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Care for a bloomy rind? The art of selling cheese

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Award winning cheese-cutter Cielo Peralta holds up the tools of his trade at work at the West Village, Manhattan cheese shop Murray's. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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The cheese cave cellars at Murray's cheese shop in Manhattan's West Village store aged cheeses at appropriate temperatures. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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Zoe Brickley, the "affineur" or cheese specialist at Murray's Cheese in Manhattan's West Village, arranges shipments of aged cheese in the cellar's extensive cheese caves. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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Zoe Brickley, the "affineur" or cheese specialist at Murray's Cheese in Manhattan's West Village, arranges shipments of aged cheese in the cellar's extensive cheese caves. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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Zoe Brickley, the "affineur" or cheese specialist at Murray's Cheese in Manhattan's West Village, arranges shipments of aged cheese in the cellar's extensive cheese caves. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

Frank Meilak has prevented hundreds of dinner parties from descending into culinary chaos. When frantic customers enter Murray’s Cheese shop in New York, just hours before their guests arrive, Meilak saves the day with the perfect cheese.

Roast beef and potatoes? How about a gruyere? Chicken and pasta? How about a sprinkling of parmigiano-reggiano? Farmhouse cheddars would pair well with red wine, but an aged sheepsmilk would do better with ale.

Meilak is not your average deli counter guy. He is a professional cheesemonger and, as the U.S. market for artisanal cheese expands, his job is getting considerably more sophisticated.

When he’s not tending to customers, Meilak takes stock of the 400 cheeses on Murray’s shelves, studying how and where they’re made. He also washes and rotates the cheeses in the store’s underground storage space, and, once the cheeses are ready to be sold, he carves massive wheels into sellable blocks.

Meilak’s knowledge of cheese has to be flawless. Sometimes cheese makers like Cobb Hill Cheese or Cato Corner Farm send shipments wrapped in wax paper without any labels. When that happens, Meilak has to identify the cheese just by tasting it.

Carmen Bleything, the cheesemonger at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Seattle, performs similar tasks. When new shipments arrive, she has to smell and feel the cheese to determine just how quickly it needs to be sold. If a delicate washed-rind cheese has started to turn soft, she knows to put it on the shelf for a quick sell. But if the cheese is firm, she stocks it away for further ripening.

Gone are the days when cheese makers simply churned out a few dozen commodity cheeses, like Swiss and cheddar. Today, cheese makers create artisanal products, often by hand and in small batches, as well as farmstead cheeses, which are produced on farms where the milk is processed. The cheeses are expensive and demand special care.

“When I started, there were commodity cheeses. There wasn’t a whole lot of knowledge you needed,” said Meilak, who joined Murray’s as a delivery boy in 1985. “Over the last few years, we’ve started to specialize in cheese.”

There are no statistics that track the increase in artisanal cheese production, but Marci Wilson, the executive director of the American Cheese Society, said she realized just how quickly the market was growing when 941 cheeses competed for the blue ribbon in her organization’s 2006 annual competition, an increase of 25 percent from the year before.

In light of the cheesemonger’s evolving role, a French cheese specialist, Herve Mons, created the International Caseus Award in 2006 to test the skills of today’s cheese sellers. Since the U.S. artisanal cheese market has historically lagged behind Europe, the United States was not invited to last year’s competition. But given the recent growth, the competition organizers asked Meilak and Cielo Peralta, also of Murray’s, to represent the United States this year.

Held in January in Lyon, France, the competition tested cheesemongers in several skills. In one event, competitors had to identify the names, ages and origins of six cheeses--including a cheddar from England and a gorgonzola from Italy--by tasting them. In another, they carved a wheel of parmigiano-reggiano within 35 minutes, using a pair of small oval-shaped knives that give cheese a rustic look but are difficult to wield.

In the final event, the cheesemongers submitted cheese recommendations for a 20-person dinner party, incorporating all three types of milk traditionally used in cheese: cow, sheep and goat.

Out of 12 competing teams, the Americans came in dead least. But Meilak insists he and Peralta had not been fully informed of the rules, and he vows to make a much better showing at the next cheese-seller trials.

Cheesemongers also have to keep pace with the growing demands of consumers, who are becoming more educated about cheese and want to interact with someone who can tell them about recipes and aging techniques. Some consumers even ask about the breed of cows producing milk for the cheeses.

“It’s really in response to the consumers,” said Michael Gingrich, owner of the Uplands Cheese Co. in Dodgeville, Wis.

Gingrich makes a farmstead cheese from raw cow’s milk called Pleasant Ridge Reserve that retails for $20 to $25 a pound. It is a washed-rind Alpine cheese, similar to French Beaufort, and ages for four to 18 months before it’s sold. Gingrich pays close attention to every step in the cheese-making process. He uses his cows’ milk only when pastures are green and healthy and begins making the cheese within minutes of milking his cows.

But for all of his efforts, Gingrich knows consumers will only buy his cheese when sellers are knowledgeable about it. A good cheesemonger, he says, would know that his cheese serves as a good dessert cheese and pairs well with Alsatian Rieslings and robust red wines.

“If you take this cheese, wrap it in plastic and throw it in the case, it’s not going to sell,” Gingrich said. “The cheesemonger needs to know this cheese, how it’s made and how it’s different.”

Because the industry has evolved so much, cheesemongers often undergo formal training to learn their craft. Roughly 60 percent of the cheesemongers at Murray’s have formal culinary training, with some of them holding degrees from the Institute of Culinary Education and the French Culinary Institute. Even with training, it takes up to six months to gain a working knowledge of the hundreds of cheeses on Murray’s shelves, and even longer to become an expert.

New employees sit in on weekly cheese tastings conducted by the store’s managers and participate in demonstrations hosted by cheese makers. Many even take trips to France, England, Vermont or California to gain firsthand knowledge of how cheeses are made. Most important, they’re encouraged to taste every cheese that crosses their path.

“Cheesemongers these days,” Gingrich said, “really have to know a lot more about a lot more.”

E-mail: tnt2105@columbia.edu