Europeans have been making and eating cheese for hundreds of years, but as the number of farmstead dairies shrinks rapidly, Americans are stepping in as the preservers of cheese traditions and the pioneers of new artisan cheeses. In Utah, a new creamery opens every year. All this change requires an interpreter for the consumer.
Like wine, cheese is alive, complicated and speaks in dozens of languages. Like a wine buyer, the most important thing a cheese buyer needs to know is who to know.
Fortunately—and a bit surprisingly—Salt Lake City has more than its share of cheese experts: Steven Rosenberg has been selling cheese for 20 years and is passing his passion along to a crop of young cheese heads at Liberty Heights Fresh. Matt Caputo of Caputo's Deli, Troy Peterson of Caputo's on 15th and Andy Fitzgerrell of the Sugar House Whole Foods all bear the newly-minted title Certified Cheese Expert, earned by passing a rigorous exam administered by the American Cheese Society. These are the guys to turn to when you want to explore the world of cheese.
The cheese crew at Liberty Heights Fresh, left to right, Noah Rosenberg, John Hannon, owner Steven Rosenberg, Gloria Moore and Camden Densley.
Owner of Liberty Heights Fresh
1290 S. 1100 East, SLC, 801-467-2434
When Steven Rosenberg started selling cheese in Salt Lake City in 1993, domestic artisan cheeses were rare. "There was Grafton Cheddar, Cypress Grove, Vella, Cabot Creamery, but there was no network of artisan cheese making at all," recalls Rosenberg. And there was no formal training in cheese knowledge and handling, either. "There are still too many people who don't even know how to wrap a cheese, who still use plastic and not cheese wrap. That suffocates cheese!" He's been an active member of the American Cheese Society since it started and suggested questions to be included on the recently inaugurated Certified Cheese Exam.
Cheesemongering was, and still is, largely learned from those who have come before. That's how Camden Densley, one of five cheesemongers at Liberty Heights Fresh, learned and is learning about cheese. He's worked at the market for five years, dealing with produce until he "fell in love with cheese." He's particularly interested in farmstead cheese and the connection between cheese and the animals it comes from, including Utah's recent growth spurt in creameries and dairies. About 30 percent of Liberty Heights' cheese inventory is domestic. "There's been a huge blossoming of sheep's milk cheeses, like Snowy Mountain Creamery and Oolite Cheese Company's cheese aged in limestone." And he's excited about Duval Cheese in Midway.
"They're only producing soft-ripened cheese, like Snowcap, a triple creme bloomy rind cow's milk cheese, and Tommes, a drier cheese like a young parmesan. Interest in cheese is growing, and there's no end in sight."
Whole Foods, Sugar House
1131 E. Wilmington Ave., SLC, 801-359-7913.
Six wheels of Brebis Fougere, a Corsican sheep's milk with leaves pressed into the rind, each one $32.99 a pound, are in the cheese case at Whole Foods in Sugar House, along with pieces of Montgomery Cheddar, which many think is the best in the world, and two different kinds of Stilton. "That's impressive when you consider there are only five true Stilton makers left in the world," says Andy Fitzgerrell. He's the big cheese of the store, one of Salt Lake's three cheese experts certified by the American Cheese Society and one of a handful of Whole Foods cheesemongers authorized to post on the chain's national Facebook page. He proudly wears his chef's coat, newly embroidered with the ACS Certified Cheese Professional logo.
"A good cheese case depends on turnover," says Fitzgerrell. "That's why I have a full line of Drunken Goat, because it's very popular. But I also have Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese Co., made once a year from spring milk and aged a year. Utah is a fledgling food state. We're still learning. That means cheesemongers are still teaching. You have to mix the familiar with the unknown."
In other words, Fitzgerrell has to balance his love for great, somewhat exotic, often stinky, cheese with Utahns' comfort level, which hovers around cheddar. Besides that, he has to teach his customers to be aware of value, not just price. "Americans and Utahns are used to buying food in quantity and checking the price by the pound," he says. "But it's better to buy like New Yorkers or Europeans, who generally have less square footage in their refrigerators." That is, buy less, more often. "This is especially true of cheese," says Fitzgerrell.
There's also the intimidation factor to overcome. "We have a grab-and-go mentality of shopping," he says. But you'll get more satisfaction if you chat up the cheesemonger. "And it can save you money. You'll learn why a cheese is more expensive and when to spend money on a pricier cheese. If you're using cheese in a casserole, there's no need to spend a lot per pound." A lot of people, he says, don't know how to get the most out of a good cheese. They eat it too cold or don't know what to pair with it. "We're all learning in Utah-cheese makers, cheese eaters, cheesemongers."
Caputo's Market & Deli
314 W. 300 South, SLC, 801-531-8669
Matt Caputo started out working at Granato's, bagging ravioli for three bucks an hour. "I learned about the core Italian and Greek cheeses there—Pecorino, American-Italian cheeses like provolone, Greek feta. I remember my first taste of English cheddar. My mind was officially blown; I went down the rabbit hole and never came back," he says.
When Caputo was 16, he says, "I went to Europe and found something bigger than pop culture that tugged at the strings of my soul. I explored Crete and Greece and understood that cultural perspective for the first time."
Back home, inspired by a U of U course called Fundamentals of Business Thought, self-described former slacker Caputo graduated summa cum laude and went to work in his father's new deli with a goal and the passion to reach it. He teamed up with boyhood friend and fellow cheese lover Troy Peterson, also at Caputo's, and a stellar sales team emerged. "We convinced people to buy cheese that was more expensive than they were used to and cheese that they had never experienced," recalls Caputo. Their proven ability to sell cheese meant they could expand the cheese selection at Caputo's. Now the store sells about 200 Southern European style cheeses, some of which are aged in the store's own cave, the only one in Utah.
As for his home state's future, Caputo says, "Utah still has a long way to go in cheese making. There's not a lot between the top tier and the beginning level." So Caputo tries to balance local with quality. "Snowy Mountain Creamery makes that easy," he says. "Cheese is a big investment of time and energy. The main problem is that Utah can't produce enough milk."
Caputo is aware that expertise can lead to arrogance. He wants his to be the best cheese shop in the world, he says, but his first responsibility is to the customer. "You pick and choose and try to see the possibility of greatness."
Caputo's on 15TH
1516 S. 1500 East, SLC, 801-486-6615
"I started out as a deli monkey with Matt Caputo," recalls Troy Peterson, seated in his tiny store with one eye on the door and one eye on the deli case. "I didn't know much, and we only had about 20 cheeses at first. But I loved the whole cultural package. We'd get a shipment, and I'd be amazed at the idea that this cheese made thousands of miles away in a 100-year-old tradition was in my hands in SLC. The story and history behind the product fascinated me. Cheese was the emissary of another culture."
Peterson took a hiatus from Salt Lake to play music in California but returned to his home town with a voracious appetite to learn more about fine food, especially cheese.
"At the time, Matt was busy building the best fine chocolate collection in the United States," said Peterson, who decided to focus on cheese. "We had big ideas, we wanted to do a cheese cave affmeur program-we went to Tony [Caputo, Matt's father,] with a proposal, but it was too expensive." Zoe Brickley at Jasper Hill Farms and Neville McNaughton of American Cheese Society helped out, and we nnally got the project down to a price Tony agreed on."
Now Peterson has an interest in and runs Caputo's on 15th and leaves the cave at the downtown store to Matt.
Peterson's main focus is on selling.
"Cheese is a living, seasonal product, so you have a limited time to sell it. It has a wide array of lifespans, and they're all picky. One wants moisture, another needs humidity, one can't thrive in the wind, another requires moving air."
Plus, "You have to be an advocate for cheeses," he says. "It's a people-to-people business. They don't know what they want, and they're too intimidated to ask. You have to break the barrier,speak to the customer nrst and offer cheese. Ask them questions they won't ask. It takes passion to make it work." He admits, "Cheese talk gets stuffy pretty quick. But it's just food. You're supposed to enjoy it."