Wednesday, April 16, 2008


by Zoe Brickley

FAQ #1: ‘What’s your favorite cheese?’

FAQ #2 ‘How much cheese do you eat on a daily basis?’

Subset of #2 - ‘Why aren’t you super-fat?’

FAQ #3 ‘Where do you guys get all this cheese, and how do you decide which to sell?’

By now I’ve done my fair share of cave tours, fromager events, and ‘Cheese 101’ classes for enthusiastic Murray’s patrons. It is absolutely true that somebody asks at least one, if not all three of these questions every time. And they are still hard to answer.

As for the first two, I suppose that upon seeing where our 200 cheeses live, or hearing my full spiel, the only question left surrounds how we feel about them. After swimming in cheese for a couple of years, do you get sick of it…lose the ability to enjoy run-of-the-mill types or to suspend judgment for the sake of a snack (or breakfast sandwich)?

Yes and no, but mostly no. If we didn’t love cheese, then we’d work next door at the fish place. Or the sausage or bread or guitar store. Or Bear Stearns. Nope – dairy is our jam. We even like bad cheese because it makes us feel smart.

So it’s impossible to name a favorite. It’s like asking an artist what their favorite color is to paint with. One color just isn’t enough for a work of art – and isn’t as meaningful without contrast from the others. (Unless you are a crazy monochromatic mosaic painter or worked at that all-Comté store down on Essex).

But maybe that full-spectrum painter could name the right color blend for a February oceanscape. In the same way, I know of the perfect sausage eating cheese (Piave) or the best for blue cheese dressing (Mountain Gorgonzola) or my favorite walking down the street eating cheese cheese (Boerenkaas). To impress the in-laws? Tomme Crayeuse. Book Club? Constant Bliss. Fall Picnic? Vermont Shepherd. The best dessert cheese when served with peppered strawberries and truffle honey? Monte Enebro of course.

So, FAQ#1 = unanswerable! Customers rightly use any and every excuse to come pick out cheese and after helping them for a couple months you start to develop your own set of stock answers, read: favorites.

If there is one thing that tries our undying love for queso, it lies in the answer to FAQ#3. The tasting committee is not for the weak at heart – or tummy. Between all of the samples we invite from cheese-makers, distributors, and importers- and all the ones they submit for our consideration, it adds up to hundreds every year.

One of my jobs here is to collect the samples on a weekly basis, slice them up and present them with all pertinent production and pricing info, make sure they get tasted thoroughly (with proper respect and enthusiasm), commented upon from all five sensory elements, rated on a numerical scale, considered by all four departments and finally logged into our master database.

As much as we love to help our cheesemaking friends out – we just can’t pick-up every tasty and well-made morsel that comes along. If we did, our five thousand cheeses would crowd out all the customers. Instead, we must deliberate about how a potential new guy fits in; we can only have so many semi-soft cows. No more than a quarter should be washed rinds. Eight goudas, tops. One Limburger is fine.

So when we evaluate we try to assume that we have all the styles we need covered – like a set menu outline- and that a delicious cheese will have to compete with the niche and price of an existing Murray’s choice. It’s like King of the Cheese Hill. We try to keep our total number the same and slowly improve over-all quality and value over the years.

The role of stenographer for these meetings has been pretty fun. You start picking up adjectives you never would have thought of: ‘This tastes like pencils!’ Canned corn and pineapple are mentioned. Fishy, earthy, grassy and dirty – but in a good way- aren’t uncommon.

And as our company grows, so too does the committee’s appetite for cheese. Our collaboration with Kroger supermarkets for instance, brought about an unprecedented tasting. To determine the best brands for our test locations in Kroger, we had to squeeze a lot into a single meeting.

A spread of five cheeses is a lot for a meal. Ten is plenty for a party. Twenty is pushing it for a product-line sampling. But a SEVENTY cheese tasting is enough to put you down for the count.

It started with just 30 or so possible picks: a reasonable fraction of what the total number might be. But to be fair we also got 30 or so alternatives from other producers; it became a grueling six category Ultimate Throw-down for the Murray’s seal of approval.

And still, this is nothing compared to actual on-the-books award ceremony style competitions, like the World Championship Cheese Competition. Rob just returned as a judge for the coveted titles and actually put 250 different cheeses in his mouth, more than we carry in the store, over the course of a weekend. And there were more than 1500 others that he didn’t get around to. A few cheeses we carry made the cut that weekend, but I think Rob is the real winner here.

Events like this do tend to make recreational enjoyment a little less likely – but not out of the question. And all other parts of my job ensure that I unpack, flip, scrub, heave and otherwise physically move cheese around more than I actually consume it. So that’s why I’m only a little bit fat.

So if you don’t know, now you know… But if you’re still curious - FAQ #4 is an easy one: ‘Do you ever eat American singles?’ Yes. On Eggs. But that’s technically not a cheese question; it’s a food-dyed-milk-powder-and-hydrogenated-oil question. As my definition of cheese cannot be extended so far, I can enjoy it (with a little ketchup) in the food pyramid apex category of ‘other’.

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