What is a “cheesemonger”?
I’ve been told by so many that they absolutely LOVE the term, that it is such a kick to read my title on my business card. Apart from the loveliness of the term, however, there is actually a straightforward meaning to this title.
A monger, as Wiktionary defines it, is “a dealer in a specific commodity, normally used in combination.” (For the record, it’s also “a person promoting something undesireable, always used in combination,” but for our purposes here it is DEFINITELY the former…) And “to monger” is “to sell or peddle something.” So, since my commodity is cheese, I’m someone who deals in cheese and I monger cheese daily to all who want to purchase it.
This is quite a broad definition that, I feel, needs a more accurate definition for what those of us “commodity dealers of cheese” feel is a fairly noble profession. Being a cheesemonger may not have the impact on society as a doctor, nurse or teacher—but I can assure you that most of what a good cheesemonger does is education on a daily basis as well as a lot of human caretaking. I’ll be even bolder and say that it’s a tougher role here in the U.S. (and possibly Australia & New Zealand) because most Americans grew up without a cheese culture. So the myriad styles of cheese, the different milks, the various stages of ripeness are all areas of confusion for most of us who were raised on local cheddar or the nearby grocery store with an extra-cold refrigerated aisle filled with milk-based products as our cheese selection.
My point with this is that being a cheesemonger has levels of expectation and responsibility, similar to those of a wine merchant or butcher. To be a good cheesemonger—and one would hope that there’s a desire to as good as one can be at whatever you’re doing—you must learn about cheese in every way you possibly can so that you can tell whomever walks through your door what s/he needs to know in order to make an informed decision and be happy enough to come back again and again for your mongering skills. We all know good sales people but with something edible, there really isn’t any fudge-room. You either do it well and gain your customer’s trust…or you go out of business.
The cheesemongering profession is definitely gaining momentum and, with that, there’s the promise of a much stronger cheese infrastructure worldwide. There is an annual International Caseus Award contest held in Lyon, France (in 2011, it is January 22-26) started by renown cheesemonger and affineur Herve Mons, and this is a competition that raises the profile of cheesemongers everywhere by testing skills as well as knowledge. And the American Cheese Society has just started to flesh out a process for cheesemongers to be certified so there will be a standard that we can attain and further levels to aspire to. We’ve come a long way, baby!
So, what makes a good cheesemonger? The ability to listen. The honest desire to help. The ability to change someone’s mind then end up making his day. A broad education on cheeses and knowledge of cheesemaking and nutritional/health aspects of cheese. The ability to make suggestions about menu, event layout and amounts, beverage pairing, storage needs (a food background really helps!).
And above all else, of course: an unflagging love of cheese.
Next up for me: The symbiotic relationship between a cheesemonger and a cheesemaker. Watch for it in two weeks!
Oxbow Cheese Merchant (Napa, CA), and culture: the word on cheese