Grate Expectations – a Crash Course in Being a Cheesemonger

Friends, acquaintances, colleagues–hell, sometimes even strangers–all know about my love for cheese [Editor’s Note: I’m snacking on a cheese plate as I write this]. Recently, I fulfilled a long-term dream of mine by working in a cheese shop. My friend Caoimhe, the manager of one of the Mellis Cheese shops here in Edinburgh, asked if I’d be interested in joining the team for the festive season–of course I jumped at the opportunity!

My first shift was on a Sunday, typically one of the busiest (if not the busiest) days for the shop. Despite only having retail experience with clothing, I was thrown in at the deep end. One of the first things I learnt on the job was glass wrapping, a technique in which you tightly wrap cheese in cling film (aka plastic wrap to my American friends)–this creates a smooth, glass-like appearance perfect for displaying to customers and keeping it in peak condition.

The shop uniform (I always wore a mask when out on the floor serving customers)

While I worked on wrapping, Caoimhe also told me to taste as much cheese as possible. Cheesemongers do this all time for quality control (e.g. catching a batch of cheese that’s gone off and tastes of soured milk) and to better know the product they’re selling, as often with farmhouse and artisan-made cheeses, no two batches are exactly the same. She also made a point to tell me to try a variety of blues and cheddars so I could make recommendations to customers based upon different cheese strength preferences. As I tasted each cheese, I’d jot down notes in a small notebook I had brought in.

After a break, and with only a couple of hours left in my shift, I started serving customers. This was a bit daunting, given that I now had to cut cheese, wrap it with wax paper, use the till, and begin to learn all of its functions & quirks. Although I was slightly overwhelmed by it all, I successfully made it through my first shift at the shop. Before leaving, I was able to take home a few treats including some Sinodun Hill that just went out of date.

A couple of days later, I tried it with some homemade blackberry jam and digestive biscuits and WHOA NELLY–I was completely enamored with this cheese. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of trying Sinodun Hill, it is a fresh English raw-milk Goat’s cheese with the dreamiest gooey exterior and a mousse-like interior. Another delicious new discovery was a raw-milk cultured butter from Fen Farm Dairy, the producers of Baron Bigod, the English answer to French Brie de Meaux.

During the next few weeks, I continued to learn on the job. Some of my vocational education included: more efficient ways to wrap cheese, how to wrap different shapes and textures of cheese (I was a pro at wrapping blues, but that’s probably because the wax paper stuck to them really well) working the manually operated meat-cutting machine for charcuterie (I kind of loved when I got to do this, especially if there was a dog in the shop to give scraps to), and learning shortcuts on the till.

I had also learnt some tips and tricks from my more experienced colleagues: don’t wrap some of the softer cheeses as tightly to allow them to breathe and be less slimy (I’m looking at you, Durrus); be confident and don’t overthink it when cutting cheese (not easy for someone who’s middle name should be ‘overthinker’); when a customer asks for an exact amount of cheese, just show them with the wire as they will often want more than what they asked for. This last tip kept me sane–I nearly panicked the first time a customer requested a specific amount of cheese in grams, as my American public school education had failed to properly teach me about metric weights. Thankfully, I’d often get help from the others, like Sandy for example, who would wrap cheese at lightning speed as I served customers with large orders.

The week leading up to Christmas was gone in the blink of an eye. Each day, as a constant stream of customers came in and out of the shop, we danced around one another as we served them–some days, the choreography was clumsier than others. Christmas week, I had two early shifts with one beginning at 7am, and the other at 6am to help stock the shelves and open the shop. After having the day off on the 23rd, I was back in to work on Christmas Eve which was much calmer than expected–I think most people came the previous week for their holiday cheeseboards.

After a couple of days off (the shops were closed until the 27th), my last week at the shop started with an unusually sleepy Sunday shift. My last shift on New Year’s Eve, just flew by. And with that, my time in the shop came to a close.

Some other highlights + random takeaways from my brief time as a cheesemonger:

Sweet dreams aren’t always made of cheese–Vacherin and ripe Gorgonzola are delicious, but gooey messes to cut; Alp Blossom is a different kind of mess–the dried flowers and herbs that go everywhere when cutting it are like culinary confetti; Morbier’s greasy exterior will make your hands reek.

Just call me the cheese whisperer–during one shift, a customer came in and asked for a £20 piece of Raclette. I managed to cut £20.01, to which he then dubbed me a “cheese whisperer” and said had it been exact, he would’ve been suspicious of me. 😂

Forget lifting weights, just work in a cheese shop–from carrying heavy wheels to cutting hard cheeses with thick cardboard-like rinds, your upper body strength, or lack thereof, will be tested. Thankfully, I managed to get away with not cutting any Mimolette.

To the dream team at the Stockbridge shop–Caoimhe, Imogen, Sandy, Beth and Oli (if any of you are reading this), thanks for all of your help and patience with me. You guys are the best!


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