A conversation with Derrick Sanders, Cheesemonger at the Nob Hill 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.
As 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.
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.
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.
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.
Wines – Regional pairings (e.g., Spanish wine with Spanish cheese)
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!
Topping for grilled lamb chops – Parmigiano Reggiano. Accept no substitutes.
What are Derrick’s favorite cheese and food pairings?
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?
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.