Cheesemongers, not Cheesemakers

by Alifair Skebe

Around town when we get asked what we do, we say with enthusiasm, “We’re cheesemongers!” Eric has been a cheesemonger and cheeselover for 14 years and founded the cheese department at Honest Weight Food Coop in 1999. But frequently the follow-up question is “How do you like making cheese?” or “Where do you make your cheese?” Sometimes, we are confused with local cheesemakers: “So you’re the ones who make the goat cheese,” referring to R&G Cheesemakers from Cohoes, NY. Our most recent favorite came from a brief conversation at a From Scratch Club food swap. Alifair, the wife of the cheesemonger, was dubbed the “Mistress of Cheese” by one community member and another responded, “So you make the cheese and he sells it!” A classic case of mistaken identity, we have ascertained some basis for the confusion.

As the economy turned from small retail shops to large supermarkets and industrial-made products, terms like cheesemonger, fishmonger, and butcher (or its earlier form fleshmonger) fell out of use. “Monger” derives from the Latin mango– and Germanic suffix –er to mean a merchant, dealer, or trader of a commodity. Cheesemonger, by extension, means one who deals or trades in cheese. In the U.S., cheesemongering is on the rise. Large supermarkets are reimaging themselves as shops within stores and calling for cheesemongers to manage their cheese departments, and individual retail cut-to-order cheese shops are popping up in cities large and small. A staggering 1,600 domestic U.S. and Canadian cheeses were entered into the American Cheese Society’s annual competition in 2011, the largest number to date. With so many amazing fine cheeses produced in the States and abroad, a consumer needs a cheesemonger to help steer the palate toward individual interest. To meet the growing industry, demand, and to standardize practices, this year The American Cheese Society inaugurated a Certified Cheese Professional Exam for both practicing and aspiring cheesemongers.

The recorded use of the term monger dates back to the 16th century, when its meaning synonymously referred to “a person engaged in a petty or disreputable trade or traffic.”[1] This is the meaning Shakespeare’s Hamlet uses in his famous line to Polonius, adviser to the false king. In the second act, Polonius asks, “Do you know me, my lord?” and Hamlet replies, “Excellent well; you are a fishmonger.” They go on for a while about honesty and the state of the world, until Hamlet underhandedly castigates Polonius for peddling his daughter Ophelia. Polonius, ill understanding Hamlet’s satire and wit to play off the multiple meanings of words, thinks Hamlet clearly mad…or madly in love. He says in an aside, “How say you by that? Still harping on my daughter. Yet he knew me not at first; he said I was a fishmonger. He is far gone, far gone.”[2] Polonius only understands the one use and not the other, and the audience sees him as a doddering fool for his omission. Laughing at a clownish old man is great for drama, but not for polite society, of course. In today’s society, the derogatory tone of the slang meaning may persist in our thinking about the word monger and could explain our aversion to its use.

For better or for worse in the cheese business, words can contain multiple meanings. Unlike the English, the French fromager is used interchangeably for both cheesemonger and cheesemaker.[3]  What confusion this may naturally engender! To top it off, an affineur buys cheese, ages cheese, and resells the wheels at their aged perfection, holding many different types of cheeses in his cellar at any given time – is he a cheesemaker or a cheesemonger or both? At a small producers market, a cheesemaker might purchase space at a booth to become both a monger and a maker. In the city, larger cheese shops can store a wide variety of wheels and types of cheeses in their own caves or aging facilities. The American Cheese Society in its blog tagline breaks down the concepts into the following categories: Cheesemakers, Cheesemongers, Cheeselovers; and says, “All are welcome here as we celebrate all things cheese!” Not only does ACS note the difference between mongers and makers, but also includes the cheese enthusiast, the aficionado, or the curd nerd. While The Cheese Traveler falls into the cheesemonger category, we are beholden to the relationship we share with local cheesemakers, such as R&G, who make our business possible. Conversely, cheesemakers appreciate cheesemongers because their shops can reach a wider audience of cheese lovers for their product. All in all makers, mongers, and lovers form a trio around cheese and its importance to culture.

Cheese etymology portrays a unique way of seeing the difference between cultures – no pun intended. The word for “cheese” throughout the modern European languages can differ slightly as well as to a great extent independent of regional proximity. The words fromage (French), formage (Medieval French), and formaggio (Italian) derive “from the Latin word for the basket or wooden box in which compressed curds were molded to make cheese, forma, which itself came from the earlier Greek term phormos (This is also where the English word “form” comes from). For their part, the English word cheese, the Spanish word queso and the German word Kaese all come from the Latin word caseus, the foodstuff itself.”[4] Ultimately, a cheesemonger or maker focuses on the “cheese” while a fromager focuses on the “form.” A food so simple in its ingredients – milk curd and rennet, a coagulating agent that separates the curd from the whey –  develops into a vast number of different types of cheeses. Some cultures have grown to see the final product, the cheese itself, of the utmost importance while others see the form that initiates the cheese as the item of note.

In the States, and more locally in Albany, NY, we have oodles of local farmstead and fine artisan, specialty cheeses to choose from at The Cheese Traveler. The storefront is coming soon to 540 Delaware Avenue in the heart of Albany right off I90 and 787. Look for us in the coming weeks at the June 2 opening of the 2012 Summer Delmar Farmer’s Market at the Bethlehem Central Middle School in Delmar, NY.

Planing a morsel of cheese. Perfect for tasting.

[1] Oxford English Dictionary

[2] Act II, scene ii, lines 177-190. London: Oxford University Press, 1914. New York: Bartleby.Com, 2000.

[3] Oxford French Dictionary

[4] Etymologically Speaking

TCT and Sunmark Grant: Public Voting Starts Today

Hi Cheese, Meat, and Farm and Foodies!

The Cheese Traveler has applied for a $1500 start up grant through Sunmark Federal Credit Union and All Over Albany. 2 of the 3 finalists are selected by voting on the All Over Albany website. For the love of cheese, please follow these links to vote for The Cheese Traveler, Tilldale Farm, and the new store on 540 Delaware Ave in DelSo, Albany.

The Cheese Traveler’s application

Where to Vote

Thank you for your support. We look forward to posting more details on the new store as they develop. Follow us on facebook.

A Visit to the City of Cheese

by Alifair Skebe

Let’s go visit the cities of cheese. I’m very disorganized but I keep seeing things this way. I said, I am not close to objects and this is my way of talking to myself. We set sail for Port Salut, we will spend our summers in Gruyere. Nordost is a northern port. Tillamook is in this country, not a place we would visit.

from Margaret Johnson’s A Visit to the Cities of Cheese

On March 15, Eric Paul and his wife Alifair traveled to New York City, the city of cheese, to visit some of the finest up-and-coming small cheese shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn. This is not the same kind of imaginative trip Ms. Johnson writes about in her fantastic 1985 book of poetry.

We embarked on a visit to the city that houses dozens of old world traditional cheese shops throughout the city and surrounding boroughs. This trip followed on the heels of the prior weekend’s trip to the Berkshires and Central Mass to see Rubiner’s and Provisions, a new market in Northampton.

Since our travel to New York was a one-day trip, we limited our scope to those shops we felt most resembled The Cheese Traveler’s interest in small production, local and regional handcrafted cheeses, and size of retail space. We have had our eye out for just-the-right retail space for eighteen months and were settling on an eclectic neighborhood in downtown Albany close to the highway and other fine food establishments. Since our short stint at the Delmar Farmer’s Market last year, we wanted to stay committed to the “traveling” part of the business while also securing a space for the everyday customer and a prep area for events and composing gift packages within easy distance of Downtown Albany.

Our first stop was Saxelby Cheese Mongers in the Essex Street Market, New York’s premier, indoor “open air” market in the Lower East Side. Featuring purely regional Northeastern cheeses from small farms with herds of less than 40 animals, Saxelby’s is very similar to The Cheese Traveler in its commitment to selling regionally made, artisan cheeses. Moreover, Anne Saxelby was just named Manhattan’s Small Business of the Year. You heard that right: a cheese shop was named business of the year. In The Big Apple, a cheesemonger is The Big Cheese.

Entering the corner corridor off Delancey Street, we emerged into a light, sound, and smell-scape of ethnic foods and specialty shops, Saxelby’s being the first stall through the double glass doors.

Anne Saxelby and a cheesemonger cutting cheese to order.

As we discovered, a truly world-class, “American” cheese shop need not take up much space and there was even room to make prepared foods. We were very impressed by Saxelby’s custom-made walk-in cooler with an insulated window cut into the side. This window provided a extra display case in a compact design. So intelligent, so elegant. For cheeses, we picked up some old favorites: Shushan Snow and Brebis Blanc, two fresh sheep’s milk cheeses made at 3-Corner Field Farm in Shushan, NY.

Next, we stopped at the other side of the market to visit Formaggio Essex, a branch location of Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, MA.

Formaggio Essex is a scaled-down version of its original, where Eric worked for a short time in 2010. Though small and packed, Formaggio Essex hosted a wide array of specialty foods including charcuterie, condiments, and sweet treats. We bought Vendéen Bichonné by affineur Pascal Beillevaire, a Loire valley cheese whose name means, “the pampered cheese from Vendée.” It is a creamy, sweet, nutty, semi-firm, natural rind cheese that coats the palate in a lovely way.

All this cheese research was beginning to make us hungry, so Alifair stopped by the Brooklyn Taco Company to order a quick lunch.

Little did I know that when I stepped into the black and white tiled taco stall, I was embarking on a unique taste journey rivaling the best neighborhood eats of the city. I ordered a Guaco Taco made with chunky avocado, raw sweet corn, tomatoes, red onion, cheese, crema, hot sauce and a yummy Black Bean Tamale. Once we were back at the car, Eric and I scarfed them down, not realizing just how hungry we had gotten.

Then it was across the Williamsburg Bridge and into Brooklyn to visit the Bedford Cheese Shop. Mind you, this is the cheese shop where we found the difficult to procure Swiss sheep’s milk cheese for our 2011 “all-Swiss” themed Annual Wine and Cheese Tasting fundraiser at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany. This was a wing-dinger of an event, considering that our choice of theme made things really hard on ourselves. First, Switzerland is a very small country, secondly, the country produces very few wines, and lastly, what they do produce, they export for a pretty penny. So trying to pair Swiss cheeses with Swiss wines was difficult to say the least. But we like challenge! Bedford provided us with the semi-hard sheep’s milk cheese Brebis de Rossinière, but that is a story for another time. We were excited to see the place that we admired for so long.

Oh my goodness, is that a dress apron made of cheese cloth? Why yes, I believe it is!

The farm and foodie window dressings really drew us in.

And let’s just say that the wide angle camera shots make the place look big, but only on the internet! The feel of the décor, royal red wallpaper, and dark custom shelves warmed the retail space and welcomed us in. Five cheesemongers busied themselves behind and in front of the counter making the whole place feel bustling and exciting. Bedford has no additional warehouse or cooler space beyond the retail floor, so all their cheeses are stocked in the abundant cases. We felt like cheese geeks in a cheesy store—that’s cheese-ease for “kids in a candy store.” But seriously, Bedford was no laughing matter, well, beyond the irreverent, over-sexed cheese descriptions enticing us to partake in tasting cheese as an illicit event. The fromagers were knowledgeable, unique, hip, and young—what else might anyone expect from Williamsburg? The stereotypical brown Oxford corduroy jackets with elbow patches tacking up their tatters crossed the street. In through the front door, little bell chiming, young “collegiates” professed their undying love for cheese over and over again. A dramatic place. High time to buy some dark chocolate-covered almonds, me thinks.

What set Bedford Cheese aside from the other shops that we saw was a commitment to selling cheeses from esteemed French affineurs – Rodolphe Le Meunier, Jean d’Alos, and Hervè Mons to name a few.  These are some of the most gorgeous cheeses that are usually only offered in the villages or the fine cheese shops of France. For our “research” we picked up a fancy little Lavort Goat, a spicy, raw goat’s milk version of a rare, Cheese Traveler’ favorite sheep’s milk cheese from Auvergne, and a luscious, creamy washed rind cheese that was tangy, slightly sweet, and nutty.

Last but not least, we packed up for our final destination The Bklyn Larder, between Park Slope and Prospect Park neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The shop is owned and operated by Sergio Hernandez, formerly of Provisions International, a regional specialty food distributor for the Northeast located in Vermont. Being cheese lovers as well as cheesemongers, we could no longer hold back our enthusiasm for buying as much good cheese as we could and trucking it back with us to our family back home in Albany. After a good long conversation and dinner at franny’s, a city-famous wood-fired, upscale pizza parlor, we returned to the Larder for our provisions. By the way, franny’s supports local farms and environmentally-friendly business practices. Here’s the back of the menu:

And the front:

This was Alifair’s appetizer: to-die-for erbette chard with ricotta salata. Creamy goodness and greens cooked al dente. The onions were sweet little mouth bursts.

And that was Eric’s appetizer: crostini of wood-roasted pancetta with cicerchie beans. This dish was delicious, so wonderful in fact, that we wished we had more. That’s right, two crostini on the plate. Can’t we have just one more? Pretty please?

After appetizers, we split a ricotta, buffalo mozzarella, garlic, oregano, and hot pepper pizza between the two of us and a few glasses of wine.

Returning to Bklyn Larder, Alifair purchased a T-shirt—they are so cool—for Eric’s cheese T-shirt collection and hid it in a bag to surprise him later. Among the cheeses we bought Tomme Brebis et Chevre, a semi-soft mixed milk tome made of raw sheep and goat’s milk in the Pyrenees and aged by Savoie affineur Joseph Paccard; Dunbarton Blue, an award winning raw cow’s milk blue “cheddar” that is creamy like a cheddar with sparse blue veins, gentle blue spicing, and a good salt balance; a beautiful, lusciously creamy, ripened chevre log from Andante Dairy, with a delicate natural rind characteristic of French goat cheeses from the Loire region; and Green Hill, a soft ripened, camembert-style cheese from Sweet Grass Dairy whose bulging paste was buttery and mushroomy, with vegetal undertones. We also took home various charcuterie and two pints of coveted Bklyn Larder house-made gelato.

Then we stopped at a nearby flower shop outside a quickie mart to buy an enormous bouquet of lilies to make the table lovely at home tomorrow.

As a final huzzah for our enjoyable trip, here’s a short video by Adam Moskowitz, President of Larkin, proclaiming New York’s finest cheese shops. Some of the shops we visited are on his list.

bon appétit!