It’s only taken me half of January to get back online, but the holiday hangover is not at fault.
Sadly, I was knocked flat by whatever plague it is that I caught at work just before Christmas. I blame the customers who cough into their hands, wipe their noses with their fingers, then proceed to pick up everything in the cheese case and then touch the cheese samples with their bare, germy fingers (ignoring the tongs and the toothpicks, of course—those are just there for everyone else, right?).
(I’m not trying to shame anyone. Well, maybe a little bit. But mostly, I think we all just need a reminder to be more mindful of how our decisions affect others during cold and flu season.)
There’s nothing like getting wiped out by a cold to get you thinking about how to maintain an optimal state of health. For me, that means making sure I’m eating more than enough fruits and vegetables, drinking enough water, exercising at least five days a week, getting more than seven hours of sleep, and taking vitamins for extra measure.
I don’t want to live forever, but I also don’t enjoy spending several weeks sleeping in a sitting position because I will stop breathing and choke on my own snot if I lay down.
For many people, the new year provides a similar impetus toward health-related introspection–flu-bug or not.
Around mid-December, a lot of customers started asking for low-salt and low-fat cheeses. In the week after New Year’s, requests for lactose-free cheeses started snowballing. Add to this any number of fad diets, and you practically have to become a nutritionist to be a cheesemonger.
Questions like these remind me more than ever that people know so little about the foods they eat–and that it is the duty of the cheesemonger to provide as much accurate information as possible.
When I was a young produce clerk, I would become irritated when customers would, say, demand strawberries in December, and then get mad when the strawberries they got tasted like fleshy, bland sacks of water. Obviously—or so I thought—things taste better when they are in-season and are not flown in from a bazillion miles away just so you can eat them when they are out of season because you will die if you cannot eat fresh strawberries in the dead of winter.
Now, as a seasoned cheesemonger, questions that used to rankle my collar produce educational moments. The customer who demands “Swiss cheese” will most certainly walk away from my counter having learned the term “Alpine-style cheeses,” as well as at least a cursory understanding of what that means.
Knowing when things are at their best and knowing how they are categorized are just small parts of understanding the things we put into our mouths. The questions my customers ask at higher frequencies in the holiday aftermath get at the inner workings of the food supply chain.
For example, a customer asked me last week if our New Zealand Cheddar was 100-percent grass-fed–and if not, what percentage exactly that diet was made up of grass.
I could lie, but I don’t; I’m honest, perhaps to the point of being blunt.
Ever the educator, I explained to this customer that we rarely get information about the percentage of grass a cow eats in her lifetime. I told her that many “grass-fed” cows live on pasture in the spring and summer, but must eat silage or mixed rations indoors in the wintertime, because it’s too cold or too snowy to be outside foraging. I also explained that “grass-fed” is a relatively meaningless term, as corn is technically a grass—so that “grass milk” might come from a cow who ate nothing but corn, and you’d never know it unless you saw for a fact that the cows who provided your milk were happily munching on verdant hillsides.
This lady did not take kindly to learning about how dairy cows live, most likely because it’s not as easy to have strong convictions about food based on its marketing terminology when the way the food is produced is not as simple as black-and-white.
Terms like “grass-fed” and “natural” aren’t regulated in the US. So while some producers may be able to honestly use those words to describe their cheeses, others may bend and stretch those terms for good marketing buzz.
While there are definitely some easy answers when it comes to the healthfulness of our food, more often than not, the answers to the questions we have about our food lend themselves to longer responses.
When customers ask me why we have so few cheeses that are certified organic, I have to respond that a number of the cheeses may be organically produced, but it costs so much money to gain the certification that many organic cheesemakers never can. The same goes for responding to why there are so few local, raw-milk cheeses, because raw-milk cheesemaking is also a rather expensive undertaking in the US.
(Case in point, stories are making the rounds right now about a goat creamery that just announced it was was going out of business because the cost of making sustainable cheese–not even raw-milk or organic–is simply too high.)
Most of the time, customers’ questions actually get at the very mechanisms of the cheesemaking process, whether they know it or not. Often, the people with these queries are on special diets–whether out of prescribed health reasons or based on the latest “health wonder” or fad diet.
For the question, “do you have any low-salt or salt-free cheeses,” the answer is always an explanation. Cheese recipes require salt, not necessarily for flavor, but primarily to help control the pH level of the cheese. If a cheese’s pH level becomes too acidic or too base, harmful bacteria could flourish in the cheese—but salt allows the cheesemaker to control those levels, and thus alleviate dangers in the cheesemaking process.
That’s how our ancestors figured out they could use salt to keep their meats and vegetables edible for longer and longer. The preservative aspect of salt essentially keeps our food sources’ other natural predators (e.g., bacteria) from killing us.
Fresh cheeses do not necessarily require salt for those purposes, because they are not being aged. But salt is still added for flavor. Fromage Blanc, Ricotta, and Mozzarella are some such cheeses that may have no salt or very little salt added.
Most of the cheeses that I know of that are marketed as being “low sodium” or “salt-free” are processed or commodity cheeses—mass-produced cheeses made in factories. Those cheeses will have their nutrition facts printed on the label, which is good for careful customers who won’t buy a product unless it has the word “low-sodium” or a set amount of salt printed on the package.
For the people who require a low-sodium diet, the commercial-grade low-salt cheese can be a boon—because the factories that make them may have the financial capital to hire a chemist to engineer a better-tasting product.
For people who want to support small cheesemakers and artisanal practices—or for whom the thought of “lab-engineered flavor” is a huge turnoff—that isn’t really going to hit the spot.
Beyond that, very few of the cheeses we cut in-shop come with nutritional information, which makes it difficult to provide the exact amounts of salt per serving relative to another cheese.
Then there’s the question of “low-fat cheese,” which is a whole can of worms. Some cheeses are marketed as being low-fat, which defeats the purpose for a lot of customers, who equate fat with flavor.
When I worked for a cheese shop that also sliced deli meats and cheeses, we carried logs of “Jarlsberg Light” and “Light Havarti” for a time. There was a very small number of customers who came in religiously for those cheeses—and by very small, I mean maybe five people, ever. The rest would say, “why even bother?” and laugh at us for carrying those cheeses.
Which means that since they didn’t really sell, they weren’t around for very long before they were taken off of the “approved” list. For anyone who relied on those cheeses in their diet, that was a big problem; nobody else cared, and we were happy to have the space in our coolers.
So for people who are looking for low-fat or lower-fat cheeses, there must be an involved conversation about the customer’s needs–both the dietary and the culinary.
The more aged a cheese is, the lower in fat it is likely to be: four-year Cheddar, five-year Gouda; the older, the better.
There are some cheeses that are made with partially skimmed milk, like Parmigiano Reggiano or Emmentaler. Those will be lower in fat. Reggiano is also aged longer, rendering it the perfect health-food cheese.
But what if the person needs a soft, low-fat cheese for cooking? Then a fresh goat cheese, like Fromage Blanc or Chèvre, is going to have to be the option.
Goat cheeses will generally have a lower fat content than most cow’s milk cheeses, and both will be lower in fat than sheep’s milk cheese.
But when you look for lower fat in your cheese, there’s a trade-off that happens with things like protein: fattier milks tend to be higher in protein. (At the same time, harder cheeses will usually have higher protein contents than soft cheeses. There are so many factors at play!)
Things that you want in your foods, like protein and vitamins, can be found in cheese in varying levels. I have had customers ask how much of X-Vitamin is in a given cheese. Unfortunately, cheesemongers don’t have nutritional information for every individual cheese on the shelf—especially not for small-production specialty cheeses.
There’s no secret informational list hiding in the back that we hoard while laughing at your vitamin deficiencies or special diets; we truly don’t have access to some knowledge.
But if you have a skilled cheesemonger with a general understanding of how different animals’ milks stack up against each other, and how individual recipes and aging produce families of cheeses, you can get close to finding what you need in the cheese case.
The final health question that we get an awful lot in January, for some reason, is about lactose-free or low-lactose cheeses. I don’t know if post-holiday constipation and indigestion are the culprits here, or if people are actively making New Year’s resolutions to go lactose-free in the same way that they might become gluten-free, vegetarian, or Paleo without a doctor’s prescription or a moral compass–to try something and see if it makes them feel better than what they’ve been doing all along.
Cheese Sex Death beat me to the punch and wrote an excellent, quick read about lactose and cheese, and you should check it out if you are concerned about lactose.
What I will say on the topic is that any cheese that is not a fresh cheese—and all cultured cheeses—will have either no lactose or such negligible levels of lactose that are so low as to be essentially null. You can be lactose-intolerant and still eat most, if not all, cheeses without any problems.
There are, of course, any number of finnicky digestive systems, intolerances, and allergies. For example, some children and adults are allergic to kappa-casein, a protein that is integral to the chemical structure of milk. (People have asked for casein-free cheese; that is not real unless you are asking for dairy-free cheese.) Additionally, some people can digest goat’s milk but not cow’s milk cheeses, and others can only digest sheep’s milk cheeses.
A basic rule of thumb would be to try a cheese in small amounts and see how it affects you. Try harder, aged cheeses for starters.
I used to have a customer who would only eat cheeses that had been aged for a minimum of 18 months. That didn’t leave her with a ton of options in most cheese counters, but it was a good, safe benchmark from which to set off.
And if you can’t eat dairy at all—or won’t, for various moral or ethical convictions—there are plenty of cheese alternatives on the market. “Alternative cheese” is actually one of the fastest growing categories in the cheese world, and there are tons of nut-, starch-, and oil-based options on the market. (And yes, many of them are very good!)
When it comes to your health, learning more about cheese and the cheesemaking process can be the easiest way to make positive changes. The right cheeses can be part of any balanced diet; all you need is a little bit of education.
Take the time to have conversations with your cheesemonger, do your research, ask the hard questions, and—hopefully—become passionate about how, when, and where your food is produced.
New Year’s Resolution, new diet, or not, I hope this gives you some good food for thought.
Also, please wash your hands and cough into your elbow.
Happy New Year!