The Internet’s Favorite Cheesemonger Tells Us Everything We Need to Know About Cheese
Plus the cheese board that will knock the socks off your holiday party guests
TikTok is chock full of information. Useful information. TikTok is not all dangerous challenges and insane conspiracy theories, and if you, like most people, spend countless hours on the video-sharing app every week, you probably already know this.
From skincare tips to Finnish pasta dish recipes, there’s content for nearly everyone and everything, and a slew of experts who are overjoyed to share their knowledge with the followings they’ve amassed.
I assume my own love for #foodtok led me to #cheesetok and Brooklyn-based cheesemonger Emilia D’Albero. D’Albero who runs the TikTok account @punkrockparmigiano and is one of the app’s cheese authorities, posting videos from her counter at Brooklyn gourmet market Greene Grape and answering users’ burning questions on all things cheese.
D’Albero, who has been a cheesemonger for over four years and became certified as a CCP (Certified Cheese Professional) earlier this year, tells InsideHook she, like everyone else, got into TikTok over the pandemic. After spending some time on the app, she discovered the “odd things” people enjoyed watching — mainly satisfying, ASMR-type videos. She also notes there wasn’t much cheese content on the app, and what little content there was, wasn’t comprehensive enough.
“I feel like I was filling a niche because people love to watch cheese being cut. It’s really satisfying to watch a great big wheel of parm be cut,” she says. “But there wasn’t really anyone that was explaining why they were doing what they were doing or what the difference between Parmigiano Reggiano and Parmesan is or what to look for when you want to buy real Parmigiano Reggiano. So I felt like I could produce content that is both satisfying to watch and educational.”
So we caught up with D’Albero and made her answer all of our cheese-related questions — from how to expand your palate to how to make a cheese board that’ll impress the hell out of everyone at your next dinner party — because while we stuff our faces with the dairy goodness often, we’re only cheese novices who are looking to up our game — and perhaps you are too.
InsideHook: So … what exactly does the title cheesemonger entail?
Emilia D’Albero: Basically, a cheesemonger is someone who sells cheese, butter and other dairy products. Really what we do is we connect the producer to the consumer, we’re like a middle man. Our main job is obviously to get consumers quality products, but also tell their stories, because a lot of the time there is a great story behind the cheese, especially when you have small makers, artisan makers, farmstead makers — and all of those words have different meanings.
The term farmstead is one that you’ll hear a lot at cheese counters. All that means is that the cheese is made right there on the farm from the milk of the farm’s own animals, and it doesn’t travel. What that means is that the cheesemaker has more control over the entire process, from start to finish. Therefore, you are not only getting a higher-quality product, but your money is going directly to that cheesemaker. So you’re getting a better chance to support them.
How can one expand their cheese palate?
My best advice is to go to a cheese shop and talk to a cheesemonger. Don’t be afraid to ask any questions even if you think they’re stupid. We’re here to help guide you to the cheese of your dreams, whether it’s something for a sandwich, a cheese board or something to melt in a grilled cheese.
A lot of people think that if you get into ‘fancy’ cheese, you have to love blue cheese or stinky cheese, and that’s just not true. Nobody loves every type of cheese. It’s important that you be true to yourself and to your taste buds and buy and eat what you genuinely like to eat.
The price of cheese can also be really intimidating. Good cheese can get pricey, and I know that better than anyone. I sell cheese on my counter that ranges from $9.99 a pound to $65 a pound. So the other aspect of let’s say ‘fancy cheese’ is seen as something very pretentious and maybe only for people with money.
I think everyone deserves to eat good, real cheese and know about the product that they’re eating. So my goal is to educate people to show them that a lot of cheese is actually accessible for people.
Now I do want to talk about cheese boards because they’ve become super popular within the past few years and lots of people will likely be bringing them to holiday parties. What are the essential cheeses you think every cheese board should have?
In terms of a cheese and charcuterie platter, I always go for variety. You want a variety of textures. You want a variety of flavors and a variety of milk types. So the thing that I have seen on the internet a lot is you get a nice cheddar. You get some Manchego. Manchego is very popular. Then even like a goat log that’s been rolled in some herbs or seasonings.
I tend to go for soft, semi-soft and hard. Then if you want to take it a step further, either a blue cheese or something that’s very crumbly like an aged Gouda, or a Parmigiano Reggiano.
Mix up your milk types, cow, sheep, goat, water buffalo, even. There are some really great buffalo milk cheeses out there that people don’t know about. I actually like to promote water buffalo milk cheese because it has more than twice the butterfat of standard cow’s milk. So it ends up being this really decadent, luscious cheese experience.
If you could build your dream cheese board, what would you include?
Right now I’d go fully seasonal, exclusive cheeses that are very rare, very hard to get and are incredible cheeses.
One that I actually featured on my TikTok recently is called Brabander Reserve. It’s an extra-aged goat Gouda from the Netherlands and has crunchy crystals called tyrosine, which are build-ups of amino acids that happen naturally in cheese over time, and they have that really satisfying crunch to them. So, you know a cheese has been well-aged if you see large crystals. They get larger the longer you age the cheese. So that one tastes like toasty brioche, burnt marshmallows and pineapple.
There’s another one called Rush Creek Reserve, which is made in Wisconsin by Uplands Cheese. It’s a raw cow milk made in a ‘Vacherin Mont d’Or style.’ This means they wash the rind in a brine solution, which helps certain bacteria to grow on the rind giving it a funky, meaty, almost smokey flavor. Then they wrap it in a spruce band to help the cheese keep its shape.
So this is made in a traditional Vacherin Mont d’Or style, which we actually cannot get in the United States because of the laws surrounding raw milk cheese. Anything that is made with raw milk and aged less than 60 days is not allowed to come into the country. So that prevents us from eating some of the world’s best cheeses. It’s also made with winter milk. Milk composition fluctuates seasonally. In the winter, the cows are no longer eating fresh grass, but they’re eating winter hay, and so the fat and protein content of their milk goes up, which makes it thicker, and the cheese becomes thicker and more luscious.
Then there’s one called Rogue River Blue. That one is an organic cow’s milk cheese from Rogue Creamery in Oregon. What’s really special about it is that it’s aged for a minimum of nine months, which is a really long time for blue cheese. Then they hand wrap every cheese in grape leaves and soak it in pear brandy. So the flavor is boozy, fruity and sweet. It also won best cheese in the world in 2019, the first time that an American cheese had ever won the world cheese award.
Out of curiosity, what’s your all-time favorite cheese?
Great question. My all-time favorite cheese is real Parmigiano Reggiano. You can’t beat it. That was my answer when I competed in the Cheesemonger Invitational earlier this year where I talked about how I love real Parmigiano Reggiano, which is different than Parmesan.
Parmigiano Reggiano is a name-protected cheese, which means that there is a group of people called a Consortium in Italy that regulate the production of that cheese. There’s a set of guidelines that every producer needs to follow to a T, and if they don’t follow all of those rules, they legally cannot call their cheese Parmigiano Reggiano. If you do, you can actually get thrown in jail.
It’s very easy right now to get real Parmigiano Reggiano, especially if you live near Whole Foods or a Wegmans or a specialty shop. You want to look to make sure it says Parmigiano Reggiano DOP. That DOP is going to be your first indicator of quality and authenticity. Then you want to look for the little red and yellow stamp on it. Those two things together mean you have an authentic product.
Is there anything else you think people should know about the big wide world of cheese?
American cheese producers are making some of the best, most high-quality cheeses in the entire world right now. When people think of American cheese — especially Europeans — they think Kraft singles or Velveeta. A lot of people don’t know about these high-quality American cheeses because they’re making them on such a small scale since it’s a labor-intensive and expensive process.
So my advice to anyone who is dipping their toe into the cheese world is to find American cheese. There are some really incredible American cheeses out there and if you ask your cheesemonger to guide you and give you samples of some cheese they’re excited about, cheesemongers are always going to be excited to help you with something like that.
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