At Cowgirl Creamery the connection between maker and monger is something we hold dear. From the early days of Peg & Sue delivering local dairy to Bay Area chefs, to our present work bringing our organic cheese to cheesemongers across the country, we're inspired by the passion and creativity of our retailers and foodservice partners.
Last week, we took some time to interview Pame Rubio-Piña, the winner of the first ever virtual Cheesemonger Invitational. It's been a tough year for independent cheese counters (like the Fairfield Greenwich Cheese Company where Pame sling curd in Cos Cob, CT), but mongers like Pame have skillfully adapted to the times. In a field of 50 cheesemongers from Alaska to Mexico, Pame triumphed in a rigorous virtual test of plating, pairing, and selling cheese, all in service of "Flattening the Curd": connecting consumers to extraordinary artisan cheese in the time of COVID-19. See our interview with Pame below:
Cowgirl Creamery: How did you get into to cheese?
Pame: Since a young age, I’ve always been attracted to dairy, especially cheese. Growing up in Mexico, I was raised on a fresh cheese diet. Queso de hebra (commonly known as Oaxaca) or Panela, were eaten almost everyday in my house. Whenever I had the chance, I would always take a cheese option for dessert when eating out. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of eating cheese but never really got myself very far into its in depth world. I attended culinary school and after my first semester I came home, I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was invited to attend a mexican cheese and beer pairing class with Georgina Yescas, co founder of Lactography. My mind was blown. I had not realized a complete world of cheese was there waiting for me to discover. After that I talked to her, and she invited me to work at the shop for a month. I was fascinated, it had never occurred to me that cheese has a whole world of its own. After that short stay, I returned to college in Upstate NY. I came back with a different mindset. I started to read about cheese, go to farms and shops and taste cheese while trying to incorporate cheese into every assignment I could possibly do.
In your words, what does it mean to be a cheesemonger?
A cheesemonger is a person that is in charge of being knowledgeable about cheese, selling, taking care of, properly cutting and knowing how to pair cheese. Also they are storytellers; a cheesemonger is a voice of the cheesemakers and affineurs.
For those of us new to the world of competitive cheesemonger-ing what did the virtual Cheesemonger Invitational competition entail?
This was the first time I competed in any cheese related competition as well. Flattening the Curd was an amazing experience. Previous to the start date we all received a huge box (well actually 3 boxes total) with 40 pieces of cheese. We also got a cheese assigned to us for the Instagram post and cheese platter and a cheese importer house, maker or association, in order to create and sell a cheese tasting class.
Flattening the Curd consisted of two parts. Monday and Tuesday was the educational day. We had during the two days 10 hours total of cheese tastings. Each class was different, some classes focused on the cheese making, others in the science behind their cheese and others in the connections between the mongers and the cheesemakers. Finally on Wednesday, we all took a written test on information that we learnt the day before and basic monger knowledge. Following that we all got a time assigned and during our 7 minutes we had to, pitch our cheese tasting class, explain our cheese plate and sell cheese to a judge based on the cheese we saw in the days before.
What was the inspiration for your plates and pairings?
One of my personal hobbies, that I picked up while I was in college, is to take pictures of cheese with dark backgrounds. I would create a black box with dark clothing and make a photoshoot of interesting cheese, mainly focusing on their rinds. When I found out that one of the challenges was going to include a freestyle IG post I knew that was going to be my approach. However, part of the challenge was to also give information about the cheese through the pictures as well. When I got my cheese assignment (Mt. Tam) , I decided to refer to your web page. I read the entries on Mt, Tam and made notes. My first note was “Mount Tamalpais”, I found out that the cheese name came from that iconic landmark. I read that “Mt. Tam cheese rises above the standard for basic bloomies.” So that's where I got the inspiration for the first picture. I went to the garden and “foraged” for wild plants. I decided to create a mountain trail with plants and have Mt. Tam sit on top of it. I wanted to merge the iconic landmark and the cheese that takes its name. My second note was “Triple Butter Heart '', I decided to do three levels in order to clarify it was a triple cream and my focus there was to show that butteryness and deliciousness that characterizes Mt. Tam and of course, its heart. Finally my third note was “Luxurious” there was a lot of emphasis in the web page that this is an elegant cheese. I used the spoon and the dripping jam to convey that.
Tell us about where you work. What’s it been like to monger in the time of COVID?
It has definitely been a challenge. Greenwich Cheese Company right away enforced protective measures to keep us and the customers safe. One of the biggest changes was changing the height of the glasses in the counter. With the masks and the glass, communication breaks down very easily. The interaction between monger and customer is challenged and both us, as mongers, and the customers have to be more patient, understanding, and adapt to the situation.
Another thing that changed in the shop were the rules regarding personal safety. As to be expected in any retail environment during COVID, we ask all customers to sanitize their hands and wear a mask before entering. The majority of people follow these rules willingly, however, we have had our fair share of customers who refuse to follow these rules, and when they do not comply, or even become hostile, our job becomes much harder. And that can be very tiring and discouraging.
With that being said, this year I started mongering behind the counter full-time for the first time. So weirdly enough, I have known how to be a cheesemonger in times of COVID for longer than I have not.
Your favorite cheese at the moment, and how would you think about pairing, plating, and/or cooking with it?
Chiriboga Blue from Germany is one of my favorite cheeses right now. With apple season coming to an end, I would love to pair Chiriboga Blue with a slice of toasted brioche and apple pie preserve. Also I would love to pair it with a bar of dark chocolate and fig. As far as cooking goes, I can see chiriboga blue going on french toast with cinnamon pear compote.
If you could travel anywhere right now to dive deep into a regional cheese culture, where would it be?
Lately, I have been very interested in Alpine Cheeses, especially those coming from Switzerland. I found the making and the history of these cheeses fascinating. Also I find the variation between each batch pretty exciting and interesting. If I had the chance to travel right now, I would choose to fly to Switzerland. I would love to understand and experience transhumance and taste how much terroir impacts the flavor of each batch of cheese.
Congratulations Pame! Stay tuned for more in our Meet the Cheesemonger series on the Cowgirl Creamery Blog!