We sat down and grilled San Francisco’s foremost cheese expert, Eric Miller of Mission Cheese, on what makes him and cheese tick:
What is a cheesemonger?
Eric Miller: We are the frontline cheese “evangelists” to the consumer and on behalf of the cheesemaker. We engage with folks to make buying cheese fun and easy at your local cheese counter or market. We are the experts on everything from cheese styles to milk types to flavor profiles; where it was made, and, ideally who made it—and we want to tell the consumer all about it.
What got you into cheeses? Why do you love cheese so much? How were you educated in cheese?
There’s so much to my love of cheese! Where to begin… Well, there is one cheese that really started it all for me: Saint-Marcellin. It’s a raw cow’s milk cheese from an area outside of Lyon. Creamy when ripe, often somewhat pungent and mushroomy, it comes in a little ceramic crock, which is great if you want to warm it in the oven for a super gooey experience. I tell everyone: get some. Try it. You’ll see why it’s a game changer.
I love cheese because it’s such an essential food. It’s born out of a basic need to preserve precious resources that would otherwise spoil. Cheese is a way to preserve fresh milk, the way we do with vegetables in pickles, meat in salami, or grapes in wine. It’s such an old and nutritious food. The varieties of cheeses are amazing when you think that there are only four ingredients – milk, rennet, salt, and cultures. You can make so many things with just those four items. And there is a common thread behind these types of preservation techniques – fermentation.
Most of my cheese education has been on the job. But it all started when I was volunteering as a Classroom Assistant and Murray’s Cheese in New York. Over 100 hours of free cheese education with industry professionals, sommeliers, cheese makers…the whole lot. That really got me motivated. Then when my wife and I moved to San Francisco I was determined to change careers and leave the cubicle and fluorescent lights behind.
Is there a cheese only a cheesemonger could love?
Nope. We may have our favorites from time to time but those are the cheeses that we’re going to have you try first. They’re the ones that we’re really excited and want everyone to know. Not every cheese is for every person though. But everyone should try everything at least twice – not just once. Our tastes change over time so it’s always worth revisiting something you loved or hated months or even years later. The results may surprise you!
What is your craziest cheese story?
There are two, really. One is the insanity and fun that is the Cheesemonger Invitational – held annually in SF and NYC. It takes place over several days. It starts with a meet and greet (and beer) where you meet the other competitors, organizers, and sponsors. Then there’s a day full of education (and beer) – meeting cheese makers and understanding their products, flavor analysis, pairings, and the like. Then there’s the actual competition, which is a full day affair, ending with lots of beer. There’s a written test, blind tasting, cutting and wrapping cheese, pairing, the “perfect bite” and more. I made it to the finals and got some serious bonus points for my “perfect bite” as well as some awesome industry love! It was an amazing experience. You walk away with some great friends, a deeper connection to the industry, and probably a hangover.
The other was a customer that ordered a cheese flight at Mission Cheese and did the strangest thing. They chopped up all the cheese into little bits. They chopped up all the dried fruit into little bits. They chopped up all the cornichons into little bits. Then they mixed all that together and spread it on the slices of baguette. They came in and asked us what that was called, absolutely convinced it was a “traditional French thing”. I just said it was a hot mess.
Favorite cheese on a burger: Gruyere 1655 or Pleasant Ridge Reserve
Wine pairing: Beer first – Queso de Mano from Haystack Mountain in CO with Le Merle Saison from North Coast Brewing in CA. Then Cabrales with Pedro Ximenez 1927 Solera.
Best Hollywood cheese cameo: Chevre scene in Burn After Reading
Cheesiest Joke:We do cheese puns all the time at Mission Cheese. I usually go for hip-hop. My fave is probably a plan on Sir-Mix-A lot and is about a cheese from Pt. Reyes Cheese called “Bay Blue”:
I like Bay Blue and I cannot lie! You other cheeses can’t deny, that when Bay walks in with that super creamy paste and blue mold in your face, you get sprung!
Hm…sorry we asked…
What’s your day like? Do you visit cheese producers? When looking for new product, what do you look for?
These days, since I’m not on the floor much at Mission Cheese, I’m doing recipe testing for our future business, Maker’s Common. We’ve been doing R&D on brunch dishes, cheese-centric dishes, and charcuterie items. I’m in the process of setting up a curing and drying chamber for making things like salami, pancetta, and lonzo. I also have some lacto-fermented hot sauce in the works that we will bottle soon.
Otherwise, when I’m at Mission Cheese I’m helping with production and events. When I’m on the floor I’m slinging cheese or even doing dishes – whatever it takes to make the place run smoothly.
We visit as many local makers as we can. West Marin is jam-packed with cheesemakers and dairies. We try to visit a maker that we work with every month or so. Having that connection makes it so that we can share their stories and experiences. We’ll also hit up wineries and breweries when we can. We want to support all of them. I think knowing their stories and how they work makes their products taste better.
How would you describe the complexities of cheeses? Is there umami, or other intangibles?
Well, on the simple side, you have fat, salt, protein, and sugars. There are two main things that happen as cheese ages – proteolysis, which is the breakdown of proteins, and lipolysis, which is the breakdown of fats. These are where your complex flavors come from. Breaking down fats and proteins into shorter chains changes the texture and flavor, generally making it better. This is the ripening process. But if you let it go too far, you get some seriously rancid cheese. The umami aspect you’re talking about – that’s specific to proteins being broken down into amino acids. Cheese does umami very well.
Have you tried Casu Marzu or any of the more controversial kinds? If so, how was it? If not, would you?
You can’t get that cheese in the US and I’m not entirely sure that it would be well received if we did – and that’s before we even consider the FDA. I’ve eaten wax moth larvae and deep fried scorpions, but not live bugs that I’m consciously aware of. I’d give it a go if I were in Sardinia. Why not? But we do taste with our eyes first, then our nose. So if I can get past the visual, and it smells like good cheese, then I’m in.
Other than that, there really aren’t any “controversial” cheeses out there. The only controversy that comes up is raw versus pasteurized. That’s primarily the FDA’s scaremongering. If you look at a lot of the data around listeria contamination in cheese, which is what the FDA is scared of, the majority of listeria cases in the US come from the huge commodity cheese factories, not the smalltime producers we work with.
If you were to divulge some of the secrets of cheesemongers…
EM: We always tell people that we don’t have a favorite cheese but probably do. We still get excited when we cut a perfect quarter pound piece.
And we really hate when customers say they love cheese but claim to hate all goat cheese. That’s the opposite of loving cheese.
What should we ask when buying cheese, choosing the best value, pairing etc?
Have some flavor adjectives in mind. Don’t just say, “I love cheddar!” What about cheddar do you like? Is it the earthiness? Grassiness? Texture? Acidity? Sweetness? Think a little more deeply about what you like. If you’re buying cheese for a dinner or event, talk to your monger. Let them know what you’re doing with the cheese, how many people it’s for, and if you are having a specific wine, let us know. We’re here to help. Either way, a good monger will lead you through all of that and guide the process without any pretense and you’ll leave feeling like a champ.
How do you open up people’s eyes and palettes to try things that are more intimidating?
There are two things I encounter often – someone that doesn’t like goat cheese or blue cheese. People have experiences where they’ve had something in those categories that they didn’t like – fine. They’ve probably had a more intense style that didn’t suite them at the time. So if you don’t like goat cheese, my assumption is that you’re talking about some gooey, funky, and barnyardy version of that cheese. Or maybe it wasn’t cared for properly and smells ammoniated. So we’ll try Gouda made from goats milk instead – something sweet, nutty, and firm like Classico Reserve from OR. The opposite of what most people think when it comes to goat cheese. You don’t like blue? How about cheddar that has blue veins running through it – something that’s 85% cheddar and 15% blue in a way. We have a cheese called Dunbarton Blue from WI that fits the bill. They love it! I call these the “gateway cheeses”.
Are there common customer mistakes, assumptions, preconceptions, choices, etc?
There are the “know-it-alls” – people that like a sharp Gouda or a soft and creamy manchego. Neither of these exists. Those descriptions are an oxymoron. People are also creatures of habit and don’t often step outside of their comfort zones. I feel it’s our duty to introduce new cheeses to our customers. There’s so much out there to try. Think about this – in the 2015 American Cheese Society annual competition, there were more than 1,500 entries from the Americas. That’s a lot of cheese.
Is there a cheese diet? Does cheese get a bad rap for the health conscious?
Diet cheese? Don’t eat that junk. It’s not really cheese. But if someone really did want it I’d recommend a triple-crème. Seems crazy, right? Here’s the thing – it may have a delightful amount of butterfat (in the neighborhood of 75% based on dry matter) but they can be up to 50% water by weight. Take that low-fat cream cheese.
Cheese is a good nutritious food. All the current trends are coming back to full-fat dairy. Finally.
Thank you for sharing, Eric!
Eric is the co-founder of the forthcoming Maker’s Common, an eatery and market that will showcase America’s best cheese, charcuterie, beer, and wine, opening in 2016. In this role he is focused on developing menus, raising capital, and scouting locations for the business. He is also the director of the Mission Cheese in-house charcuterie program, creating products that have become an integral part of the menu.
A native New Yorker, Eric first found his way into the food industry by volunteering at Murray’s Cheese. In his spare time he could often be found cooking food with and for friends and curating wine and cheese pairing events.
Since moving to California, he has fostered strong relationships within the American charcuterie movement by serving as the Charcuterie Chairperson for the Good Food Awards. Eric was also a top-ten finalist at the Cheesemonger Invitational and can be sometimes be found teaching classes at the Cheese School of San Francisco.
To find out more about Maker’s Common or to invest, check out the website: makerscommon.net