Supermarkets aren't the best place to buy cheese. For many reasons, cheese requires more individualized attention than most supermarkets can afford. Some cheeses are quite fragile unless stored, handled and presented properly. Other cheeses suffer when the wheel is pre-cut and wrapped long before they're purchased. You will also fare better in a real cheese shop, where a knowledgeable cheese monger can help guide you through the sometimes overwhelming selection to a cheese that well suits your taste, or to the wines and foods you've chosen for your meal.
To this end, below are 10 things every cheese shop should have; if a cheese shop nails these, you're in good hands. What do you look for in a great cheese shop?
1. Tasting Is Not Only Allowed But Encouraged
Any cheese shop worth its salt will let you taste their cheeses (the exceptions being cheeses that are only sold whole). There are very few other kinds of food stores that are so generous with tasting, so you should definitely take advantage of it. Never heard of Ossau-Iraty? Ask for a taste! A good cheese shop will never give you a hard time if you ask to taste.
2. Cheeses Are (Almost) Never Pre-Cut
Good cheese shops will cut each portion of cheese to order. Cheese is a living organism but once a slice is cut from a wheel it no longer continues to age properly. There are some exceptions to this: hard cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano do okay when pre-cut, since most of their aging process has already taken place, and large pieces of small cheeses are usually okay too. But, in general, find a store that keeps most of their cheeses whole and cuts them for you when you order.
3. Cheeses Are Wrapped in Parchment or Waxed Paper
Plastic wrap isn't great for cheese: it retains too much moisture, doesn't allow for the transfer of air (in case you didn't know, cheese "breathes," due to ongoing bacterial activity), and can impart a plastic taste to the surface it touches. For this reason, try to find a place that wraps their cheeses in parchment paper, waxed paper, or two-ply cheese paper. Some places double wrap their cheese first in paper then in plastic wrap. That's an okay alternative, especially for moister cheeses where better water retention is desired.
4. Cheesemongers Are Long on Knowledge, Short on Attitude
Charles de Gaulle once said, "How can you govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?" With so many cheeses to choose from, it can be quite overwhelming to walk into a cheese store and figure out what you want. That's what the cheese monger is there for. You should ask questions like, "I know I like Gruyère; what other kinds of cheeses do you have that are like that?" Or, "What cheeses pair well with Vouvray?" Or, "What's the best way to store this cheese until tomorrow?" If a cheese monger looks puzzled by these questions, purchase at your own risk. That said, it is a pet peeve of mine when cheese mongers (or any food purveyors for that matter) take a holier than thou stance. Look for a shop where the staff is courteous and approachable rather than condescending.
5. Quality over Quantity
Lots of cheese shops like to try and impress with the sheer variety available. Murray's does this, but they do it really well. It is NOT an easy feat, and most places that try, fail. So in general, look for places that have a small selection of really good cheeses rather than a large selection of mediocre ones.
6. Clear Labels
A cheese shop that takes the time to carefully arrange and label their cheeses is likely giving the same amount of care to the cheeses themselves. Plus, sometimes it is just easier to read the labels than keep asking the cheesemonger how much each one costs, or where it's made. A label should tell you the name of the cheese, the price, the region and/or country of origin, the type of milk(s) it contains, and perhaps a little blurb about the cheese.
7. Cheeses Look Healthy
In general, cheeses should not have any major cracks or dents, their rinds should not have been removed, and their interiors should not be either too runny, too bulging, or too dry. If you get to taste them, they shouldn't be too young or too ripe. Cheeses that are too young taste mild and their texture isn't fully developed; cheeses that are too ripe can be bitter, ammoniated, or noxious. If a cheese makes you cringe, don't buy it (although some folks may think it's just perfect that way!).
This is not necessarily a requirement but it sure doesn't hurt. Most good cheese shops have lots of foods that go well with cheese including artisan bread, charcuterie, pickles and olives, jams and preserves, nuts, dried fruit, olive oil, vinegars, etc. Pick some great condiments and you'll have yourself an entire meal without having to cook. And we're not talking Stouffer's here either. (Some stores also sell books on cheese, which is a nice way to learn while you browse.)
9. Refrigeration for Some, Room Temperature for Others
In general, the softer, younger cheeses require refrigeration while the harder, older ones can stay at room temperature for extended periods of time. That said, if a cheese shop is really hot during the summer, and there are cheeses out in the room without refrigeration, steer clear. Depending on the variety, cheese does best at temperatures around 40-60ºF.
10. Competitive But Not Rock-Bottom Prices
Cheese is an expensive food, and well it should be. It takes more than a gallon of milk to make one pound of cheese. It is also expensive for a farmer to ensure that his herd is happy and healthy, two factors that contribute to great cheese. So if a shop carries cheese at prices that are too-good-to-be-true, it probably is. However, there are some great cheese shops that offer amazing product at very competitive prices. In New York City, one such example is the Ideal Cheese Shop in the East 50's. Their staff also happens to be very friendly and very knowledgeable, making it one of the great finds in the city.