Contrary to popular belief, cheesemongers do not actually cure cheese -- they handle it -- and tomorrow, at the third annual Cheesemonger Invitational in Long Island, New York, 45 of them from around the country will be tested on their handling skills, with the winner walking away with $1,000 in cash. And there are two cheesemongers representing Colorado in the very exclusive invitational: Miguel Vera from The Truffle Cheese Shop in Denver and Molly Browne from Cured in Boulder. These Colorado cheese connoisseurs will compete against the opposition in three preliminary challenges followed by the finals round, in which only ten cheese masters can flash their skills for the panel of renowned judges. Westword spoke with The Truffle Cheese Shop's Miguel Vera to unwrap the mind of a cheesemonger.
Westword: How did you get started with cheese?
Miguel Vera: I have dedicated my life to cheese. I was born in Denver but I lived in Boston and worked at the L'Espalier. I was in the service industry for over a decade and one day we got a big cheese cart with thirty to fifty cheeses on it. By the end of the week I was shoveling cheese into my face and it's been my life ever since. The profession and cheese itself are addictive. Cheese is chemically addictive and reflects where it's from and the quality of ingredients. I can tell the location like wine.
What's your favorite type of cheese?
That's tough. I can't really give an answer. At the Truffle, we have 112 different kinds of cheeses. They are like evolving creatures and change daily. One day I might like one type of cheese best and the next day that could change. However, one of my favorite kinds is Strachitunb, and it's really tough to get a hold of. It has a funky texture, it's melty and globby and it has an ugly natural rind like wood. It's a blue cheeseburger deluxe type of cheese and it smells like peanut butter but tastes like fresh green olives. I really like smelling cheeses, like some smell like oat bran. I first tasted Strachitunb at my restaurant in Boston, and no one else understood my obsession. It is very rare: there is only one producer in the whole world. One man, not even one village, who makes it. The Truffle has a wheel coming next week, and I think we'll be the only shop in North America who has Strachitunb until it runs out.
Can you describe the Cheesemonger Invitational a little?
A cheesemonger is someone who cares for cheese. We are tested on our ability to identify cheese just by smelling and looking at them. We have to cut different weights without a scale. One challenge has us wrapping cheese as quickly as possible. Then we have to sell our cheese to the judges. The ten finalists then prepare the perfect cheese bite that's a pairing of cheese you love to bring out the best flavors and attributes of each.
How are you feeling about the competition?
I've never done this before and I'm not sure I'm up to the level of competition. I'm most nervous about making a fool of myself in front of Rodolphe Le Meunier, who's one of the judges. He owns his own company and buys up yummy cheeses to hold and age and then sell them when they're perfect. He's the star chef and cheese representative of France and we have seven of his cheeses in the shop at a time. Rodolphe is a world champion cheese affineur and every cheese he creates stands out.
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What do you see this competition doing for your career?
I'm not much of a businessman. I just like what I do. When they asked me, I immediately said yes before I even knew what the competition was. I'm like a kid in a candy shop. This is the only job I don't complain about. I'm happy to go to work and I actually hug my cheeses when I get in. I'm part of something that's really awesome. I love all the cheeses that people make, and It's an honor to be involved in the invitational...I just think I might be a mistake.
Miguel Vera is currently heading up the cheese cart display at the new Squeaky Bean in Denver, which opens Monday (here's a sneak peek!) at 1500 Wynkoop Street. "It's funny that I had to go all the way to Boston to discover cheese, and now I'm bringing the first world-class cheese cart to Denver," she says.