From behind the cheese case No. 1

David | Blog | October, 21 2010 | 1 Comment

I’ve noted in the blog once or twice that I have recently taken a part time job at my favorite local cheese shop, Marion Street Cheese Market, in Oak Park, Ill. I know the folks there pretty well, and when one of them posted on Facebook that they were seeking candidates, I jumped at the opportunity. It’s been more than a month now since I started, so I figure it’s time to start blogging about it on occasion. 

The view from behind the case.

I began training a week or so before Labor Day, and on my first day on the job I was able to help a bonafide celebrity–Chicago actor John Mahoney–find the cheese he was after. Once John was happy, one of the first things I needed learn was how to cut and rewrap cheese, using various tools of the trade—physically challenging and rewarding work. Making a clean cut, carefully wrapping the slice for the customer, rewrapping the wheel or mother section so tightly that the plastic wrap in invisible, (and the cheese is safe from the air), is largely what a cheesemonger does at a full service store like Marion Street. There is a very tactile satisfaction in handling the cheese–feeling its weight; controlling it.

This is especially so for large wheels. It might have been my second day on the job that I sold the last case-piece of Colston Bassett Stilton. I went into the chilly cheese locker and retrieved a lovely box with the distinctive Neal’s Yard label. Removing the 16-lb wheel was a simple matter of putting gravity to work by opening the box and flipping the exposed cheese from one hand to the other. This is the reason humans evolved to have two hands and opposable thumbs, I was sure.  I followed the instructions of a co-worker and cut into the stilton with a wire cutter. A quarter section of the cheese went into the busy display case and I put the rest back to bed. At Marion Street, cheesemongers make most cuts with a wire cutter that is anchored to a frame that helps hold the cheese. You steady the wheel with one hand and draw the wire through using the handle on the end of the wire. I had seen it done 100 times or more before I moved behind the counter, and now I can tell you that it feels just as good as you might think.

It's a good place to be.

Some cheeses are a bitch to cut, however. They might have to be scored first if they are dense and/or have a rind like an armadillo. Sometimes the wire snaps dangerously. The first time I saw it happen I thought of a guitar player breaking a string, and looked around for a roadie with the backup guitar and a pocket full of Ernie Ball strings. Others cheeses yield easily. You pull the wire toward you deliberately, and as if by magic, the new wedge falls neatly to one side.

The aromas of the cheese cases and the walk-in locker still amaze me–the various textures and appearances of the cheeses too.  And of course there are all those flavors–everything from strawberry ice cream to prime rib.

Estimating the weight of a piece of cheese is another little skill that comes quickly with some practice. Again, it’s very satisfying when a customer wants a third of a pound of say Cabot Clothbound and the nice big slice comes in at .38 lbs. “Just a hair over is that Okay?” They pretty much always say yes.   

If the managers are Marion Street will continue to have me, I’ll try to post on other aspects of the job. If you find this at all interesting, you have to read Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge, by Gordon Edgar. I read it within the first couple weeks on the job and it is really a lot of fun, whether you grew up listening to Black Flag or not.  Also, you can follow his blog.

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  1. Great…

    love your blog, http://www.getjealous.com/beckiese ,Thanks again….

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