Who Are These People, "Cheesemongers"?

zepos mar13 cheesemonger.jpg

Illustration from "History of Cheesemaking in England" (1922)

Cheesemonger, Fromager, Cheese buyer, Cheese steward...who are we exactly? We bring the cheese from the farm to the city. We buy from the cheesemaker and sell to you. We manage the ravages of shipping and time on the cheeses. We move the cheese!

This country is in the midst of a cheese revolution, where in the past few years the interest in farmstead and artisan cheeses has expanded and the whole industry has grown enormously. Small farms making new cheeses using traditional, handmade methods have multiplied. New dairies have caught the attention of local consumers and restaurants; cheesemakers sell their cheeses at farmers markets across the country; endless food articles are written about cheeses. Even two new cheese-focused magazines (CultureCheeseMag.com, CheeseConnoisseur.com) hit the stands last January. Serious restaurants without a cheese course were the norm ten years ago; now they are the exception. And in the dining room, American gourmands have studied and learned their cheeses along with their wines.

We are the ones who take care of the quality of the cheeses. We talk about them intelligently to the chefs and alluringly to the consumer. Equally essential, we provide feedback to the cheesemaker.

In Europe the craft of the fromager is slowly shrinking. Cheesemongers and affineurs (cheese maturers--keep reading) are becoming scarce, and one of the reasons is the huge loss of farmstead dairies. Low pay and new EU regulations have discouraged the growth of small farms in general, and small dairies are closing every day.

We are the ones who take care of the quality of the cheeses. How do we validate our profession?

The average age of cheesemakers is getting older as their children leave the farm and move on to less strenuous professions. Today, Europe is looking to the United States and other new markets to preserve the farms and cheeses they've made for centuries. We, on the other hand, look toward Europe for the information, influence, and the integrity of our profession. We are appropriating a very old craft that has existed in Europe for hundreds of years and translating it into a new technology that fits our world today.

While this is a wonderful moment in the world of American cheese, we cheesemongers are going through an adolescent kind of phase: Who are we? What are we called? How can we define what we do? What is the vocabulary of our craft? How do we validate our profession?

Cheesemonger? In Britain the word brings to mind Chaucerian England, the cobbled lanes of Canterbury and other market towns where local tradesmen formed guilds -- some with lovely coats of arms. Ironmongers, fishmongers, all had their guilds that grouped them into small societies and protected them. In my mind, the descendant of that medieval cheesemonger is a blue-collar, jocular kind of fellow. I imagine him wearing a blue soft casquette. But in the States the reaction has been mixed.

Cheesemonger, they ask? Like wordmonger or warmonger? There are harsh, but not unsurmountable, connotations to the term.

Fromager? The fact that it is a (largely understood) French word gives it refinement. Alongside the sommelier, our fromager can be imagined in the dining room of a stylish restaurant. I picture him with a thin mustache and a silver knife in hand. But many buck at the idea of using a French term to define a new vibrant profession in the US. And I personally have a small problem with the term fromager because in French it means cheesemaker, not cheesemonger. The correct term in French is crémier --coming from the word "cream"-- or crémier-fromager.

One thing is true: We are "By Cheese Possessed." A New York Times article used those words a few years ago, and I believe them to be correct. In spite of this economy, many cheese shops have seen an increase in sales of American cheeses because the cheese buyer has direct access to the cheesemaker and hears what happens on the farm weekly. Cheesemongers actively support the farmer and want to protect farmlands from development and other calamities. And I think that sums up exactly what's so wonderful about it: Our job and our ideals are in sync.