“Where’s your bathroom?” – That’s the No. 1 question I answer all day, every day at work. Despite the mundaneness of turning people back to the front of the store from whence they came, it is but one of many questions a cheesemonger anticipates every day.
Often times, people walk right up to you with a question—sometimes about cheese, and sometimes about whether or not we sell dehydrated coconut or where the bread is. Other people browse immediately, heads down and gazes locked on the cheese case in hope that nobody behind the counter will talk to them.
Others yet pace around, looking for something but not really seeing anything. Or there are the obviously indecisive ones, the ponderers, and the ones who just don’t know how or where to start. You learn a lot about the different types of people when you work with the public.
(On a related side note: Honestly, my pet peeve is when people announce “we’re just looking!” before I even have a chance to notice them. No shit, sherlock. That’s what you do in a store: you look at things. If you are in a store and want the staff to leave you alone, just say “hello” back when they greet you and “no thank you” when they ask you for help. Easy peasy! Service employees are people, too, and it is just their job to talk to you.)
I encountered one of the latter types of shopper a few weeks ago. Hands behind her back, she moved briskly along the case, ogling all the cheeses.
“Everything is so beautiful here,” she said. “I had to come see the new store finally. I heard you had a lot of cheeses back here.”
“Aww, welcome!” I said. “Let me know if I can answer any questions about any of them.”
Then, as if a hypnotist had snapped his fingers, her mood turned from cheerful to dark.
She barked at me – “I wouldn’t even know what to ask.”
That is a totally valid response for someone who has never before been to a real cheese counter—the kind with a cheesemonger where you can get samples and ask questions and have cheese cut to a different size. In the neighborhood where we opened this new store, there had not been anything like my cheese counter before. I am totally aware that many of our customers are intimidated by what some of them have dubbed “cheese heaven” at the same time as they refer to it as “the most cheese I have ever seen in my life!”
Although I was taken aback by the sudden shift in our small talk, I can’t say I blame this customer for not knowing what to ask me on her first trip to a cheese shop. If you’ve maybe never tried more than the American “staple cheeses” (e.g., Swiss, American, Cheddar, Mozzarella, possibly also Brie), how do you know where to begin in a place that has 300 different kinds of cheese—whole swaths of “Swiss” cheeses by different names, twenty sizes of Brie, and many cheeses that don’t look like anything you’ve ever seen before?
My biggest piece of advice for people shopping at a cheese counter is that they ask the cheesemonger questions—especially for suggestions and for a taste. Here are a few starter questions that will help the most beginner-level cheese-shop visitor become a savvy cheese buyer .
- Saying “I don’t know anything about cheese” is helpful, although it’s probably not really true unless you have literally never eaten cheese before in your life.
Even if you’ve only ever had Kraft singles and sliced, processed Swiss cheese or Parmesan out of a shaker can, you have had some experience with cheese. That can go a long way toward helping your cheesemonger help you try something new that won’t be “too much” for your taste buds.
Instead of saying you don’t know anything, say, “I have very little experience with this kind of cheese” or “I usually just have American or Swiss on my sandwich,” for starters. No matter how developed or undeveloped your palate, it is a cheesemonger’s job to help people find cheese they like without judgment.
I may not sell Kraft American, and I may explain to you that there’s a whole category of different cheeses denominated by the name “Swiss,” but I am also in the end going to show you something approachable and make darn sure that you try it before you buy it.
2. “Can I taste this?” – There should never be a reason why you can’t taste something at a cheese counter. The answer is always yes.
We want you to try it first, because we love and respect the cheese, and we don’t want you to end up at home with something you hate. You’ll probably throw it away, and then you might not come back again for a different cheese that you will prefer. Maybe you’ll never try an artisan cheese again; I shudder at the thought.
Some people say they feel bad having us get them a taste, opening up a wedge, or cutting a sample. DON’T!
It is in our job description to do that. We love cutting you a sample, and sometimes we also sample the cheese with you. That’s one of the best parts of our job.
- “Can you tell me about this cheese?” – This is a much better way of gaining information than waving around a wedge of cheese and shouting “what is this?” at a cheesemonger. That scenario happens surprisingly a lot, no joke.
(What am I going to say if you do that? I’ll probably walk around the counter, make you physically show me the label up close like I don’t have my contacts in, and then I will read you the name on the label and wait for you to ask me about it again.)
Asking politely for more information is always OK. The cheesemonger will tell you about that particular cheese—who makes it, what family of cheese it belongs to, how it tastes, what it goes with, etc. You’ll probably also learn more about that family of cheese, its origins, the tradition of which it is a part, and so forth.
How much you learn from your cheesemonger depends on how much time you have and how interested you are, of course. But don’t be afraid to ask!
- “Can you help me find a cheese for my recipe/for a cheeseboard/for a gift?” Obviously!
Just be prepared to answer follow-up questions, like: how many people? Are they adventurous? What else are you serving? What else does the recipe call for? How will you be using it? How much do you need?
The more you can tell your monger, the better she or he can help you. Of course, if you don’t know what you want, don’t be afraid to say so—but do be ready to taste a few things to help you find out.
- “What goes with this wine/salami/salad/bread?” Here again, be prepared to answer some questions. A lot of the things you might pick up could go well with many other things, depending on your own palate and preferences.
While some things just go together, taste is subjective and we don’t all care for the same flavors and flavor combinations.
I prefer to give people several options, to have them taste a number of things, and then to guide them as they figure out on their own what they want the pairing to be. Not all cheesemongers take that approach. Some will just tell you what to do.
If you have an idea but aren’t sure, your cheesemonger is the person to run it by. You might even be able to try it out together in the shop!
As the saying goes, “there are no stupid questions.” You can ask a cheesemonger pretty much anything you want to know about cheese and pairing or preparing it.
I would only nudge you to ask questions politely and respectfully, and not to respond with frustration if the response isn’t what you expected. If you aren’t getting the answer you want, consider how you are asking the question and if that’s the best way to get the type of information you seek.
Your cheesemonger is not a mind reader. But she or he is there to help you buy cheese, not to prevent you from getting it. So ask questions, answer questions, taste some things, and don’t be a jerk!