Jessica began her cheesemonger journey at the young age of 15 in northwest Philadelphia. Told by her parents that it was time for her to get a job, Jessica knew exactly what she wanted to do. So she walked into her local cheese shop, The Chestnut Hill Cheese Shop, which had been operating since the early ‘70s and had a 60-pound log of provolone hanging from the ceiling, and boldly asked for a job. To her delight, they complied and she began working weekends and after school for the next seven years. She speaks more fondly of the experience than most do about their first job, saying, “I worked there all the time and I just fell in love with the smells and the tastes and the stories and talking to people.” And while Jessica has explored other passions over the years, four years ago when she moved to Colorado, she returned to the world of cheese, first at Whole Foods as a cheese specialist, and then at Cured.
Jessica learned early on that asking great questions was the key to pairing people with just the right cheese. She explains, “I learned to ask, ‘What are you buying for? How many people? Is this for around the house or is it for a special event? Do you like big flavors or are you into more-mellow flavors? Do you like blue cheese?’”
At Hatch Lab we’re eager to share information to help people shop smart and shop their ethics. When it comes to your curds and whey, we hope these tips from Jessica will help you do just that.
6 Helpful Cheese-Buying Tips from Jessica
Tip #1: Find the Cheese Nerd
I feel silly and overwhelmed sometimes when I’m standing in front of 100 different cheeses and don’t know where to even begin. And in those moments, I often go with a cheese I know and love, rather than engaging with a cheesemonger and broadening my horizons. Jessica encourages us to resist that urge and instead seek out the person at your store of choice who is truly passionate about cheese. “They’re going to have endless suggestions for you,” she says. “They’re going to know what’s tasting awesome right now and they’re going to guide you to that because they’re going to be excited about it.” Jessica, like others of her ilk, enjoys being a detective and helping customers find just the right fromage for the occasion. And get ready for story time. She (and other cheese aficionados) love telling the story behind the cheese and helping customers understand what makes that cheese special.
Tip #2: Eat Some Cheese—Don’t be Shy
Enthusiastic cheesemongers are kinda like the dangerous drug dealers you see in movies: they love giving people tasters and getting them hooked. Don’t be shy about asking for a bite! Savor it and give honest feedback. The people behind the counter won’t be hurt if it’s not your style, or even if it makes you gag a little. Your honest reaction gives them just the information they need to home in on the right choice for you that day. If you don’t happen to live near a fancy-schmancy cheese store with an expert cheesemonger to guide you but you still want to explore your personal taste in cheese, consider buying small chunks of a bunch of different cheeses, maybe gathering a few friends together, tasting them all and sharing your opinions. It could be fun to see how your preferences vary from those of your friends.
However, Jessica cautions that the flavor of a given cheese is always evolving and a cheese you loved last week may taste different this week.
Tip #3: Cheese Likes to Stay Whole as Long as It Can; It’s a Living Thing
Jessica explains that at Cured they cut all of their cheese to order, with the exception of a few items like Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh mozzarella. This “cut to order” approach is not as common as it once was. While precut cheese is more convenient, Jessica feels that leaving chunks of cheese sitting in plastic wrap for extended periods of time is not ideal when it comes to flavor.
She suggests buying small amounts of cheese more often to keep the curd fresh and avoid wasting the stinky gold. And, when you buy your cheese, let the cheesemonger know when you plan to eat it. That information may affect the recommendation she makes, since some cheeses are more durable than others.
Tip #4: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall
Jessica varies her cheeses of choice depending on the position of the sun. Wait, what? Why? First, because it’s fun to pair your cheese and everything else you’re eating in a thoughtful way. For example, Jessica explains that in the heat of summer, when you may be eating lots of fresh, ripe tomatoes, zucchini, and peas (food that all has high moisture content), it’s great to eat high-moisture cheeses like fresh mozzarella, burrata, and fresh chèvre or ricotta. These summery cheeses are best when the animals being milked are eating fresh pasture grasses that have lots of minerality. And, Jessica explains, “Their milk has higher moisture content because they’re producing more milk.” She says that the summery cheeses “feel a lot cleaner, a lot fresher, a lot lighter, just like the other things you’re eating that time of year.”
Tip #5: Support Local Farmers When You Can
Jessica encourages everyone to support his or her local cheesemakers. An easy way to do this is by buying fresh cheese from them, cheeses that are not super challenging to make well. She says, “If they’re producing their milk and it’s high quality, if they’re giving their animals a good life with access to great grasses, then they’re going to be able to produce a great fresh cheese.” This makes even more sense because, as Jessica explains, “Fresh cheeses were not built to travel long distances. They’re supposed to be consumed pretty quickly in comparison to some of the wintertime cheeses.”
Because cheddar and alpine cheeses such as Gruyere, Appenzeller, and Comte are drier and semi-firm, they travel well from their faraway homes of England, Switzerland, and France. Softer cheeses are less durable and will lose flavor and moisture when they’re shipped over distances.
Tip #6: A Little Chunk o’ Cheese Goes a Long Way
Truth be told, I’m almost always shocked at the price when I go to buy really good cheese, and I have a slight sense of guilt and shame when I come home with a tiny $10 chunk. I’m sure I’m not alone, and I suspect that price tag is a deterrent for many of us. But Jessica encourages us all to remember that a tiny chunk or slice or melted glob of goodness with a simple meal is plenty to bring new flavors and a healthy addition to your plate; there’s no need to buy a pound at a time. But why the hefty price tag? Mostly because making great cheese is expensive. As the cheese buyer at Cured, Jessica says she’s looking for cheeses with a story, cheeses from folks she wants to champion, smaller producers and people who are doing it the old-fashioned way. She explains that “at Cured, we specialize in finding cheesemakers who are playing with the old family recipe to come up with something new, relying on those old techniques and, of course, sourcing really high-quality milk from amazing dairies, but doing something a little bit different with it.”
This may feel like a conversation for the 1%, but good cheese is more accessible than you think. At its core, it’s about finding and supporting food artisans and farmers who are operating from a place of integrity and with respect for nature, animals, and other people. If we can buy less and waste less, the sacrifice of paying more for products from conscious companies might be a reasonable calculation. Plus there’s always the hatcher’s option: Make your own! Learn more about how to do that from our earlier blog posts with Claudia Lucero of Urban Cheesecraft and Michael Montgomery of Mountain Flower Dairy.