Food by VICE

How to Avoid Sounding Like an Idiot at the Cheese Counter

People are often worried about sounding like plebians at the cheese counter, but don't worry and don't clam up. You can tell me that the wheel of Pierre Robert tastes like butter, and I will understand.

by Charlotte Kamin
Apr 6 2015, 4:27pm

Photo by Janelle Jones

Being a cheesemonger is great. We get to eat food all day, explore pairings, play with bacteria and fermentation, break bread with cheese producers, and drink beer. Our jobs are incredible and we know it; we are thankful for it. We love the cheeses, the way they vary from wheel to wheel and season to season. We love tasting a product and trying to name all of the random flavors we find and even stretch our imaginations to figure out the flavor profiles. Was that essence of fried duck skin in the last batch of L'Etivaz? Were those notes of Strawberry Laffy Taffy lingering on the rind of La Marotte?

Eating is fun and so is bullshitting, but the two together are priceless. That's why I think it's time to discuss the art of discussing the flavors of cheese.

Oftentimes, I encounter a customer who doesn't really know what they are looking for. They mention something along the lines of: "I love all cheese," a typical response to when I push them to give me a better idea of what they need. Although it would make for a great bumper sticker, it doesn't really help us mongers figure out what you're desiring in that moment. People are often worried about sounding like idiots, and thus won't even try to articulate what flavors they are in the mood for.

In life, we all sound like idiots. Let's just own it.

Since food and eating it is fun, let's not stop at the cheese counter. Let's start with texture: Do you want something hard or soft? Supple and gooey; silken and velvety; oozing out in an erotic release? Or something firm? Fudgey and dense? Something with those little crunchy bits? Once you know what texture you'd like, let's move on to how full-flavored you are feeling. Do you want something on the mellower side? Lactic and creamy, bright and citrusy, or sweet and floral? Or are you more in the mood for something funky, earthy, musky, and dank? Would you like notes of fresh mushrooms, dark basements, or wet carpet? Do you need something chivey and green garlicky? What about caramelized onions and salami, or smokey ham and mashed starchy peas?

But then comes the fun part: Let's taste together and you tell me what you find. Hints of roasted cauliflower drizzled with peppery olive oil? Notes of dark-roasted chicken stock, Meyer lemon, or charred hazelnuts? A hot chocolate finish with a wave of heavy cream? Everyone has a different palate and will therefore find nuances and flavors that vary from what someone else discovers.

Don't worry and don't clam up. Use small words at first if you need to, but push yourself to explore with language. You can tell me that the wheel of Pierre Robert tastes like butter, and I will understand. If I don't, I'm not going to call you out on it, because although I might be an asshole, I'm a very nice asshole.