Conversation With a Cheesemonger

A conversation with Derrick Sanders, Cheesemonger at the Nob Hill La Montanita Co-op

Derrick Sanders, Cheesemonger @ La Montanita Co-op |

The other day I was perusing the cheese section at the Nob Hill La Montanita Co-op looking for a particular cheese. When I couldn’t find it I asked Derrick, the cheese clerk for help.  You know what it’s like having a sommelier help you select a wine to go with your meal?  Well, that’s how I felt with Derrick helping me select a cheese.  This guy knows his cheese!  So rather than keep Derrick’s knowledge of cheese to myself, I thought I would share some of it with you.

Derrick grew up in Wisconsin; therefore, cheese is in his blood, and his palate for cheese is more sophisticated than mine could ever be.  A couple of years ago Derrick moved into his dream job, the position of buyer/clerk (cheesemonger) for the co-op’s Nob Hill cheese department.

Derrick Sanders, Cheesemonger @ La Montanita Co-op | mjskitchen.comAs the cheese clerk, Derrick gets to spend a large part of his day cutting, smelling, tasting, wrapping and labeling cheese.  One of the most sensual moments of his job occurs when he breaks open a wheel of Parmesan and makes that first cut.  The description of his reaction to that initial cut reminded me of uncorking a bottle of fine wine.  And who would keep a fine bottle of wine to themselves?  Not Derrick…The first wedge of that Parmesan wheel is shared with his co-workers and any lucky customers who happen to be near the cheese section at the time.

In addition to cutting and wrapping the cheese for the customers, Derrick spends time every day helping his customers and just “talking cheese”.  About 50% of new cheese choices come from these chats.  Many of his customers recommend or request a specific cheese that they have tasted elsewhere or cheese they personally love but haven’t been able to find.  One such cheese is Smoked Scamorza, a braided Italian cow’s milk cheese.  This is the cheese that Derrick recommended that first time we talked.  It was a fabulous cheese just as a snack, but also worked nicely as the cheese for an apple and onion pizza.

In addition to customer recommendations, Derrick selects many of the other cheeses from numerous cheese sites.  The co-op doesn’t have a contract with any specific distributor; therefore, the sources from which to choose from are wide open.  Many of Derrick’s sources are smaller companies and artisan cheese producers primarily for the quality of their cheese, but also for the hope of finding a new cheese that his customers would like.

Cutting a wedge of Raclette Cheese |

Surfing the web for cheese is what Derrick calls “retail therapy at work”.  Choosing cheese is like choosing a fine wine.  Just like wine and other spirits, the flavor and texture of cheese is affected by the terroir of the area which affects the flavor of the animal’s milk as well as the overall process; therefore, it’s important for a buyer to know his suppliers and to know the cheese. It has to taste good or it doesn’t go on the shelf.

In addition to just tasting good, the co-op’s cheese must meet other criteria as well:

  • First and foremost, it must be hormone free.  This makes European cheese easy to buy since Europe doesn’t allow hormones to be used in milk producing animals.  In the U.S. most smaller producers produce hormone free cheese as well; however, it’s the ones that produce cheese for the food service industry that you have to be careful about.
  • When possible, the cheese needs to be made locally.  There are not a lot of cheese producers in the southwest, but many of these cheeses do end up on the co-op’s shelves.
  • At all times, it needs to be the highest quality cheese possible.
  • And for the customer, it needs to be as inexpensive as possible, but still be a high quality cheese.
Cheese and cheese pairings |

(left to right): Leyden, Double Gloucester, King Ludwig Beer Cheese, Zamorano, Tucumcari Feta (front)


Now it’s time to get serious and “talk cheese”!

Cheese can be a reflection of the palates of an area, a region or even a neighborhood.  When I asked Derrick for the best seller at the Nob Hill store I was a little bit surprised to hear that it was a local Feta Cheese from Tucumcari, New Mexico. I know that I love that cheese, but I didn’t realize that so many of my neighbors did as well. Another best seller is a Coonridge Organic Goat Cheese from Pie Town, New Mexico.  Also, Albuquerque seems to have the palate for Spanish sheep cheese. Derrick can’t stock this cheese fast enough.  What is not a big seller in this area is blue cheese, but then Derrick did mention that in general, less blue cheese is consumed west of the Mississippi that east of it.

Cheese and spirits are two of the best consumables that are good for a culture. They are expressions of a culture and of the geography.  Many cheeses reflect the history and geography of an area.  For example, Roquefort, a sheep’s milk blue cheese has a recognized geographical indication and protected designation of origin. For Roquefort to be called “Roquefort” it must be aged in the Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, France, the same caves that have been used to age Roquefort for over 1000 years.

Cheese Pairings

Choosing the right cheese for a dish is like choosing the right wine for a meal.  The cheese can make or break the dish. So with all the different types of cheeses out there, how is one to know what goes with what?  To help out with this question, I asked Derrick to suggest some food/spirits-cheese pairings.  Warning…this is going to make you very hungry.

Cheese Pairings - Bourbon and Leyden|

Bourbon and Leyden

Good bourbon whiskey – A strong English or Dutch cheese; Gloucester, cheddar, leyden, aged gouda

Beers – Malty beers that aren’t too hoppy like dry cheeses, Celtic beers pair nicely with high alpine style cheese, Comte, Tomme de Savoie, Fontina

Wines – Regional pairings (e.g., Spanish wine with Spanish cheese)

Grilled cheese with ham and Dijon Bierkase (beer cheese) and/or raclette. Chaumes if you want something softer.

Turkey and cranberry sauce sandwich – A white cheddar

Substitute for Mozzarella di Bufala (Buffalo Mozzarella) in a caprese salad – Asiago pressato (young, soft Asiago) pairs incredibly well with tomatoes. Kick a little aged provolone onto it if you want something spicy.

Substitute for cream cheese in creamy dips – Taleggio and Creme Fraiche, depending on which way you want to go on the dip. There are other great high-cream concoctions as well. You could take a nice wedge of Explorateur or Saint-Andre and lay the rest of the ingredients on the top of the cheese.

Substitute for Velveeta in Queso – Any combination of the following; Asadero, Monterey Jack, Fontina, provolone, gouda, and raclette. Pick 2-3 of them, and go to town!

A complement to pumpkin dishes like this pumpkin and red chile soup – Hard, salty grating cheese. Piave, Parrano, Podda, Capra sarda, and Zamorano.

Topping for grilled lamb chops – Parmigiano Reggiano. Accept no substitutes.

What are Derrick’s favorite cheese and food pairings?

Cheese Pairings - Beer cheese with salami |

Beer Cheese, Creminelli Salami, Apple

King Ludwig beer cheese, a Bavarian raw milk cheese from grass fed cattle used as a soup topping, in a sandwich or just plain as a snack. (Here’s an interesting read about the “Mad King Ludwig“.)

Double or triple creams with cured meat, crackers and sardines.

Guinness and Dubliner with fish-n-chips

Pilsner and Tilsit with wurst and schnitzel.

Sierra Nevada with Cowgirl Creamery cheeses

Then of course there is Wisconsin cheddar – his soul food – Just slice and eat.


Can you tell that this guy loves cheese and loves his job?  

Derrick Sanders, Cheesemonger @ La Montanita Co-op |

I hope you have enjoyed meeting Derrick and getting a little taste of his knowledge about cheese.  Next time you go shopping for cheese, stop and have a chat with your cheesemonger. It could be a mouthwatering experience!

Be sure to check out my recipe for Pumpkin Beer Cheese Soup that was inspired by this conversation.



41 Responses to “Conversation With a Cheesemonger”

  1. Liz November 24, 2014 at 10:34 am #

    How wonderful to have access to all those marvelous cheeses. I need to hunt down a braided cheese! And Derrick sure has some great advice and pairings…perfect as we head into the holiday season 🙂

    • mj November 25, 2014 at 8:55 pm #

      Thanks to Derrick for bringing them into my neighborhood! Thanks Liz!

  2. Hotly Spiced November 24, 2014 at 2:27 am #

    It’s so refreshing when you go into a store and can get great service from knowledgeable people. I do love cheese and it’s so helpful when I can buy it from those who know what they’re talking about xx

    • mj November 25, 2014 at 8:54 pm #

      Isn’t that the truth Charlie!? thanks for stopping by!

  3. Raymund November 24, 2014 at 1:46 am #

    As a cheese lover this is a very informative post, thanks for sharing.

    • mj November 25, 2014 at 8:54 pm #

      Thanks Raymund!

  4. Bam's Kitchen November 22, 2014 at 9:24 pm #

    Great informative post! Thanks MJ! Don’t you love people who have found their passion and then they want to share their passion with you. I would be more than happy to be his cheese sampler. Take Care, BAM

    • mj November 23, 2014 at 11:54 am #

      Thanks so much Bam! I totally agree!

  5. Helene D'Souza November 21, 2014 at 2:09 am #

    I love to talk about cheese, but of course eating and tasting cheese will keep my mouth shut. =D
    My favorites are european cheese of course. I love Raclette, Comté, saint-nectaire (in general artisan Auvergne cheese is amazing!) and Gruyère. Here in goa we can buy South Indian made european style cheese but I don’t like them too much. I think the cows are different and I am not sure but at times I get that silo flavor in the cheese and other milk products. The only cheese I buy is nilgiri cheddar which is ok and kind of all purpose and the Goan made Italian artisan fresh buffalo mozzarella. We do get imported cheese too but it’s way over prized, even for a middle class European or American.
    I am quite certain that here in India they use Hormones, but they don’t label it as such since consumers haven’t been educated about these things.
    I enjoyed learning more about cheese MJ, would love to read more.

    • mj November 22, 2014 at 12:58 pm #

      Thanks for much Helene! Yes, it is interesting…about how the types of cows and the feed and everything else affects the flavors o the cheese. Derrick brought that up and I found it most interesting. So glad you enjoyed the read!

  6. Carol at Wild Goose Tea November 20, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

    One of my clients is a cheese monger. I love talking to him. It’s not unusual for him to
    bring me a chunk of one or two designer cheeses he is developing. I think he would be extraordinarily interesting job.

    • mj November 22, 2014 at 12:57 pm #

      What a lucky lady you are! To get to try out new cheese… that would be a blast!

  7. Maureen | Orgasmic Chef November 20, 2014 at 2:02 pm #

    Oh wouldn’t it be fun to live next door to Derrick? He probably brings home some of the best cheese!

    • mj November 22, 2014 at 12:56 pm #

      Thanks Maureen! It’s actually quite fun shopping where he works, because he is always setting out cheese for people to try. He’s been doing a great job of running up my grocery lately. 🙂

    • Derrick November 22, 2014 at 3:51 pm #

      I bring home very little cheese. I eat so much of it at work, that it’s not really a go-to snack anymore. I do have a short list of stuff that I will buy, one that I have to have in the fridge, and a few that I only buy when I’m back home in Wisconsin.

      Squeaky cheese curds.

      • Tony L December 3, 2014 at 9:50 pm #

        We miss Derrick, back here in the Midwest. You fine folks are lucky to have him doing his best for you.

        • mj December 4, 2014 at 4:32 pm #

          I bet you do miss him! Well, we’re very happy to have him. sorry for your loss. 🙁

  8. swathi November 20, 2014 at 11:47 am #

    Fresh cheese with glass of wine is always exciting. thanks for nice post and glad to meet Derrick and pictures of awesome cheeses

    • mj November 22, 2014 at 12:55 pm #

      Thanks so much Swathi!

  9. Viviane Bauquet Farre November 20, 2014 at 6:14 am #

    Thanks so much for this, MJ. It’s wonderful to read a profile of someone so heavily involved in what we do — after all, it’s the choices of people like Derrick that expose us to the wonderful flavors that make up our palette of ingredient options. He sounds like a wonderful guy. You’re lucky to have him in the neighborhood!

    • mj November 22, 2014 at 12:55 pm #

      You are most welcome and thank YOU! I’ve noticed several recipes on your site recently with new and exciting cheeses. I hope Derrick introduced you to even more.

  10. Amy (Savory Moments) November 20, 2014 at 5:19 am #

    Thank you for this interesting and very information post, MJ! I LOVE LOVE cheese and trying out different kinds. The pairing information is very helpful!

    • mj November 22, 2014 at 12:54 pm #

      Thanks so much Amy!

  11. Kelly @ Inspired Edibles November 19, 2014 at 5:32 pm #

    I adore cheese (it is just one of my many weaknesses) and I think this is a brilliant idea for a post. I especially appreciate the section on cheese pairings — you’re right, it is very reminiscent of the considerations that go into wine (another one of my favorite things 😀 ). This Irish lass has got to get her hands on some dubliner. What a wealth of knowledge Derrick has. So impressive; I definitely need to start striking up a conversation with our local cheesemonger! And knowing how helpful Derrick was, I can hardly continue to poke fun of “snob hill” anymore 😉 — its given me a whole new perspective on the place :D.

    • mj November 22, 2014 at 12:52 pm #

      Thanks so much Kelly! I can’t even begin to list all of the new cheeses I’ve been trying out since I had this conversation with Derrick. He has opened up a whole new world for us. 🙂 Snob hill? You must be talking about SF. 🙂 The Nob Hill here in ABQ is a great place to live, to work, to shop, to eat, to stroll. One of these days, I need to do a post on the area. I’ve lived in Nob Hill for over 38 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in ABQ or anywhere else for that matter. 🙂 Hope you’re having a wonderful weekend!

      • Kelly @ Inspired Edibles November 23, 2014 at 3:04 pm #

        oh, that’s too funny… yes, I was thinking of “Nob Hill Foods” here in the Silicon Valley but I see that we are talking about La Montanita Co-op located in Nob Hill (ABQ)… (lots of Nob Hills! 😀 ) sorry for the confusion.

  12. Shashi @ runninsrilankan November 19, 2014 at 12:29 pm #

    I am really bad at cheese and alcohol pairings – this post was so helpful! Thank you oodles!

    • Derrick November 21, 2014 at 12:55 pm #

      I usually recommend regional pairings- Northern Spanish wine with a northern Spanish cheese.

      • mj November 22, 2014 at 12:59 pm #

        Thanks for the addition Derrick!

    • mj November 22, 2014 at 12:48 pm #

      You are most Welcome Shashi! A big thanks to Derrick!

  13. Derrick November 19, 2014 at 8:09 am #

    Wow! Thanks everyone! Yes, it’s a great job. I love cheese, and I love open-minded customers who are eager to learn new cheeses.

    • mj November 19, 2014 at 10:50 am #

      Well, you found that kind of customer here! 🙂 Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview!

  14. anna@icyviolets November 18, 2014 at 10:49 pm #

    i loved reading this! and thanks for posting the cheese recommendations…i will make good use of those!

    • mj November 19, 2014 at 10:49 am #

      Muchos Gracias Anna! So glad you enjoyed it!

  15. Sissi November 18, 2014 at 1:08 pm #

    Fascinating post, MJ and what a wonderful idea to present a cheesemonger and his passion! My husband and me love good cheese (I must say that I try to eat less than him…) and are of course spoilt by the proximity of France and its numerous cheesemongers and also by a big choice of Italian cheese in Switzerland. I actually love smoked scamorza and buy it quite often! I had no idea it was accessible in the US too. I love it melted and I once read that in Naples many pizzerias use it instead of mozzarella… but it’s apparently a big secret 😉
    Cheesemongers always seem so nice and positive… (Just like fishmongers, from my experience!). They do have a wonderful job though!
    You must come to taste cheese here!!!

    • mj November 19, 2014 at 10:48 am #

      Muchos Gracias Sissi! We both love cheese as well, but like your husband, mine probably eats way more than he should. 🙂 But it’s hard to resist. He has really enjoyed me doing this post because I’ve purchased so many cheeses that we have never tried before. The King Ludwig beer cheese is going to become a staple, I can tell. 🙂 That’s interesting that pizzerias use Smoked Scamorza on pizzas. When I was making that onion and apple pizza, I thought it would work mainly because it was great with apple. So I used it in place of mozzarella. It turned out to be one of the best pizzas I had ever made. I do agree with your comment about cheesemongers being nice and positive. It was a joy interviewing and working with Derrick! I have so much more to learn from him. And YES, I MUST come to Switzerland and go cheese tasting with you!!!

  16. John@Kitchen Riffs November 18, 2014 at 11:21 am #

    I love talking to people who know their stuff! Cheese people are like wine people — find a good one, tell them what you like, and just buy whatever they tell you to. Really interesting post — thanks.

    • mj November 19, 2014 at 10:40 am #

      Isn’t that the truth! You can learn so much when you just let people talk. I’ve tried out some of the food/cheese pairings that Derrick recommended and he is spot on. Bobby is hooked on the Bourbon and Leyden cheese combo. Thanks for your comments as always John!

  17. Angie@Angie's Recipes November 18, 2014 at 7:09 am #

    A very detailed and informative post, MJ. The food pairings is particularly interesting. Derrick seems to have a dream job.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • mj November 19, 2014 at 10:38 am #

      Gracias Angie! He does have a dream job doesn’t? 🙂


  1. Pumpkin Beer Cheese Soup | MJ's Kitchen - November 25, 2014

    […] Pumpkin Beer Cheese Soup was inspired by my Conversation with a Cheesemonger (Derrick Sanders).  During this conversation I asked Derrick for a cheese that could be used as a […]

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