Across the great glass display case at Murray’s Cheese Shop, I pose a riddle to the cheesemonger. One of the people I’ll be dining with tonight has a weak stomach and likes his food mild. Another of my guests is the exact opposite; she wants something smelly and blue, the funkier the better. What to do? The cheesemonger (think: a sommelier for dairy) taps her yardstick-long cheese-slicing knife against the counter and smiles. This is an easy one. I leave with a Massachusetts chèvre, lightly citric and gentle on the tummy, and a block of Roquefort, riddled with color and nearly as fizzy on the tongue as pop rocks.
It takes a special sort of person to devote his or her life to cheese. Those people tend to gravitate to Murray’s, the downtown mecca of Muenster that has been a foodie fixture since 1940. After nearly 80 years of private ownership, Murray’s was bought by mega-supermarket chain Kroger; the diversity of products, quirky sales methods (virtually unlimited tastings!), and staff expertise at its flagship store on Bleecker Street have fortunately remain unchanged.
I recently had a long chat with Greselda Powell, one of Murray’s head cheesemongers, to share recommendations and discuss the most difficult part of the job and what to try if you’re lactose intolerant.
What Should We Do?!: You’ve been a full-time cheesemonger starting this past year. Sounds like a pretty big change-of-life moment.
Greselda Powell: Before I started working in cheese, I was an engineer for 27 years. Initially many of my friends concluded that I lost my mind. Once they heard me talking enthusiastically about this new passion (and, not incidentally, introduced them to some really marvelous cheese), almost all of them came around.
WSWD: What drew you to the work?
Last year, I found a man with a herd of water buffalo in Sussex County who makes his own water buffalo mozzarella.
Powell: My job moved me from Atlanta to northern New Jersey in 2000. During the first few years, I would take a trip into the city every weekend to do something new. One of those trips took me to a Cheese 101 class at Murray’s. The class broadened my knowledge of cheese—the different milk types and how to put your sense of smell to use in enjoying cheese—so I took another Murray’s class and another. I started going to cheese events in Vermont and introductory home cheese-making classes in New Jersey, and visited the Cheese School in San Francisco. Many professionals told me that the greatest education is working behind the cheese counter, so that’s what I’ve done, and that advice has proven to be so true!
WSWD: Do you still eat cheese in your nonwork life, or has your time at Murray’s burned you out?
Powell: Not at all; I still have impromptu cheese tastings with friends. I love checking out cheesemakers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Last year, I found a man with a herd of water buffalo in Sussex County who makes his own water buffalo mozzarella.
WSWD: What’s the most popular cheese at Murray’s?
Powell: We sell a lot of Parmigiano-Reggiano. I would say about 30 percent of customers I help at the counter ask for Manchego. I try to use that as a jumping-off point to introduce them to something new and different.
WSWD: What’s your favorite?
Powell: That generally depends on the time of year. There is seasonality to many cheeses. One seasonal cheese that I really love is Winnimere by the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont. It is a beautiful, spoonable cheese with flavor notes of bacon, cream, and spruce.
WSWD: And your least favorite?
Powell: We carry a Spanish goat’s milk cheese called Beato de Tabara that is just too funky for me. It is difficult for me to enjoy a really funky cheese, but we have customers who live for that stuff.
WSWD: What’s the strangest request you’ve gotten?
Powell: Camel’s milk cheese. I guess there were some articles about it that came out lately. I’m glad our customers are so well read, but we don’t carry any dromedary cheeses.
WSWD: What are some great flavor combinations you can recommend that might surprise the average eater?
Powell: One that really surprised me was mixing Brie and pepper jelly. The butteriness of the Brie helps reduce some of the heat and increases the sweetness of the jelly.
I also love pairing apple butter with various Cheddars. If you want a real taste sensation, try that with Effie’s Nutcakes; they are like nutty shortbreads. It’s as if you’re eating a slice of apple pie.
You can’t go wrong with sour cherries—dried cherries, Amarena, or Divina Sour Cherry Spread. Try any of those with a triple cream cheese; it’s like eating cheesecake. They are also good with a Stilton blue cheese.
WSWD: If I’m lactose intolerant, do I have to give up cheese entirely?
Powell: It depends on your level of intolerance. The amount of lactose remaining in cheese is inversely proportional to the dryness (lack of whey) of the cheese, so it’s better to get an aged cheese, like Parmesan, since the amount of remaining whey is negligible. Try to stay away from the younger cheeses, such as Brie, since most of the weight of that cheese is whey. Some lactose folks are really only intolerant to cow’s milk. If you’re not sure, experiment gently with sheep or goat. You might find a whole new world opens up!
WSWD: I want to build a great at-home cheese tasting for two. What should I get?
Powell: I would suggest three to four cheeses. Start with a chèvre, something soft. If you’re feeling conservative, maybe try Fromager d’Affinois. That’s a nice, buttery cow’s milk cheese that’s pleasing to most folks’ palates. If you’re a bit more adventurous, go for the Brebirousse d’Argental, a beautiful sheep’s milk that’s soft, spreadable, and custardy with a slight tang.
Next let’s get a washed rind cheese. Those are the ones that have a bit of a nose to them. Your safe bet here is the Von Trapp Family Oma, a Vermont cow’s milk that’s slightly meaty and not too overwhelming. If you like it stinky, maybe try the Torta del Casar instead. That’s a beautiful Spanish sheep’s milk with a milky, almost olive flavor.
I still have issues pronouncing the names of French cheeses.
You can’t really go wrong with Cheddar, and my favorite across the board is Flory’s Truckle. It’s a wonderful Missouri Cheddar that starts sharp, then hits you with secondary notes of caramel and fruit.
Not everyone can do the blue, but I love the Colston Bassett Stilton from England, a well-balanced “royal” blue that’s creamy and luscious. If you want a true entry-level blue, go for the Champignon Cambozola Black Label. It’s mild and flavorful enough for even blue haters.
WSWD: What’s the most difficult part of your job?
Powell: Standing on your feet for several hours at a stretch is hard no matter how much you love the job. I try to stretch and get enough sleep and good nourishment each day. Other than that, I still have issues pronouncing the names of French cheeses. I nearly did not graduate from college because of a required French class. It brings up bad memories.