My Life in Cheese
April 5th, 2004

I have cheese under my nails.

I noticed it yesterday when I should have been answering my customer's request of "soft, but not too soft, but not exactly hard, either," and "sharp, but not too sharp, but something that isn't too mild and has lots of flavor but not too tangy. Or strong. Or pungent. Or nutty." I suddenly became very aware that there was a lot of black stuff under my thumbnails and it was all I could do not to take the Wüsthof paring knife and flick it out. I knew it wasn't dirt. I knew this because I had been pushing the Caerphilly that day. Some of wedges' rinds were really slick and sticky, and I had grey smears all down my apron from wiping my hands off on it. I don't really know why I took it into my head to push the Caerphilly that day. I think it was because I was testing their cheese limits. In fact, it all started with some stuck-up dude in a suit (on a Saturday! In California!) who could barely pry his ear away from his cell phone to actually talk to me like a human being about what I could do TO SERVE HIM! In between shouts on the phone, he was being pretty damn snooty about his cheese choices, so I gave him a sample taste of the Caerphilly and the horrified look on his face was priceless. "Well, it's not for everyone," I told him sweetly. He was more in his comfort zone with Manchego and Medium Aged Gruyère. He also got off his phone.

However, I did manage to totally entrance others with the same cheese. One guy needed three cheeses that would be okay in a hotel fridge and last through an eight-hour plane ride without too much damage. He tasted around and was floored by the St. Pat's and the Westcombe Cheddar. After learning how adventurous he was (very), I brought out the Caerphilly. He went nuts. As I wrapped up his cheeses, he told me that he was going back to Washington, D.C., I also learned that he was a food critic for the Washington Post. Awesome. He shook my hand, told me I was excellent at my job, and reiterated how happy he was with my selections for him. Encounters like that are what make the getting up at five A.M and being on my feet for eight hours straight totally worth it.

Speaking of the pains of this job, I woke up with weird muscle aches across my back and arms and couldn't figure them out. Then I remembered that for the first time I had been actively participating in "pre-cuts." Starting on Thursday we hack up the big wheels of our more popular cheeses into pre-wrapped pieces ranging between 1/4 lb. to 1 lb. -- it makes a cheesemonger's life easier when the madhouse of Saturday unleashes its unholy Farmers Market ire upon us. The motion of pulling the wire through the cheeses with the harder rinds -- Parmesano-Reggiano, Lamb Chopper, Midnite Moon, Vella Dry Jack, Mezzo Secco, Gruyère -- can definitely take its toll. You gotta brace one hand on the wheel and pull straight back and down with the other. Sometimes you end up using your whole body and pulling down into a squat as you finish the cut. I may be too tired to keep up with my yoga and Pilates these days but I think I'm still getting a pretty good workout.

Another major step in my mongering is that I am no longer scared of the register. I was comfortable working it by my second day, but I was still terrified of it running out of tape -- I'd even slink away when the red line started to poke its nose out. Granted, there were times when I was on the register facing a long line of customers when it ran out, but one of the veteran mongers was always on hand to come to my rescue. When the store was quiet one day, I made one of the monger managers stand there and watch as I clumsily replaced the tape. It's still awkward but at least I have a better sense of it now and I'm no longer getting a cold from standing so long in the walk-in pretending to look for yogurt. Which is a plus.

On my breaks, I walk down to the wharf and stare at the blue water and sky. I watch the ferry come in while I drink my coffee from a nearby bakery and eat their delicious "buttons." Score! The counter people have finally started to recognize me and give me a discount -- I feel like such an insider now! On my breaks, admiring the view and enjoying the cool, sunny weather, I feel fully recharged and ready to come home and write about my day. Another five hours later and I can barely drag myself off the 21 bus and up my steps. I'm generally face-down on the bed when Dr. Mathra comes home with the cats having licked several layers of skin off my hands -- especially on the days I handle Taleggio, Pau, or the asparagussy Caerphilly.

I've become expert at the fresh case now and can recognize ricotta, cottage cheese, mascarpone, crème fraîche, fromage blanc, and chèvre, just by sight. That may not sound too impressive but some days crème fraîche can look a lot like the buffalo mascarpone, and the chèvre, ricotta, and fromage blanc also look fairly similar when you don't yet know that chèvre is chalky white, fromage blanc is more buttery in color, and ricotta is wet and squishy. In the fresh case we have other things like several kinds of olives, membrillo (quince paste), caper berries, sun-dried tomatoes, grilled artichokes, grilled mixed vegetables, and honeycomb. That's right, honeycomb! It's really awesome and comes from Marshall Farms still on its wooden rack. We cut chunks off and put them in one of the oval Apilco dishes. Customers are entranced by the honeycomb, especially when I give them tastes of it and they crunch down on the comb. A kid once asked me if honeycomb wax is "bee poop." Although, honestly, he whispered the question to his mother and she asked me the question. I wonder if if was because she herself didn't know the answer or because she just thought her child was so precious that a question about bee bowel movements is equally adorable. I could truthfully answer "no" because I think, technically, honey is "bee poop." Or "bee spit." It's an excreted by-product, anyway. I don't really want to think about it too much.

Being where I am, I've been taking advantage of the weekly markets. On Tuesday I brought home new spring asparagus, fingerling potatoes, tomatoes, and lavender salt. I sliced thin and roasted the fingerling potatoes with some of the lavender salt and then tossed in the asparagus at the end. After letting it cool slightly, I added the sliced tomatoes, drizzled a little grapefruit olive oil over everything, and pinched in a bit more lavender salt. It was awesome. And I do know that it's not tomato season yet but these tomatoes were grown inside with heat. They weren't hydroponic tomatoes either, they were actually grown in soil, picked that day and brought to the market. They were quite delicious.

Thursday I got more fingerling potatoes, frisée, sweet lettuces, and small globe artichokes. The artichokes aren't baby artichokes but, like the babies, they don't have a choke. So all I had to to was peel off some leaves, quarter them, and roast them with the fingerlings with more lavender salt. That same morning one of the strawberry guys gave us a free pound of their strawberries for us to munch on at work. That sold me and I brought another pound home for dessert.

Tonight I'm going in to help out for a few hours since Cindy Major -- of Major Farms and producer of Vermont Shepherd, Timson, and Putney Tomme -- will be in our shop for an "event." Lots of local chefs will be there and the wine, I've been told, will be flowing. I'm psyched!

One final word: STOP ASKING ABOUT LOW-FAT CHEESE! Even if it does exists, we don't have it! Cheese, like avocados, are not something that should be low-fat. God.

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