By Billy LeGrand
“Who cut the cheese?” “So you’re the cheese whiz?” “You call that a job?!”
As a cheesemonger, I’ve heard more than my fair share of “cheesy” puns – they are irresistibly delicious. I’ve also heard plenty of doubt about the existence of such a thing as a cheesemonger in today’s world. “Honestly, I haven’t heard of anyone ‘mongering’ anything for years (except for politicians)” they tell me.
Enter the small-scale, local seller who takes pride in their products, knows the farmers and artisans behind the food, and knows customers’ names and food preferences by heart. A monger is a storyteller, an expert, a manual laborer, a trusted ally. Today, though, the most important aspect of mongering is advocacy – getting the word out about great food, family farmers, artisan traditions, supporting local economies, and much more. A world without mongers is not the world I want!
Earlier this summer, Common Ground Food Co-op hired me to be their first full-time cheesemonger as a part of the great expansion currently underway. If you haven’t visited the store recently, you’d be surprised to see the changes. The kitchen has moved upstairs into a full production facility, the produce section is growing, and more cash registers have been installed. Beer and wine are on their way here soon, as is an espresso bar, hot deli foods prepared to order, and fresh meats. In my opinion, though, the most important change at Common Ground certainly happened on September 5th, when the cheese selection doubled in size!
Which brings me to the cheese, and that means it’s mongering time. To so many people, cheese is a commodity product: a mass-produced rectangle in various shades of white and orange, a melted topping on nearly every popular convenience food, a rather mysterious ingredient in packaged convenience foods. It dominates so much of our food landscape because it is cheap and easy. Whether it’s burgers, pasta, salad, or so much else, everyone knows to top it with a little cheese to bring the flavor out.
But I spend my days with an altogether different product. I work with delicate cheeses that need coddling, stinky cheeses that shout from the treetops, aged cheeses that want to be left alone, oozing cheeses that change from day to day, and so many more. These cheeses are living, breathing creations from the hands of skilled artisans. From Mike Gingrich’s intensively managed pasturing system at Uplands Cheese Company in Dodgeville, WI, to 20 year-old wunderkind Galen Musser from Milton, IA, whose Prairie Breeze Cheddar from hand-milked cows has been named Best Cheddar by the American Cheese Society not once but twice, these cheeses represent the efforts, time, and craftsmanship of tremendously hard-working people. For lack of a better term, I call this cheese “real cheese.”
Real cheese is more than something you grab at the store and melt on a hot dog (although it would definitely make for a much better hot dog). Real cheese has a story, it has a personality. It has parents and caretakers, friends and enemies. Tony and Julie Hook of Mineral Point, WI, age their cheddars up to fifteen years before releasing them to the public – their cheese is nearly old enough to vote before it leaves home! Why do they do this? Because the cheese that develops is unlike anything else, with assertive, broad, deep flavors, lingering cream and salt, and a slow roastiness as it fades. When you taste it, you know what I mean by “real cheese.” You can taste that farm, that milk, that cheesemaker’s skill. It takes you somewhere.
As a cheesemonger, my job is to track down these tremendous cheeses, to talk to the cheesemakers and farmers, to provide feedback both good and bad, and to provide them with a convenient and reliable source of income. Then, I turn around and tell the public about these cheeses. I talk about the flavors, the animals, the people. And I listen to their responses – “you know Billy, that cheese last time was a bit too strong (or not enough, or just right) for my taste.” I learn the customers’ stories – their jobs, their skills, their interests. I know when they are hosting a party, when family is in town, what dietary issues they have, and the history of cheeses they’ve enjoyed. Ultimately, I connect one group of incredible people with another group of incredible people, via real cheese.
So then, let’s get down to business and talk a little cheese, people.
Do you know Prairie Fruits Farm on N. Lincoln Ave., just past I-74? Leslie and Wes have built something incredible up there, raising their own goats to make astounding cheese, buying sheep’s milk from Eldon Plank in Arthur, IL, to make even more cheese, hosting all kinds of events on the farm, taking action in the community, and still winning the prestigious first place award for Best Sheep’s Milk Cheese at this year’s American Cheese Society conference with their incredible Black Sheep.
Do you know Ludwig Farmstead Creamery in Fithian? With his chemistry degree and cheesemaking apprenticeship in hand, young Jake Ludwig was all set to make cheese with milk from his father’s blue ribbon cows on the family farm, which dates back to 1866. Sadly, Jake was killed in a car accident before cheese production began. However, Jake’s recipe has been taken up in Jake’s facility by Fons Smits, an experienced cheesemaker working with the Ludwig family to make Jake’s dream a reality. Happily, the community’s support for Ludwig has been immense. I literally cannot keep Ludwig Farmstead Creamery fresh mozzarella in the store, it is certainly a far cry from bland factory mozzarella.
My mission at Common Ground is different from a traditional specialty store or specialty selection in a grocery store with a large selection of well-known cheeses. Though I do carry a few European cheeses on a rotating basis, I am entirely here to tell the stories of small-scale American cheesemakers. You won’t recognize many of the cheeses in the case here at Common Ground, and that makes my bosses nervous. But I am a cheesemonger and I am serious about this stuff. I stake my name on these cheeses and on the great people behind them. I hope you’ll give them a chance, I know you’ll be happy you did.
Billy LeGrand is Specialty Cheese Buyer at Common Ground Food Co-op. He has worked with cheese on and off since 2004, specializing in artisanal American producers. He is also a certified Alexander Technique teacher, assisting courses at UI and working privately from his studio in downtown Champaign. He holds a master’s degree in music and tries to keep up on the guitar in his spare time. He is a passionate advocate for well-being and the good life – in food, body, mind, art, family, and friends.