Cheesiness Personified.

Arguing for Cheese’s place among paintings:
a conversation with Cheesemonger Kelley Jewell
by Cole Fanning ’23

“We soon reached his cave, but he was out shepherding, so we went inside and took stock of all that we could see. His cheese-racks were loaded with cheeses, and he had more lambs and kids than his pens could hold…

When he had so done he sat down and milked his ewes and goats, all in due course, and then let each of them have her own young. He curdled half the milk and set it aside in wicker strainers.

-Homer, Odyssey

There’s a strange connection between cheese and beasts. Mold, a monster in its own right, finds a welcome home in the world of cheese, which can turn off some to the stranger sections of dairy delights. The smell associations cheese commonly holds aren’t too welcoming either; feet and general stank are unappealing to a large majority of people. However, the world of cheese should be welcomed with open mouths.

A remarkably diverse field of food, there’s a craft in cheese (no pun intended) that can be appreciated only through an expert. Cheesemongers, or “masters of cheese” if you’d like to get weird, specialize in just that. Unlike the cyclops, Kelley Jewell is no monster. She is however, a master. Finding a love for cheese while in Southern France, Jewell’s thoughts on cheese hold no bounds. Currently at Provisions in North Amherst, she has spent six years in the world of cheesemongering.

To properly explain the duties of a cheesemonger, here’s Jewell:

“There’s two sides to being a cheesemonger: serving as a liaison between the cheeses in the cheese case and the public, helping them find cheeses they don’t know they like; and finding pairings, generally connecting with them over a love of cheese. Behind the scenes, the first thing cheesemongers do in the morning is assess the product. What that means is taking out and unwrapping each cheese, inspecting the rind and the paste (the inside of the cheese), and if there’s small flaws that can be fixed, we fix the flaws. We ‘clean’ the cheeses so they can live their best life. Or, if a cheese is no longer happy, we eliminate it from the case. Part of our job is offering these cheeses at their best moments, so when we go to the counter to talk to people about the cheese, it’s its most delicious self.”

Kelley Jewell, Cheesemonger, Provisions wine and fine foods market in North Amherst

To address concerns and fears of “gross or stinky” cheese, Jewell asks our group to refrain from verbal displeasure if a cheese we try isn’t for our palate. Words of disgust will only make it harder to try to appreciate something you’re not used to. We try a type of Roquefort, a blue cheese, Jewell’s favorite.

There’s a strange stigma around blue cheese; for me, at first, it was a combination of sight and smell. “I think of all the categories of cheese that people are most afraid—and I would use the word afraid—is blue cheese, since we live and eat in a society where mold equals bad or poison. So also, in tasting it, it is a really strong flavor—robust, salty, funky. In introducing them [blue cheeses] to people, I often use milder, creamy blues, I call them ‘gateway blues’,” says Jewell.

It’s shocking to realize how many variations of curdled milk are out there, the common supermarket stock of mozzarella, cheddar, and the controversial American slices are only the tip of a very deep (and delicious) iceberg. The Roquefort which I was so anxious to try seems like a casual choice after delving deeper into stranger cheeses. Jewell discusses with me Casu Marzu, one of the more unique cheeses from around the world: “This is the white whale,” says Jewell. “Number one, it’s illegal in the U.S, and two, something I don’t think people would really seek out..?” she says, making her answer into a question. “It intentionally has maggots in it, the maggots eat and process the cheese to help create this sort of categorically strange, soft, stinky, cheese, and there are a lot of rumors around it, people definitely talk about it.”

“I think that cheese production happened as a happy accident in the neolithic period, it happened as a result of people just starting to have access to domesticating animals, and fire, and pottery, like storage vessels, and it was a matter of humans figuring stuff out with the tools they had. It wasn’t about making a necessarily beautiful masterpiece, it was about creating food to survive.”

Kelley Jewell, Cheese monger
Kelley Jewell behind the cheese counter at Provisions in North Amherst, Mass.
Kelley Jewell is head of new ventures for Provisions, a fine food and libations store in North Amherst, Mass. She designed her own cheesemongering degree through the Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration (BDIC) program at UMass Amherst, combining food science and food anthropology courses and business classes she took in French.

With the range and diversity in what cheese can be and do, the immediate portability and ease of eating it should make it something easy to get into and enjoy on its own. Don’t worry though, eating it as an ingredient to a larger meal is okay, too.

“A perk of being a cheesemonger is that I frequently I find myself with a lot of little pieces of nice cheeses on hand,” says Jewell, “so I make a cheese board out of whatever is left…the fridge clean-out,” says Jewell. She recommends Jalapeno poppers, mac and cheese, and cheeseburgers as easy ways to incorporate more varied cheeses.

Toward the end of our talk, we delve into a strange area of conversation; at this point we are hypnotized by the cosmic vastness of cheese. It’s potential cannot be limited to a food—it’s more. It can be personified, occupy your brain the same way art can. There’s a quote by G.K Chesterton, 19th-century author, philosopher, and art critic, where he proclaims that “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” While I can’t disagree with Chesterton, I do not believe I have read any dairy-induced sonnets, I think he’s looking at it the wrong way, and Kelley agrees.

“Cheese is an art form,” says Jewell. “It starts with the grass that the farmers are growing, the breeds of the animals—sometimes animals that are heritage breeds, sometimes on the edge of extinction. The whole process of actually making the cheese is a dance—a scientific and food-safety dance—but a dance.”

The way it comes from recipes and traditions is similar to where art draws from history and tradition. And, cheese pushes boundaries, like art, pushing boundaries in what it can be, she explains. “Producers are always trying to create something new and exciting for the market. Then, even after production, there’s an art to selling it, and I think that cheesemongering is the poetic part of the process where you are literally waxing poetic about different cheeses to make folks fall in love with it.”

Recipe from Kelley Here?

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