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.” 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.” 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. 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.” 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.