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Career Day

Finding the cheese that speaks to you

A cheesemonger talks about the female-driven profession — and how much cheese she actually eats

By Julia Beck

Jessica Affatato runs Northport, New York-based Harbor Cheese and Provisions.

How did you become a cheesemonger?
I had worked in the New York City restaurant and high-end spa industries. But when my husband and I moved from New Jersey to Sag Harbor on Long Island, I took a job in a local cheese shop, and it was magical! I knew immediately that I had found my place.

How do you not eat all the cheese?
I do manage to taste everything. I have some personal favorites — Hooligan from Connecticut, Dutch Knuckle from New York, and freshly cracked Parmigiano Reggiano. When those show up, I do consume a bit more than otherwise! I will eat a little bit every day. We keep cheese in the house. We make it a part of our regular regime. We do not hold out for anything even close to a special occasion.

“I will eat a little bit every day. We do not hold out for anything even close to a special occasion.”

Tell me more about the artisanal cheese scene.
It is exciting and growing, and it is, interestingly enough, female-driven.

How did it become female-driven?
Cheesemaking has [historically] been a female profession, such as a milk maid on the farm. It’s also the result of opportunity. Because of the lack of culinary prestige, there was less competition and fewer barriers, so women could step in and thrive. In the 1970s and 1980s, a core group of women emerged across the U.S. who are considered the mothers of the American artisanal cheese movement. They’re still involved and quite active.

It feels like your job has become more professionalized in recent years.
Unlike a sommelier with wine, or a chef with food, the world of the cheesemonger offers much less of a uniform body of knowledge. Cheese certification is relatively new. The American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional test is only offered one time a year. Industry leadership is working to create a more comprehensive and regimented body of language and clear terminology.

What’s the hardest thing about cheesemongering?
I need to be quick on my feet to adjust to a customer’s needs. One big trick is to open a conversation with a customer, to understand their base knowledge and reason for coming to purchase cheese.

There’s so. Much. Cheese. How do you help customers choose their favorites?
For a customer with a limited sense of their cheese palate, I pick a starting point and offer two tastes, A and B. From there I move on to something that I feel will interest their palate. For people who are more familiar with cheeses, I explore what they love and taste from there.

Are there secrets that every good cheesemonger knows?
I know when a woman is pregnant! I can tell you if she is keeping it quiet or if she is sharing the news by how and what she orders! She will say, “I can’t have raw cheese” if she is pregnant. She will whisper if it is brand-new, secret information.

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Julia Beck is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

 

Illustration by Verónica Grech

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