I Am the Cheese
March 11, 2004

The title "Chocolatier" is great and fancy-Frenchy sounding and all, but as a cheesemonger, I get to, well, monger! And that cracks me up. I'm also blithely convinced that if you put "cheese" before anything, it automatically makes it funny. Case in point: I left a message for my husband, telling him I was going into work but I probably wouldn't have the cell phone on unless there was an emergency, "a cheese emergency." I got off the phone giggling. However, my literal husband thought a "cheese emergency" was a real thing -- like if I worked myself up into a dither about how many cheeses to bring home that night or something.

After two weeks, I've already had vivid cheese dreams. Not eating, not smelling, no, it seems to be the wrapping and cutting that wants to invade my consciousness. Wrapping the cheese in either plastic, or our special logo-printed paper, takes technique beyond being just a good gift-wrapper.

I'm not a good gift-wrapper.

I always use way too much paper and end up trying to trim ends after the gift is partially wrapped. What's worse is when I miscalculate and don't use enough paper. It's embarrassing but...I have been known to patch. Wrapping cheese is much more difficult because, more than likely, the cheese isn't square. It's in thick, chunky triangles; oozing, soft triangles; rounds and half rounds -- even really thin, flat, crumbly wedges. Therefore, the gift-wrapping rules don't really apply. I've gotten really good at the half-rounds but certain prisms are still coming out really messy with lots and lots of tape. Lots.

Cutting is another matter entirely because we employ the piano wire method on our bulk, aged cheese. Hee -- like the Cater Street Hangman, we garrot it. Now, it is essential not to damage the larger round with disrespectful cuts (you must RESPECT THE CHEESE!) that will tear funny and look ugly, and it's also important to cut only what you need. For instance, say a customer wants a quarter pound of Vella dry jack. Okay, I have to weigh what we have -- which might weigh four lbs -- and try to eyeball what one-sixteenth of that is going to be. If you over-cut and the customer is adamant about their precise weight, you can't just lop of the excess of what you cut, you have to begin again. So all that's been in my dreams as well.

The best part about this job is how much we're supposed to eat. The cheesemongers are encouraged to taste the same cheese our customers are sampling. It's so we can figure where their palate is. If they think our Super Aged Gouda is too strong or not strong enough, or they think the weird cheese from Wales tastes like asparagus (which is what I personally think, but I'm not sharing that with them; instead, it's "grassy!"), we need to know where exactly that taste definition falls for them. That way we can steer them to another cheese if need be. And another cheese means another taste. It's cool.

Just today I helped two chicks taste their way through all three pecorinos, the organic Parmigiano-Reggiano, the Cave Aged Gruyère (yum!), the Montgomery cheddar (double yum!), the Lancashire, the Mt. Tam, Red Hawk, and Sir Francis Drake, and finished it off with the young Matos St. George from Santa Rosa, CA. They bought almost everything they tasted and were quite friendly, easy to please, and generally fun to talk to. Plus, they were really grateful that I took so much time to give them all the tastes they wanted. Next week they're coming back to try our dry jacks.

There are so many cheeses that it would be really overwhelming if it wasn't so tasty. I started small this week and brought home three of a single producer's cheeses: Mt. Tam, Red Hawk (this is the cheese mentioned on Will and Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and most recently, Oprah), and Sir Francis Drake. I also grabbed a small wedge of Cypress Grove's Humboldt Fog because it is just outstanding in ways you can't even begin to imagine. I often get asked what the difference is between these particular cheeses, so I dished up a personal and employee-discounted taste-test and had them all side-by-side. Dr. Mathra was thrilled. Especially since I ran over to a local artisan bakery and got a fresh baguette.

The thing to know about the cheeses that this local creamery makes is that they're all cow's milk (duh), they're certified organic, and they are 100% vegetarian. "Well, of course they're vegetarian!" you might say, "It's CHEESE!" Au contraire, my curd-challenged friend. Rennet is introduced into cheese in the process of the making. It's a coagulating enzyme taken from the stomach lining of the animal -- be it goat, sheep, cow, water buffalo, or yak -- whose milk is being cheesed off. Anyway, the creamery found a way to use a vegetable-based rennet, so those who feel ooky about the stomach kind can eat these cheeses with bliss. And what bliss!

Red Hawk is the most famous of their cheeses: it's a triple-cream, soft-ripened cheese with softly orange-hued brined rind. It's amazing. It starts to ooze slightly at room temperature and is one of the most wonderful cheeses I have ever had. Buttery, rich, and slightly tangy, Red Hawk won Best-in-Show at the Annual Cheese Society's Conference last year.

Mt. Tam is also a triple-cream, soft-ripened cheese but it doesn't have a brined rind. It's rind is bloomy and soft -- more like what you find on brie. The taste has a round mellow earthiness that suggests mushrooms.

Sir Francis Drake is the newest of this producer's cheeses, and again it's a triple-cream cheese, but its rind is washed in a fortified wine (Beaume de Venise) and the rounds are aged with currants. SF Drake has a fairly mild, creamy taste, but the special treatment to the rind gives it a bit of a bite in the aftertaste. Think of a nicely tannic red wine that goes down smooth and leaves you with a little surprise at the end. It's the same kind of idea.

My other purchase, Cypress Grove's Humboldt Fog, is a well-known cheese from California that has consistently come out as the top U.S. cheese. It's a goat's milk cheese with a layer of ash in the center and on the natural outer rind. It's just beautiful to look at and to eat. When I first tasted this cheese on Dr. Mathra's parents' table, I thought it was called "Humble Fog." I still tend to call it that.

Meanwhile, I'm editing another cookbook, recapping a new show called Century City starting March 16th, and it was 77 today. SEVENTY-SEVEN! We're talking walking around in a tank top, sandals, and light skirt, getting brown cheeks and knees. It's just glorious and it's supposed to last all week. Even if it doesn't, it was still a superb day. You know that ridiculously annoying Starburst commercial where the three "hipsters" are walking all leaned-back, beating time to the music as cars crash and sharks attack around them? That's how I feel.

God, I love this city.

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