You don't need to be a spendthrift to become a connoisseur of cheese. In fact, maximizing value is a key to enjoying the journey. And the best way to combine saving and learning is to start a lively conversation with the person behind the counter.
My usual icebreaker is "What's good?" Most smart buyers use some variation on this. It's a cue for a cheesemonger to share the best of his or her knowledge and stock.
The only path to connoisseurship is to taste, taste and taste. The counter offers the perfect opportunity. Enjoy the samples you're offered, form your own impressions, then compare notes: "I taste X, Y, Z—how about you?"
Try tacking "now" onto "What's good?" Seasonality can be key, especially in cheeses made from the milk of pastured animals. Furthermore, cheeses are constantly evolving: Your cheesemonger should know where they are today and where they may be headed tomorrow.
Start at your closest specialty shop that has a dedicated cheese counter. Luckily, mine—Gastronomie 491 on New York's Upper West Side—is run by a master 'monger. Martin Johnson, 54, is a 30-year veteran who has also written and taught extensively about cheese and beer.
On my most recent visit, Johnson was chortling about a recent customer who started with, "Let me tell you what my husband and I like, then maybe you can recommend some cheeses along those lines."
That kind of introduction is "absolutely perfect—exactly what you want," said Johnson. "With her, it was actually a little disappointing because she was so efficient that the whole transaction was over in five minutes."
Your cheesemonger's recommendation can jump-start the learning process. Johnson's response to "What's good?" was to turn me on to a cheese I'd never tasted. From the Bavarian Alps, it had a fun mouthful of a name, Sternschnuppe. Semi-firm and buttery, it was lip-smackingly flavorful and complex, strong yet balanced.
The previous month, when I asked about the Hoch Ybrig and the Appenzeller, Bedford Cheese Shop owner Charlotte Kamin, 34, steered me toward two similar mountain cheeses: Challerhocker from Switzerland and Adelegger from Bavaria.
Which brings us to geography: In artisan cheeses, provenance equals terroir, which equals unique and often arresting flavors.
Other than Cambozola, factory-made but nonetheless delectable, Germany had never really been on my fine-cheese map. But skilled artisans like Evelyn Wild, maker of Adelegger and Sternschnuppe, are on the rise. And my cheesemongers did a good job of expanding my awareness.
Another guy I went to see is Steve Jenkins, who invented cheesemongering as we know it in the United States. Irascible, passionate, iconoclastic and hyperbolic, Jenkins, 63, started the cheese program at Dean & DeLuca, then did the same for Fairway Market. He brought in all the great French raw-milk delicacies, wrote The Cheese Primer (Workman, 1996) and came to embody the cheesemonger not just as point of exchange but also as a profound source of knowledge and opinion.
Jenkins endorses the globe-trotting approach: "Just say, ‘St. Marcellin is my favorite cheese, it never ceases to amaze me, but I want something else from the Rhône, maybe a Rigot de Condrieu or a Blue de Gex.' Show the counterman your grasp of geography. And it'll challenge him to come up with a few alternatives."
Texture is another angle: "It's usually the sexiest part of any cheese experience," says Jenkins. "If you like the St. Marcellin—it's really gushy—you've got to get involved with some of these Portuguese cheeses. They're gushy, too, and they've got even more elasticity."
The crux of the exchange is often how customers' rote requests are handled. The most common is, "I want a piece of Manchego"—the cheese-counter equivalent of "I'd like a glass of Chardonnay."
Emily Acosta, 28, a fast-rising star who works at Eataly's New York location, recalls being castigated numerous times for not carrying Manchego, the Spanish sheep's milk staple. She'll politely explain that Eataly sells only Italian products, then suggest a Pecorino, from Tuscany, or Calcagno, from Sardinia, with flavor and texture profiles somewhere between Pecorino and Grana Padano. "It's a good gateway to other Italian cheeses," Acosta says. "It hits all the right notes: It's nutty, sweet, complex but approachable." She's noticed return customers, in turn, developing a mini-obsession with the Calcagno. Not that she minds selling a lot of it, but she also continues to gently nudge them in different directions. At the very least, each Manchego demand or Calcagno foray can start a conversation that ends with putting some great cheeses into those shopping baskets.
David Gibbons is co-author of Mastering Cheese.