It's a bountiful life: Grilled
Jan./Feb. 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Interview by Ching Lee
Photo by Matt Salvo
Cheesemonger answers questions about life on the wedge
More online: The conversation continues
Cheesemonger Gordon Edgar has spent the past two decades buying and selling cheese, and more recently began writing about it.
Gordon Edgar wasn't always a cheese expert—and didn't always like stinky cheeses. But after more than 20 years buying and selling cheese for the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco, he's unabashed about his passion for cheese, cheese-making and cheese history. He shares some of his knowledge in two books: "Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge," a memoir, and "Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America's Most Iconic Cheese," released last fall (see Book Reviews).
How did you end up in a career in cheese?
I kind of fell into it. When I was hired in 1994, I didn't know much about cheese, and I was not looking for a cheese job. The opening happened to be in cheese. But as soon as I started working in the department and got exposed to all the different cheeses, I was hooked. I made it my mission to learn and taste as much as possible.
What have you learned?
My earliest revelation was how much variety there was that I didn't know about. I also realized how complex the flavors of certain cheeses could be and how seasonality could affect certain cheeses. Some cheeses aren't made all year round and other cheeses taste different at different times of the year.
What do you like about your job?
Selling food in an urban environment is really a unique experience. One of the things I like about working with cheese is that it's not just an urban thing. Cheese keeps me in touch with people who don't live in urban areas, because I see what the issues are for people who are trying to make a living as a dairy farmer. Folks like me take seriously representing what goes into food production, what goes into the challenges of the people who make the food that keeps us alive. So many things in our country are divided—urban, rural—but the grocery store is where it all comes together.
What cheeses do you keep at home?
If I open my fridge now, there'd be a piece of cheddar, some cream cheese, a good melting cheese—usually a Gruyère or Comte—and some hard grating cheese, whether it's the real Parmigiano-Reggiano or a dry Jack. Those are my basics.
The conversation continues...
What inspired you to write about cheese?
At the time I wrote "Cheesemonger," there was so little information out there about cheese and I wanted to extend the conversation I had with customers that was not possible in a retail environment. I was trying to make a lot of cheese concepts understandable as if I was talking to somebody over the counter. For "Cheddar," I wanted to explore why America had less variety of cheese and less of a tradition of cheese. To understand American cheese, you have to understand cheddar, which changed the way cheese was produced in America and around the world. It changed what cheeses were available. The idea was to study cheddar and learn more about cheese in the U.S. and the food system in general.
Did you have to develop a taste for certain cheeses?
Oh, absolutely. The really smelly cheeses—some blues that are intense—I didn't like that stuff off the bat. I came to appreciate it as I learned more about the process and eased into certain flavors. Part of it is understanding their uses. Trying to melt a stinky cheese on something could overpower it. But if you're eating it with a thick rye bread, then it totally makes sense.
What's hot right now in the cheese world?
Our best-selling cheeses are still going to be Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy, the mild cheddar and the real family cheeses that are less expensive and very widely used. With the urban food movement in the last 20 years, people are definitely willing to try a lot more things. They're looking for quality-made, distinctive, unique cheeses, especially if it's from California.
What's the outlook for cheese-making in California?
There's a demand for good, high-quality, small-production cheese, and I think a lot of people are jumping on that right now. Some of them are people who don't have a longtime farm background, but there are also a lot of family farms that are turning to making cheese as part of their strategy to survive through the next number of decades. There's great opportunity for people who want to get into farming and food production to make something good and unique. People will respond.