There's a bit of an uproar going on in the Chelsea, New York, cheese community. (Quite the niche market, I realize.) At a well-loved neighborhood store, a cheesemonger's tongue-in-cheek labels on cheese — referencing song lyrics, relevant quotes, and the like — were recently banned by the establishment's higher-ups after a customer complained. It got me thinking about what's most vital to actually have on a cheese label, and what's just an added, if unnecessary, bonus. I learned a lot of what I know about cheese from reading labels. I was thrown behind the sales counter on my very first day as a cheesemonger, and so at first, memorizing labels was all I could do to properly guide a customer to the right wedge. I remember reading the cheese labels at record speed, in furious and nervous pursuit of increasing my knowledge as quickly as possible.
At this first cheese job, there were quick talking points and vital stats of each cheese on the back of each cheese sign, a cheat sheet of sorts. Once I memorized the label, I could then begin learning the backstory of the cheese. But more importantly, by knowing the preliminary handful of facts, I could make connections among cheeses that would subsequently inform my palate. And having a knowledgable palate is what can truly help you become more cheese-smart.
Here are the key points about cheese that you should look for on a label and register as you think about the cheese:
• The cheese's place of origin
• The cheese's style
• How long the cheese was (or wasn't) aged
• The cheese's milk type
• Whether the cheese made with pasteurized or raw milk
If you know these things about a cheese, you'll be more than well on your way to committing that cheese forever to your memory. These are the indicators that will help you to be that informed consumer who knows kinds of cheeses she likes.
For example, knowing that you like a cheese aged for three months as opposed to a year is a pretty brilliant way to discover something else that you might like along those same lines. It's great information to pass onto your cheesemonger, too. And of course, knowing your milk types will help you to become self-sufficient in choosing cheese, as well. Paying attention to style of cheese might be the most important thing of all, though, so keep your bloomies and blues straight.
So perhaps song quotes on cheese labels might not be the best way to learn about your cheese, but they'll surely give you something to hum while you snack.
→ Get into the uproar about Chelea's Westside Market cheese labels on New York Grubstreet.
Nora Singley used to be a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop. Until recently she was a TV Chef on The Martha Stewart Show. She is currently a freelance food stylist and recipe developer in New York.
Related: Stinky! A Profile of Washed Rind Cheeses
(Image: Stephanie Barlow)