, folks. The holes in the cheese are caused by carbon dioxide gas that explodes from the natural bacteria introduced to the milk to help it curdle and adds the acidity to the cheese. The holes are also referred to as “eyes” and range from the size of a cherry (cerices) to walnuts (noix). The eyes will sometimes weep a liquid that is simply diluted butterfat! This is a cheese with some sensitivity.
The paste of the cheese is a golden straw color. It is pale when made with winter milk and is darker with summer milk. The flavor descriptors are mild, buttery, nutty, and fruity. Authentic emmental is made with unpasteurized, partially skimmed milk, which makes it less in fat and is also low in sodium due to the cheese never being salted. The wheels are instead floated in brine baths for several days before the aging process begins. This cheese, though lower in both fat and sodium, is complex in flavor due to the raw milk that comes from herds grazing in Alpine pastures.
Over time, I have probably eaten my weight in Emmi Swiss emmental and have also feasted on Edelweiss Creamery’s Emmental from Monroe, Wisconsin, the only domestic made in the strict traditional methods. The differences between the two are dramatic.
The Emmi emmental is younger. It is the color of unsalted butter or beeswax and has a nose of buttered popcorn. The texture is elastic when you pull it apart, like semi-hard Elmer’s glue. It will almost melt in your hand if you let it linger too long on your palm. The mouth feel is like overcooked macaroni and tastes at first nutty and then slightly brighter and fruity. There is no funk in this cheese, and kids love it. There was a twerp of a kid named John, five or six years old at the time, that used to demand it every time his mother came shopping. John could say “emmental,” but can’t say “please” or “thank you.”
The Edelweiss is darker, almost muddy in color. It is aged longer so the mouth feel when you bite into it is like al dente pasta. It is nutty and sharp but is also has a slight bitterness. It is almost monotone and lacks dynamics or balance. I want to be a champion of this cheese because it is made with good intentions, but on a cheese board it needs some accompaniment. Toss a pecan in your mouth at the same time and you are good to go.
Maybe it is just me, but odd numbers are satisfying. Comparing two things puts you in an either/or situation. That is so dull. I needed three to have a spectrum of what this cheese can do. The two could easily slip into the common template for evaluation: old world vs. new world. Three would give me a better sense of the maker and terroir. I needed a trifecta. I needed a French emmentaler!
I was on a quest. I would have you know that there was one, only one, available to me. The affineur was Herve Mons, a favorite of mine and an old world maverick doing amazing things. The hitch was I had to buy a whole entire wheel. The French love their emmentaler, so much so that they don’t need to import it. The supply is low so the price is high—nearly double in cost.
I paced a bit. I thought about it. The dilemma of the financial risk of buying a whole wheel at twice the cost of emmental I purchase and sell with ease at half the cost. I pulled the trigger. I would then wait 8 weeks for it to arrive. When it finally did the receiver paged me to the loading dock.
“Hey, Cheese Wiz, I’ve got a huge mother **cker of a cheese sitting here, and you need to decide where the hell you want me to put it and quick.” Followed by “…is this right? This piece of cheese is 1400 bones?”
Holding the invoice in my hand, I replied, “Yep, fourteen hundred U.S. dollars to get my trifecta.”
It was wrapped in brown paper and taped with masking tape. I felt like a kid unwrapping a Christmas gift. We handle big cheeses all the time but this one took two strapping men to cut. I was the spectator squealing on the sidelines. What I discovered is French emmentaler is convex, bulbous and huge—shaped like a big buttery muffin. The biggest surprise was that the eyes were elliptical. How poetic and sexy is that! Its eyes were truly shaped like eyes, and this made it somehow more expressive. The cheese paste was the color of golden straw, the interior of the eyes fading into a paler yellow. The texture was soft yet yielding and slightly resistant. It tasted like roasted hazelnuts and then rolled into stone fruits. It was perfect and so elegantly balanced and the flavors rolled along like riding a bike through a park. This cheese can hold its own. I had my trifecta. I was truly elated and had I wept, it would have been tears of butterfat.
The story doesn’t end here. In fact this is only half of the story.
In an irresponsible world I could chock this adventure up as professional development. If I cannot travel to the cheese then the cheese must travel to me, but the hard reality was I had to sell this behemoth. I do this all the time, but rarely on this scale. It was going to take some
maneuvering beyond my usual strategies to make this a venture a success and not a financial disaster that could crater my bottom line.
First, for the people who don’t like to interact during their shopping, you need a sign that describes the cheese, tells them where it comes from, and explains why THIS cheese is so dang special. Everyone on the staff must taste the cheese and learn its history and tasting profile. One of the pains of cheese mongering is stopping your work to eat cheese and contemplate the complexities of life. The next step was crucial. I don’t want to say I pulled a fast one, but I decided to remove the staple Swiss emmental as an option until the French was gone. The most important step, the most critical step, the step you could almost do alone and forget the rest, is sample it to customers. We let customers graze on this ole glory, and, before you know it, it was history. There is a last resort when cheese is not selling at the pace you’d like: put it on sale. Luckily, I did not have to take it this far.
Over the course of a few weeks, I listened to the feedback of my customers. They pretty much confirmed what I already felt. The French emmental was good, but a little more than what they want to spend on a sandwich and snacking cheese on a weekly basis. I decided I would not bring it back, or if I did, it would only be during the holidays to elevate the level of fondue or gratins on holiday menus. To keep my own interest and to keep the interest of my customers, I try to keep things lively and have new things for them to try and expand their love and interest in cheese. I want my corner of the market to feel like you are wandering the stacks of a library, where you will never know what you are going to discover. But like wandering in the library, it is still special to see that familiar book, the one that brings you comfort every time you reach for it.