I spend an inordinate amount of time in artisan cheese shops, at grocery store cheese counters, and on cheese sellers’ websites. I have worked in cheese retail, consulted with national chains to improve and curate their offerings, and partnered with e-commerce suppliers. Over the years, I’ve witnessed a lot of customers buying cheese at all price points, and some are far more successful at making good choices than others.
So what does it take to be a good cheese customer?
For starters – and this may sound painfully obvious – you’ve got to educate yourself a bit prior to going shopping. Even taking 15 minutes to peruse the internet and learn the basic types and styles of cheese will help: aged, blue, white bloomy rind, washed, flavor added, etc. Read a bit about milk types: cow, goat, sheep, buffalo, or mixed milk. See which varieties sound like cheeses you’ve enjoyed in the past and which types might suit your purposes for this particular shopping excursion.
Next: choose where to shop wisely. If you have dedicated cheese shop near you – and more of these are popping up each year in cities in the US – start there. You can also try a good grocery store that has a staffed cheese counter; many markets have them now. Note whether the staff will cut your cheese to order, or if they only sell pre-cut cheese wrapped in plastic. I appreciate a counter that wraps your selections in cheese paper, because it’s much better for your cheese than plastic wrap (which imparts plastic flavor, can seal the cheese too tight, and affects the rinds of delicate cheeses, like Brie). Ideally, find a shop where they let you sample the cheese: tasting is hands-down the best way to learn.
That said: the most important quality in a cheese customer is a willingness to ask questions and try new things. If you can, find a cheesemonger to engage with, and don’t be afraid to ask them anything at all about cheese! Mongers have a breadth of knowledge about cheese and any monger worth their salt is passionate and will be excited to share their knowledge with you. Describe to them as best you can your likes and dislikes, the price point you’re looking at (never be shy about this!) and how you’ll be using the cheese you’re buying that day (incorporated into a dish? As an appetizer? As part of a composed cheese plate? In mac and cheese? ). You can also let them know what you’ll be drinking with the cheese; this information if often the secret to narrowing down your options. Conversely, you can ask your monger what their cheese picks are, then see what beverages they’d suggest as pairings.
I have great fun with the folks at the counters of my favorite shops; they’re always quick with a sample of their new favorite or something they thought tasted particularly delicious that day. They can make suggestions on how to best serve the cheese and what accompaniments to eat with it. Their goal is to for you to enjoy the cheese to the fullest, not just buy it from them.
My last suggestion for being a good cheese customer is reserved for a cheesemonger you’ve built up a rapport with over time: as my friend Matt Bonano of Brooklyn South (and formerly of Murray’s Cheese) is always quick to say: “Hug your cheesemonger.” I do it often.