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Research on Shaping Foodways and Food Decisions

Cheese Stories: Cheesemongers, Vermont Artisan Cheese and the Value of Telling Stories

  • Rachel DiStefano et
  • Amy Trubek

Corps de l’article

In North America, the increased presence of high quality, small batch cheeses—in restaurants and gourmet food shops, as part of foodie analysis and evaluation, on the shopping lists of urban consumers from East to West coasts—is notable. Over the twentieth century, North American cheese traditions were dominated by mass produced cheeses (cheddar in Canada; cheddar and mozzarella in the United States). Understood as national foods with national distribution systems, provenance was not crucial to making or eating these cheeses. However, the new artisan cheeses that have emerged over the past three decades have helped foster the realization that, in fact, place matters. For example, in Quebec, the creation in 2006 of the Conseil des appellations réservées et des termes valorisants (CARTV) was specifically to develop certifications in order to promote food and drink based on origins or special characteristics, including cheese made from la vache Canadienne. In fact, guaranteeing that the cheese comes from somewhere in particular, or as social scientists label them cheese from ‘short food supply chains’ is seen as fundamental to their long-term success.

In short food supply chains the embedded qualities of a food product—“traces” of the production locale [i]—are communicated to consumers so that they are able to “confidently make connections and associations with the place/space of production and, potentially, the values of the people involved and the production methods employed.” [ii] More than just moving a product from producer to consumer, then, these socially—oriented supply chains are defined by their “ability to engender some form of connection between food consumer and food producer.” [iii]

The fact that short food supply chains allow “[u]niqueness and distinctiveness at the place of production … to be matched and articulated forward through to the point of consumption” [iv] is critical because, although intrinsic attributes of the cheese (flavour, texture) are important, when artisan cheese is under consideration, extrinsic attributes related to where and how it is made also influence consumer acceptance. [v] More than just enhancing consumer perception and facilitating purchase, it appears that information about the cheese’s origins becomes part of an individual’s sensory experience, actually making it taste better. [vi] Thus, the quality of an artisan cheese is multi-faceted, and this complex concept of quality resides in the taste of the cheese, the stories of how the cheese was made, and evocations regarding the place of origin of the cheese.

The state of Vermont is home to more artisan cheesemakers per capita than any other state in the United States. [vii] Despite strong consumer support within the small, rural state for artisan cheese (seen in high levels of point of purchase sales) the potential supply far outpaces local demand. [viii] Most Vermont cheesemakers do enter broader geographic markets in search of larger concentrations of urban consumers, and the connection to place remains crucial in order to promote and preserve this multi-faceted concept of quality. In this paper, we identify cheese retail professionals as key pivots in the link between taste and place and show how the stories they tell are critical for making place based artisan cheese viable and knowable to consumers.

Terry Marsden, Jo Banks, and Gillian Bristow distinguish between iterations of a short food supply chain: first, face-to-face, where products are sold directly by the producer and “authenticity and trust are mediated through personal interaction”; second, spatial proximity where products are sold regionally and “consumers are made aware of the ‘local’ nature of the product at the point of retail”; and third, spatially extended, where the value and the meaning around the product and where it comes from must be communicated. [xix] Cheese retailers clearly function as pivots when spatial proximity and spatially extended supply chains are under consideration. Indeed, Colin Sage observes that retailers in these supply chains may be “accorded an expertise or regard for their association with the product, and may be further legitimized by acting as mediators for the producers themselves.” [x] This is exemplified by the highly specialized retail professional known as a cheesemonger. Scott Roberts and his colleagues observed at several cheese shops in the Northeastern United States and found that “[a] major role for the cheesemonger is to convey the pedigree and place of cheese for the consumer.” [xi] While the average artisan cheese consumer may never meet a producer, local cheesemongers can act as their proxies in spatial proximity and spatially extended short food supply chains—reminiscent of Arjun Appadurai’s “merchant bridge” [xii] that helps close the gaps in knowledge between producers and consumers.

The best method of understanding the bridges built between making and eating cheese lies in observing the building in action. Participant-observation allows researchers to watch and listen as cheese stories are created, communicated and interpreted. Our long-term research with Vermont cheesemakers led us to the decision to observe at a signature store (Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts) and a signature event (the American Cheese Society annual conference). First, participant-observation at the store involved working as a cheesemonger-in-training for one week. Donning a white apron, Rachel was taught how to do a variety of tasks, some menial (restocking store shelves with artisanal crackers and chips) and others that required a significant amount of skill and practice (cutting massive blocks of cheese with large knives and wrapping them in plastic for display). In between tasks, she positioned herself off to the side of, but still behind, the cheese counter–close enough to observe the interactions between cheesemongers and customers. Informal conversations with the six or seven cheesemongers working at Formaggio, and a more formal interview with one (who became a key informant), provided deeper insight into their actions, experiences and values. A few weeks later, at the American Cheese Society annual conference in Madison, Wisconsin, she attended educational panels aimed at cheese retailers and distributors that addressed contemporary issues ranging from food safety best practices for cheesemongers to strategies for effective communication between retailers and producers.

The observations at these two sites led to a certain conclusion: a special kind of narrative known as the cheese story functions as the main vehicle for communicating the embedded qualities of artisan cheese. [xiii] Cheese stories contain information about where and how the cheese was made—for example, information about the people, the animals, the farm, and the handcrafted nature of the cheese. Thus, in addition to the physical and geographic origins of production, cheese stories create a social chain of connection between the moment of production and the experience of eating the cheese. [xiv] While producers may include some contextual information on packaging and labels, such compact exchanges do not have the same impact as stories told and heard in person. [xv] Our research focused on making sense of the actions and values of the cheesemongers in telling these stories. Consumers were not actively recruited to answer questions or surveys; however, cheesemonger perceptions of just what might influence people in the decision to buy a certain cheese were carefully observed.

Formaggio Kitchen, a specialty cheese shop and gourmet food store, was started by Ihsan Gurdal in 1978. [xvi] The store is located in a residential neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Every inch of retail space is used; the shelves packed with items are more reminiscent of a food library than a grocery store. The cheese counter at Formaggio Kitchen is more accurately known as the “cheese wall”: an elaborate display of cheeses, in varying shades of orange, yellow, and white, all cut to expose smooth surfaces, the shiny plastic wrap pulled taut, appearing effortlessly wrinkle-free. The wall is organized geographically by country—Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland—and by style for domestic cheeses. The cheesemongers at Formaggio are especially proud of their domestic selection—a result of rapid growth and recent advances in quality among US cheeses—and make a point to highlight these cheeses to customers.

Thus, although Formaggio Kitchen is globally ecumenical when sourcing cheeses to sell at the shop, the buyers clearly make an effort to carry and highlight cheeses from the northeastern United States (predominately Vermont). The store’s philosophy is more about locally-based food than local food; as the domestic cheese buyer, Trent, explained: “Not necessarily local, but knowing where your food is coming from.” Rather than geographic proximity, they value specialized knowledge of place and people, the distinctive environmental and cultural landscapes, or terroir[xvii] Storytelling is a way for cheesemongers to translate these values into action, and how they connect with others who have similar values. They told stories to customers in several ways: through written signage, via in-person recommendations, and by guiding someone in a cheese tasting.

Signage is a common feature of specialty cheese shops used to identify each cheese and, often, to convey information about the product’s taste, place, and story to customers. At Formaggio, signage is not just a vehicle for this specialized information, it is part of the shop’s personality and identity. Small, laminated signs attached to narrow wooden pegs poke up out the various blocks and wheels of cheese, their handwritten descriptions achieving a casually chic aesthetic. The descriptions for Vermont cheeses – of which there were more than 25 on display at the cheese counter – generally contained four elements: (1) descriptions of the intrinsic (sensory) attributes of the cheese, such as flavor and texture; (2) elements of the story related to extrinsic (social) attributes of the cheese, including people, place, and production method; (3) words or phrases that authenticate the cheese for consumers; and (4) evidence of personal connections and social relationships between the cheesemonger and the cheese and cheesemaker.

The handmade aesthetic meant that each sign was unique and did not follow a prescribed template. However, most included at least two or three of these elements, with sensory information and story being most common. For instance, the description for Lake’s Edge (Figure 1) begins by providing the consumer with several elements of the cheese story – “Handmade by Greg and Hannah — husband and wife team, from their herd of 80 goats.” – and complements this with sensory and aesthetic descriptions: “Perfect creamy smooth mouthfeel, grassy tart flavor, with a pretty line of vegetable ash running through the center.”

Figure 1

Sign for Lake’s Edge

Sign for Lake’s Edge

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Figure 2

Sign for Rupert

Sign for Rupert

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Similarly, the sign for Rupert (Figure 2) weaves together sensory and social information, identifying the individual cheesemaker and farm responsible for its production:

We really like this Jersey cow milk cheese from Consider Bardwell Farm. Cheesemaker Chris Grey makes it based on a Gruyere recipe — so it’s full bodied with some sweet notes. He marks it with a whale because it’s a ‘whale of a cheese’!!

Here, the inclusion of an enjoyable anecdote – a story within the cheese story – allows the customer to feel a connection to the producer by better understanding the handcrafted nature of the cheese as well as the cheesemaker’s intentions when crafting it.

An exemplar of how signage is used by cheesemongers to convey the cheese story is the sign for Cabot Clothbound Cheddar (Figure 3). Notably bigger than the other signs and unique for its use of colour, it first weaves together authentication with several elements of the story: “Our favorite cheddar!! Venerable VT cheddar producer — Cabot Creamery, teamed up with the guys at Jasper Hill Cellars to produce this lovely, single farm English style clothbound cheddar.” The sign also includes sensory descriptors — “salty, oniony, fruity” — as well as evidence of a more personal connection of the cheesemongers to this cheese — “we handpick every wheel” — thereby further authenticating the cheese and emphasizing the social proximity of the supply chain that brought the cheese from farm to table — or, in this case, from farm to cheese counter.

Figure 3

Sign for Cabot Clothbound Cheddar

Sign for Cabot Clothbound Cheddar

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The tight constraints on counter space require cheesemongers to use signage to tell the story concisely. For example, the story on the sign for Goat Tomme (Figure 3) is very brief and matter-of-fact — “100% goat’s milk from a herd of 31 animals” — but it conveys important information about the animals and the small scale nature of artisan cheesemaking. The sign also provides strong authentication for the consumer through two concise phrases: “Staff favorite!” and “Artisan cheese at its finest.”

Figure 4

Sign for Goat Tomme

Sign for Goat Tomme

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Whereas signage can offer customers the convenience of the story in a concise package, face-to-face interactions provide a more dynamic and personalized experience for the consumer and a more direct opportunity for cheesemongers to bridge the distance between producer and consumer. In full-service cheese shops like Formaggio, customers must interact directly with the cheesemonger, since many cheeses come in big blocks or wheels that must be cut-to-order. And the conversations that take place in this setting are very different than those that take place at the deli counter in a chain grocery store. A defining feature of traditional cheese shops, these social interactions center on a high level of customer service and are a key part of an alternative retail experience. [xviii] Confirming Roberts et al.’s observations in cheese shops around the Northeast, the cheesemongers at Formaggio provided some combination of recommendations, samples, and stories to guide their customers’ preferences.

Recommendations provided a prime opportunity to tell stories at the cheese counter. While some customers seemed to know exactly what they wanted when asked by the cheesemonger, many were more than happy to trust the opinion of the cheesemonger or, having given some vague indication of their preferences, remained open to suggestions. On one occasion, Rachel overheard a cheesemonger tell a customer – who said he was looking for “something sharp”–a slightly more detailed version of the story of Cabot Clothbound Cheddar and how they procure it:

I’m sure you’ve heard of Cabot before… but for this cheese Cabot sources their milk from specific cows. It’s aged up at Jasper Hill. Trent goes up and tastes the wheels and selects — we definitely look for a particular taste.

Beyond just telling the story, this personalized anecdote claims responsibility for a “particular taste” that is unique to this store. Consumers appear to appreciate these deep connections between the taste, place, and story of Cabot Clothbound Cheddar; it was not only Formaggio’s most popular cheese from Vermont but also its bestselling domestic cheese, “hands down.”

Cheesemongers also told stories when guiding customers through tastings. Cheese tastings [xix] occurred frequently at Formaggio Kitchen, sometimes initiated by the cheesemonger and other times requested by the customer: “Can I taste it?” The dialogues that accompanied these tastings varied in content from pure sensory analysis and evaluation to almost entirely social context. To understand how they appeared less like a sales interaction than a sensory and social experience for the consumer, consider this conversation between a cheesemonger (Allison), and two women who asked her for a recommendation:

“I really like this one called Inspiration. It’s from Vermont, a washed rind cow’s milk,” Allison said as she cut two pieces of the cheese.
Tasting the sample she had offered, one of the women asked: “Where did you say this was made?”
“Vermont. It’s made by this guy and his wife on their little farm where they live with a few children. They have, like, 30 cows and work in small batches.”
The women agreed that they liked it and had Allison cut and wrap a piece for them.

This narrative, painting an idyllic image of small scale farmstead cheese production, became inseparable from the consumers’ sensory experience of tasting the cheese, and this combination of the social and sensory ultimately shaped their preference.

The evidence presented thus far clearly indicates that, for many artisan cheese consumers, the story matters. Importantly, we also found strong evidence of its significance for cheesemongers. As the domestic cheese buyer at Formaggio Kitchen, Trent learns many of the stories he tells firsthand – through meeting the producers and talking to them on a regular basis to place orders, discussing inventory and quality, and even visiting them at their farms or creameries. He then relays these stories back to his colleagues at the store. Trent described the joy and satisfaction he feels when he overhears stories that he has told his co-workers being relayed to customers:

… you’ve embedded this seed — you’ve planted this seed of cheese in their heads, and where cheese comes from, and relationships . . . And hearing mongers recite these things and actually take it in and understand it just makes me the happiest person. I love it.

It is this relational component of artisan cheese that drew Trent to the cheesemonger profession and that continues to bring him personal and professional satisfaction:

It makes me so happy that you’re not just saying ‘this tastes good,’ ‘this is salty,’ ‘this is mild,’ ‘this is creamy,’ ‘this is strong’ . . . You’re saying ‘Here’s this cheese, a washed rind cheese made by this person in this area, and here’s why this person’s making this cheese.’

Trent clearly feels that social context, including the intentions of the cheesemaker, is at least as important as more generic sensory descriptions in understanding and appreciating artisan cheese.

Weeks later, at the American Cheese Society conference, the cheese story was a common thread through the four educational panel sessions Rachel attended. Several retailers echoed Trent’s sentiment, perceiving the story to be an important part of their professional identity and responsibility. “Our job is to represent the intentions of cheesemakers,” said one panelist. Similarly, a regional specialty buyer from a national organic food supermarket chain suggested that cheese retail professionals have a “responsibility to the story,” just as they have a responsibility to the physical integrity of the cheese. A common way to frame these dual responsibilities was in terms of honor and respect for the cheesemaker and the cheesemaking process.

While this plainly suggests that understanding and communicating social context is critical from a cheesemonger’s perspective, a tension exists. This tension is evidenced by a comment from one of the more experienced cheesemongers at Formaggio, who cautioned against relying on the story such that the sensory modality is neglected: “Quality is number one,” she emphasized. “It comes down to taste.” You cannot consistently sell a product based on the story alone — especially at a full-service cheese shop like Formaggio, where tasting before buying is not only allowed but encouraged. Social context is crucial, but so is the sensory experience.

Even Trent, with his deep passion for the story, indicated a belief in a more objective, technical view of quality. Heralding one Vermont cheesemaker as making “some of the best cheese in the world,” Trent linked the concept of quality to taste and being well-made, and humbly suggested that his ability to discern such quality is related to experience: “I don’t have the full grasp on worldly cheeses but I have a pretty good idea of what tastes good, what’s well-made. I work with it all day long. His are on top.”

Indeed, artisan cheese professionals agree that there are objective standards of quality. The main event at the American Cheese Society annual conference is their influential and illustrious Judging & Competition, the goal of which is to “provide positive recognition to cheeses and dairy products which have achieved technical excellence and exhibit the highest aesthetic qualities. We recognize products for their achievements in flavor, aroma, texture, and appearance.” [xx] As the competition is essentially blind of any external information about the cheese, the story is not a consideration in the judges’ evaluation of its sensory quality.

But, in practice, the recipe for a well-liked, high quality cheese is not that simple. Whereas common discourse about taste and quality imply that the two are objective, physiological properties of the cheese, we must remember that our everyday sensory experience does not allow us to separate the intrinsic attributes arising from the food from the extrinsic attributes that arise from our knowledge of its social context – knowing where and how it was made. And, as mentioned previously, there is strong evidence that both types of attributes contribute to making an artisan cheese taste good. Unlike the judges in the competition, consumers need not – and should not – be blinded to this context.

And if the story is important, so are the people who tell it. Yet, at an American Cheese Society conference panel session entitled, Educating for Passion: Developing Cheesemongers for Life, the moderator began by identifying a problem: “There seems to be a prominent issue in the cheese world finding people who can really represent cheesemakers well and convey their story.” Similarly, while Trent strongly believes that retailers should “be associated with the cheese they are selling” and “know the cheese story,” he expressed doubt that this is commonplace:

That’s something that I wish and I hope that most stores will do, and I think we pride ourselves on that — telling the story behind the cheese — because it makes it more than just a product that you’re selling. It makes it a story for the customer who’s buying it. It makes it a story for employees to learn . . . It becomes history. It becomes, you know, cheese.

This notion that the story makes cheese “more than just a product that you’re selling” marks an important distinction from the marketing of traditional commodities. The purpose of telling the cheese story is not just to get people to buy it or to pay more for a value-added product. Rather, storytelling creates short food supply chains by making the cheese knowable to consumers far removed from the product’s origins:

[I]t is not the number of times a product is handled or the distance over which it is ultimately transported which is necessarily critical, but the fact that the product reaches the consumer embedded with information . . . The successful translation of this information allows products to be differentiated from more anonymous commodities. [xxi]

Consequently, in spatial proximity and spatially extended supply chains, stories create the social glue that is necessary for connecting people all along the supply chain who are committed to knowable food. In these systems retailers are not, as they are often portrayed, profit-driven middlemen but rather are complex actors motivated by a range of social, moral, and sensory values. In this way, the same values that make artisan cheese “good” for consumers to eat and for producers to make [xxii] should also make it “good” for cheesemongers to sell.

As the demand for “good food”  [xxiii] and desire for knowledge of food continues to increase, artisan producers around the world will be able to enter ever longer supply chains and more distant marketplaces and yet be asked to explain their stories. For producers in Vermont, their cheese is crucially of Vermont but also beyond Vermont, already traveling long distances from farm to table. The challenge for these producers will be to maintain a vibrant connection between taste and place, even for consumers they never meet.

Therefore, we must recognize that, while the producer does not need to be the one to tell the story, someone must—and who tells the story and how they tell it matters. Cheesemongers’ practice of conveying the cheese story through signage, recommendations, and cheese tastings effectively connects consumers to place and helps them to understand—and taste—the producer’s values and intentions. Social context may not trump a certain level of technical quality, but our experience demonstrates its importance for both consumers and cheesemongers in truly understanding and appreciating artisan cheese.

Parties annexes

Parties annexes