Usually, we’re interviewing people about the next best thing. Our Start Ups To Start Noticing column covers young businesses that you’re going to be obsessed with in a couple of years and our Dream Jobs column takes a long look at people who are doing cool shit right now. But today, we’re mixing it up and taking you back in time.
In honor of Old Best Head Brewing Company’s amazing Bleu & Brew event, we hit up Jeffery Mitchell, the head cheesemonger at Culpeper Cheese Company, to talk about the history of cheese, what cheesemongers do all day and the terrifying cheese test that sounds like it came straight of the documentary Somm.
Immerse yourself in the dizzying (and delicious) world of cheese and then grab your tickets to Bleu & Brew on May 12. You don’t want to miss out on all of the cheese and beer pairing goodness. Besides, what could be better than a cold beer and a big slice of your favorite cheese?
To kick everything off, why don’t you tell me about how you got into the cheese game?
I never knew I was a cheese liberal, that was a surprise to me. I bought a cheese case and added it to a wine shop and fell in love. I didn’t realize that I knew a little bit about cheese… I went to a cheese boot camp. One of the things just rolled into the other and I said being a cheese liberal, I’m not afraid to try and experience different cheeses. I guess to know the stories behind them has been neat. It certainly wasn’t a career intent. I had 20 years in photography before I started this.
Oh, interesting. So were in photography and then you opened a wine store?
Yeah, I was in my forever job at Eastman Kodak. You know, they were going to carry me out of there feet first, but that didn’t work out. So life 2.0, I said I want to do something that I enjoy. I worked for a restaurant, wrote for a newspaper, all of those jobs that don’t compensate as well, but are really satisfying. The cheese industry has just grown, just like craft beer did a decade or so ago, and is continuing to do but, it’s a great world to be in.
Absolutely. What was your gateway cheese, what was the cheese that made you realize this was more than a small section of your wine store?
I started collecting favorites, like one of my personal favorites is Gaperon. Gaperon is a doughty looking french cheese. It sort of looks like a squashed softball and it’s got a mottled surface where some of it’s bloomy and some of it looks like a shaved dog with mange. It’s not the most attractive cheese sitting in the case and it’s got ribbons or strings around it. It’s like, “What is this thing?” But inside that is a cheese that develops over time. It’s a cows milk that’s got black peppercorns in it and garlic. So pepper garlic cheese, you’re already halfway home. What I love about it is the string around it, you can pull it and it sections like an orange, or a chocolate orange, and you can take one of those sections in a saute pan. Add a little bit of cream and make a mac and cheese, or a grown up version of it. With red wine or a pale ale, it’s about perfect. That was the sort of cheese I loved because it was more than a one hit wonder. You could do so much with it and it was neat to explain to people.
That’s certainly one that I’m pretty passionate about as you can hear me go poetic on it, but, it’s so much of what goes on in cheese is education. When I was growing up, I’m a native Washingtonian, there were a litany of cheese sources around us. I thought everybody had that. Rewind to Georgetown many decades ago, you had the French market, which was probably where I experienced the most cheese. There was always a cheese sampling going on on saturday and the cheesemonger there, she would always smirk and smile and hand you something and you’d try it. If you recoiled in horror, that means that she sort of won. You tried something new and now you knew what pungency was. In that environment, as kids, you would crave things like Edam, well that’s not the norm in this country. You’re looking at plasticized cheeses in plastic wrappers and that’s what people grow up on. I had a different experience. That was sort of my introduction to cheese as a kid. Obviously through the years, Dean and Deluca has brought cheese to D.D., when I lived in north Arlington, I was dangerously close to Arrowine. I could walk there. They have a really nice cheese counter as well. It’s one of those things, it’s an addiction. Once you’re in you’re going to keep learning more and you start craving more defined tastes.
Right, the more developed your palette becomes.
I think to an extent yes. I like cheeses that are not a one hit wonder. If we pick on mozzarella, I’ve had some amazing mozzarella, but the lion’s share of what’s on the market is sort of, it’s hard to tell is it between water or skim milk? And it’s sort of rubbery. That’s what a lot of mozzarella tastes like. When you have a good low salt mozzarella, I mean it’s just mind changing. As I’m talking to you, I’m remembering where I was, who gave it to me, what the sky looked like, it’s a transcendental sort of experience. I’m frustrated I’m not close enough to get more of that mozzarella.
What are your cheese sins? What are people messing up with when they’re buying cheese?
I think get outside of your comfort zone. Cheese isn’t cheap. Any cheese shop should either have a collection of offerings to sample and you should get outside of your comfort zone and experience something new there. We tend to, as people, we gravitate to what we know. So, “I like cheddar, so I’m going to stay with cheddar.” I think that fear of the unknown and conquering that. A great way to do that is to select a few cheeses and share them with friends and change up your styles.
The other thing is learning to play with your food. So often we grab something and throw it into our mouth and there’s no appreciation for, “What is this thing?” If I’m going to taste a cheese, I’m teaching some folks later on today how to taste cheese, the first thing I do is have everyone wash their hands. I’m going to slice it and give them their individual pieces but, don’t put it in your mouth. The cheese is going to be at room temperature and I’m going to ask them to play with it with their fingers. When they bend it, does it break or does it bend just hold that shape? That gives you an idea of the elasticity of the cheese. When you press it between your index finger and thumb, does it have a granular texture to it, or is it smooth? How smooth is it? Is it smooth like cream between your fingers or does it have more of a resistance? Does it have granules to it? Now take and smell those fingers that have been playing with the cheese, what aromas are you getting? It’s a sequence of events, just to play with your food and to appreciate the sight, the texture, manually, visually, before you put it in your mouth. Because we eat first with our eyes and it’s a great chance to get to know the cheese.
So, I think that’s the second thing. Get out of your comfort zone, play with your food more, ask questions. There are so many cheesemongers who are over the moon excited to talk about what it is we do. We’re the purveyors, we’re reaching back. I’ve had the luck of visiting so many dairies. I look forward to each and every one, and to bring the story of the people who are making the cheese to the table. You understand a sense of place and purpose that the cheese maker is going after. There’s so many great backstories, you know socially, politically, if you look at in cheese…
I think I have, like most people, the vaguest idea of what a cheesemonger is, but could you tell me a little bit about what you do?
That’s a great subject of debate. There’s a closed group and we’re all having that exact argument right now. Somebody put up a video and it’s created all caps yelling about what we do and what we don’t do. So I think the first thing is knowledge and passion. There’s got to be knowledge of what it is you’re selling and passionately purvey it. Like I said, cheeses aren’t cheap. If you’re looking at things that are in the upper $20s all the way into the $40, $50 a pound, I better know what I’m talking about. This is Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese that’s infused with truffles. And they’re white truffles. How do they get in there? They won’t tell us and you have to appreciate the art and the history that goes to it. Knowledge and passion is first.
Then, caring. Caring is going to be the food safety and the understanding of the chain of custody. Where did this cheese come from? Where did it go to to get to you? How is it maintained and cared for all the way to the point that it’s wrapped and put in your hand? There’s been a litany of people behind that cheese, making sure it is as it should be all the way through. So that caring and the knowledge of understanding.
For the last part, I would say is education. A lot of people look at cheese they’re perplexed. It’s like, “Why would I buy this truffle cheese from Sardinia at that price point? I’m not going to eat that block of cheese cause all I’m going to see is that money.” So understanding how the cheese can change up a meal or present new flavors.
That was perfect. You’ve mentioned a couple of times the history and the stories behind cheese. Is there a story in particular that you think is especially fascinating or just kind of shines a new light on the cheese world?
Yes. I’m just going to put a little asterisk, I wanted to go back for one thing that I forgot to mention. I’m a CCP or Certified Cheese Professional. There are only about 1000 of us in the country. That is a test administered by the American Cheese Society that is across all basis of knowledge, you know from animal husbandry to cheese making to sanitation. So, skipping back to your question.
Hold on, I actually have a follow up question now- How intensive is the testing to get that certification?
Terrifying. I don’t say that lightly. I am grateful that by demonstration of continuing education I can stay certified. I went through a study group and not everybody passed, and understand when I say not everybody passed, these are people who have 10,000 hours plus in the industry, specifically in cheese, and they didn’t pass. What’s unique about the test is that it’s not like, “Here’s the course curriculum, if you know all of this you’re fine.” It’s a little more random, so it encourages you to reach out further and expand your base of knowledge. It is not a test that anybody takes lightly.
Interesting. Now, let’s go back to my historical question.
So a piece of cheese history. I think that it says something about the value of dairy that there weren’t cows in this country and somebody decided that we’re going to bring cows across so we can have dairy. That’s an interesting ship voyage, to put a cow on a boat and take them across the ocean. You look at the time period and the importance they saw in making [dairy] a part of their future in this country. That’s one of the things that touches me, I think, the traditions. When you look at people who have been making cheese for thousands of years, look at France. There’s a cheese comté that defined a community. They work in coops meaning that everybody in the neighborhood who’s in dairying is pulling their milk, the milk goes to make the cheese, the young cheese is then moved to a common storage facility, which is actually part of one of Napoleon’s forts. You look at that and go back 1000 years or more and they’ve been doing this the same way. It’s now a protected thing, so it’s only these cows, this region, everything is mandated down the line as you go there.
It’s fascinating thinking about home heating. The people live upstairs and the cows are downstairs, and through methane and everything else, they’re providing the heating for the house during the winter months. Those types of stories of tenacity, perseverance. Dairying is hard work, but for people to prioritize it and make it part of their culture, I think is what fascinates me.
What are you daily duties of the cheesemonger, outside of talking with customers? Are you buying the cheese, are you going to cheese meetings, how does the business aspect work?
A day in the life of… So there’s always buying and that’s perennial. Obviously, the most fun is to be on site, particularly with baby goats, those are just too cute for words. So there’s the awareness, the buying, receiving. When cheese is received there’s a visual check of it, there’s a temperature check of it. With receiving the cheese, the wheels are broken down and portioned. From wheels that weigh up to 200 pounds or need to be “cracked”, like Parmesan-Reggiano, to the portioning of fresh cheeses, like chevre, into cups. The key difference is that mongers are working with cheeses either cut to order or are randomly portioned. Contrast this to the vacuum sealed and gassed varieties found in traditional grocery, where the portion is pre-determined.
Things can, and do, go wrong with food. When there’s a recall, you need to know and be able to immediately pull the data. It’s a food product and you have to treat it as such.
The time spent with people is the best. You get to educated somebody about something they didn’t know before. Probably the best thing to do is to watch somebody’s eyes when they try a new cheese. You have this whole set of expressions that you really can’t fake. Your face has this involuntary reaction, and watching people experience that level of joy and discovery, that makes your day. Just watching that is a thrill. To know I’ve introduced somebody to taste they couldn’t have imagined, and now they might not imagine their life without it.
I guess that’s kind of a day in life. There’s always cleaning if you’re in cheese, you’ve gotta love cleaning things.
What is the cheesemonger community like, do you hang out?
Yes, it is awesome. Cheese people are the best people, that’s not an insult to anybody else, but it’s a small world. There are hugs, smiles, copious amounts of alcohol but there is such joy, we understand what each is doing and there’s a passion or reverence for sharing that. It doesn’t have the pretension that I think can develop as something gets too large. It’s a very small industry and every single stretch of it is impossibly hard.
Do you ever get sick of cheese? Do you ever have to take cheese breaks?
No. I think what’s interesting is when I’ve been somewhere that doesn’t have cheese. It’s kind of strange when you can’t find cheese. It’s kind of like, “How do you all live here?” It’s not withdrawal symptoms, but you start craving things. I mean could I eat too much cheese? Absolutely, but a little bit here and there, accenting a meal or finishing a meal, is such a nice way to enjoy it.
Can you tell me a little bit about Bleu & Brew?
Bleu & Brew is a wonderful chance to get out of your comfort zone, to try new beers and cheeses and pairings. It’s our third year supporting Bleu & Brew and it’s the first year where we’re also going to have cheeses for sale. For me, the sample sizes are right, you’ve got a price that includes all of that to go out and taste and explore and that’s the fun thing there. There are some people who are over the moon about the pairings that we’ve done, but also there are other things that come up as secondary, tertiary, where somebody says, “Wait a minute, try this with that.” That’s part of the experience I was saying before about education, getting out of a comfort area and playing with the cheeses. That’s a perfect environment for it. The venue the first year was in the backside of the brewery, it’s now in the front. This year is hitting all the bells, it’s so much better than year one.
You mentioned a pairings, I want to pick your brain a about really good cheese and beer pairings that you wouldn’t expect.
So, I think that a lot of people are afraid of goat cheese. I see people look at goat cheese and they go, “Oh, it’s going to taste like a goat smells.” Well it shouldn’t. Unless somebody’s had a traumatic experience with goats, it shouldn’t. I think goat cheese with IPAs, particularly your fruitier ones, is going to be a really neat thing. You have that tangy lemony experience and if you’re going with hops that have more citrus notes… That’s a really neat experience to have there. I think, like I said, people are generally speaking a little bit squeamish when it comes to goat.
Sounds good to me.
Bleu cheese with darker beer, like a porter or a nut brown, is really nice and you can add some chocolate to that too. So you have the roasted notes of the beer, the peppery and creamy notes of the cheese, and then have it with some chocolate. That’s a lovely experience to go into.