MICHELLE NOEL CHEESE PROFESSIONAL
Michelle Noel, staff member & cheese manager, is interviewed by staff member, Whitney Bard
Whitney Bard (WB): How long have you worked at the Co-op/been a manager of the cheese department?
Michele Noel (MN): As a staff member since 2001 and as an eastside cheese department manager since 2003.
WB: You just got this fancy certification from the American Cheese Society. American Cheese Society is a North American grassroots association of cheesemakers, dairy scientists and academics, distributors, cheese retailers, cheese enthusiasts and others that formed in the 1980’s to provide educational resources, peer review and networking opportunities. American Cheese Society hosts an annual conference, judging and competition and prestigious awards ceremony for the cheesemakers. They also function as an advocacy organization, a unified voice for artisan cheesemakers concerns, who interface with the FDA, representing the cheese industry by developing and promoting best practices, quality and food safety standards and sustainability. They aim to ensure that the legislation and policies the FDA creates around cheese is science based. Congratulations on your cheese certification. Can you explain to us what it is?
MN: Yes! As of October, 2016, I am an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional or ACS CCP. Being certified means a person has a thorough understanding of the cheese industry and could work in any area of it, from cheesemaking, to importing and distribution, to retail. CCPs commit to continually learning about cheese, growing professionally, and maintaining the high standards developed by the American Cheese Society in our work.
I obtained this certification through passing a rigorous exam, for which applicants must first meet certain qualifications. To be selected to take the exam, one has to have at least 4000 hours in the last six years of hands-on experience working with cheese and participating in educational opportunities. I have, together with my co-managers, shepherded the cheese department’s growth over the last 14 years, and it is now my full-time work at the Co-op, so it was easy to meet the hours requirement. I have also participated in numerous classes, conferences and cheese festivals over the years, which helped me to qualify.
WB: Why did you want to obtain the certification?
MN: I want to make sure that I have a solid foundation in cheese knowledge and that I am providing accurate information about cheese for our membership, caring for the cheeses in our store appropriately and representing the cheesemakers in the best way that I can. I want to better be of service to our Co-op community. This was a way to reflect on the knowledge and skills I have gained over the years and to challenge myself professionally.
Part of why the certification exists is to help make cheese mongering a viable and respectable career option, not just a job title that in¬spires giggles (but I do encourage the giggling, too). This certification helps retain advocates for artisanal cheese who have accumulated knowledge and skill which in turn, supports sustainable agricultural and dairy farming practices, traditional small scale cheesemaking, healthier local economies and food systems and biodiversity.
WB: How long did you study for it?
MN: Well, basically since 2003, when I started working with cheese at the Co-op, eating as many that were new to me as I could find, and devouring books, magazines and videos about it regularly. I began to study in a focused way specifically for the exam in February, 2016, when my application to take the exam was accepted and I continued up to the end of July when I took the exam at the American Cheese Society Conference, which was held in Des Moines, IA last summer.
WB: How many people have the certification in the state?
MN: There are 740 in the world who hold the certification so far. In the Olympia area, I am the only Certified Cheese Professional, but in Washington State we actually have a high number (42) proportionally compared to other states; in the Seattle area there are about 30 Certified Cheese Professionals. In the United States, there are only three entry points for imported cheese (where cheese comes in and is inspected and approved throughout the country). The Port of Seattle is one such entry point and distribution hub, and because of this, there are several cheese distributers and many places to buy a wide variety of cheese in the Seattle area. We also have a lot of lush land for dairy producing animals, and a community of artisan cheesemakers that has been growing very rapidly over the last decade or so. This climate creates a demand for many workers with a high level of knowledge and skill. This is my guess at why we have so many CCPs in Western Washington.
WB: How has obtaining the CCP changed your career?
MN: So far it has mainly changed my level of joy and confidence while helping Co-op members at the cheese case. Through my studies and week at the ACS conference, I have met new friends and mentors around the country who share my nerdiness and passion for cheese. I’ve had the opportunity to share some things I’ve learned with newer cheesemakers, which felt so cool. It has helped me feel more useful in the world.
Studying for the exam entailed attending classes on dairy animals and farming practices, cheesemaking and cheese science, food safety and best practices, marketing, nutrition, federal regulation and more. On the final day before the exam, there was an all day class taught by cheesemakers who came from all over the country to help us. These were people for whom I have a tremendous amount of reverence, I’ve been reading about them and working with their cheeses for years. These farmers and cheesemakers put such labor and care into every aspect of their craft. The general vibe of this community is incredible humble and inclusive but at the same time deeply passionate; it was kind of an emotional experience to meet these people in person. Then, incredibly, they expressed gratitude to all of us about to take the exam for our effort and dedication to being their advocates and supporting their lives’ work. It was a tremendous honor to be thanked by our cheese heroes!
WB: How has the cheese market changed?
MN: I have seen Co-op members become more adventurous with their tastes. We used to only be able to sell cheese from larger producers (because the economy of scale makes them cheaper), mainly cow’s milk cheese and mostly the most common types. Folks are now becoming more used to the idea of seasonality, of cheeses wrapped in leaves, of wrinkly, stinky, or moldy cheeses made from milk from a variety of animals, as well as the staple cheeses they grew up eating. People seem to value cheese more. I notice an increased acceptance of higher prices on the cheeses that are made by hand, on a small scale, using the best agricultural practices. People seem to better understand the amount of work involved and the expense of the quality milk that is required to make non-commodity cheese. The low-fat craze seems to be a bit less ubiquitous and cheese slowly is reclaiming its role as a nutritious everyday food in American rather than something “fancy” for a party.
WB: What was your relationship to cheese growing up? Tell us your favorite childhood cheese memory, what role has cheese played in your life?
MN: I’ve always been a fiend for dairy! The very first time I remember getting in trouble, I was three years old. When my Mom was asleep I pulled a chair up to the kitchen counter. She was alarmed to find me well into a cube of butter when she woke up! The cheese that I ate growing up was shelf stable parmesan from a can, velveeta – an exciting treat was cheese whiz, or jarred, shelf stable cheese spread with bacon bits in it; essentially, I mostly remember eating processed cheese. That’s what was affordable and common in the stores we shopped in when I was a kid, and that’s what cheese was to me. I loved it. My favorite meal growing up was macaroni and cheese, and it basically still is!
WB: Do you remember the first time you realized you loved cheese? What cheese was it, or what were the circumstances?
MN: My magic “Aha!” moment where I knew I wanted to learn every¬thing I could about cheese was at my first trade show. It was all amazing; there was more cheese than I had ever seen. I saw a glass case of soft French cheeses with multi-colored molds, inches tall, growing out of them! But there was one booth that had a particular draw: it was the Fine Cheese Company from Bath, England. The woman had a bunch of traditional English cheeses beautifully displayed on shelves behind her. She gave me samples of each one and told me about them with her British accent. There was one fantastic hard sheep’s milk cheese, called Berkswell, that looked like a UFO because it’s formed in a colander. It was the first time I had seen a whole cheese with a natural rind that came from overseas…the rind was very rustic looking, and it was delicious but I was mostly struck feeling a deep sense of the place from where it had come. I understood in that moment that that cheese is sacred in that it represents the land, the animals, the people … cheesemaking is some kind of alchemy where milk draws together place, culture, history and craft into this magical, wonderful nutrient dense food. I went back to that booth so many times over the course of the day to awkwardly stare and ask lots of silly questions. Berkswell and a couple others from that booth were some of the first cheeses I brought into the department.
WB: How did you think, feel about cheese when you began working in the cheese department, and how do you think, feel about it now?
MN: When I first began, I found it endlessly fascinating! I had an insatiable desire to explore, a reverence for it and a passion to learn everything I could. I started devouring books about cheese and eating whatever new cheeses I could get my hands on. I feel the same way now, after fourteen years … you could spend lifetimes learning about cheese and there will always be more to learn and experience.
WB: Our cheese department is very carefully curated. Can you tell us a little bit about how you and your co managers go about finding, testing, selecting the cheeses we sell?
MN: I’m constantly reading about cheese! I have two shelves full of cheese books at my house, I have a subscription to Culture Magazine—essential reading for anyone who wants to learn about cheese. Whenever I travel, I visit other co-ops, farmers markets or small cheese and specialty food shops in search of cheeses I’ve never tried. My co–managers and I attend trade shows for each of our distributors where we meet cheesemakers and vendors and try samples for our consideration. Another important way we learn of new cheeses is at the Washington Artisan Cheesemaker’s Festival—which is an annual event in Seattle, open to the public. There are a lot of delicious cheeses represented… new cheesemakers show up to that event and it’s a great place to get to know about new creameries that are popping up throughout the state. Also, we love it when cheesemakers stop in to the stores to introduce themselves and give us samples of what they are making. We read and taste as much as we can in order to stay current with what is happening in the cheese world and to build and maintain a foundation in the centuries old of cheeses of Europe, so that is reflected in our cheese case.
WB: What makes our cheese department exciting?
MN: We have an emphasis on bringing in and highlighting a lot of local producers and have for many years. This is something that can be said of any reputable cheese store. It’s something you’re finding more and more in mainstream stores but is something that has been a part of the Co-op’s values since the beginning. I’m proud that we have an organizational policy that instructs us to use a very low mark-up on all products purchased directly from the producer and that come from one of the surrounding counties. Making cheese by hand, on a small scale, using the highest quality milk from healthy, well cared for animals is expensive, unfortunately, so I’m grateful that we attempt to make these cheeses more financially accessible.
I feel excited about and hear excitement from shoppers about our continually rotating selection of cheeses, in addition to our staple items. There are thousands of cheeses being made around the world. It’s exciting to think about where each precious cheese came from, who made it, how it was made, the history behind it and to taste of all the flavors of a given ecosystem. There’s a French term ‘terroir,’ which describes the unique qualities of the land, the water, the plants, the weather, the animal species and even breed, the distinct micro¬biology of the region, and how these elements culminate in the taste of the cheese. We get to experience in a small way many parts of the world when we try new cheese. We get to have a connection with traditions, people and places we may never get to visit in person via our senses and a visit to our Co-op cheese department!
WB: If you could only eat one cheese for the rest of your life, which would it be?
MN: It would be Parmigiano Reggiano, the real deal Italian parmesan, AKA “the King of Cheeses”, because I can’t imagine life without pasta and alfredo sauce! Also, it’s a very hard aged cheese, containing very little moisture, so it is nutritionally very dense and a little goes a long way. It keeps well without refrigeration so it’s great for camping or power outages. It’s my number one staple at home. (By the way, our regular price on this cheese is astonishingly low!)
WB: Tell us about cheese rinds! Can you eat them?
MN: Some rinds are artificial, such as wax or plastic, and you don’t want to eat those. Hopefully, inedible rinds will be obvious when you see them. Natural rinds are edible. The natural rind is like the skin of the cheese; it forms naturally and protects the cheese. It is made of the aged cheese curd, molds, bacteria and yeasts. Whether or not to eat the rind is a matter of personal preference. Someone might enjoy eating the rind of one cheese and not another, but they are all safe to eat. I tend to like all the bloomy rinds, which are the whitish ones on soft-ripened cheeses like Brie or Ancient Heritage’s “Valentine” (a soft-ripened cheese from Oregon made of sheep’s milk). There are occasionally rinds I personally find too gritty, but in general I like the variety of texture that they add. The flavor is usually more concentrated close to the rind. Just give it a nibble! Taste the paste and the rind together. Taste the parts separately. Experiment and see what you like.
WB: I learn so much from you when we work together, like that cheese tastes best at room temperature! Tell us why that is.. any other cheese secrets? Strange but delicious combinations?
MN: Any authoritative resource will tell you to serve cheese at room temperature. I don’t have a scientific explanation of why the cheese tastes better when you do. The best answer I could find was from the book The Science of Cheese, by Michael Tunick. “Many volatile compounds responsible for flavor are not detectable under refrigeration.” I do know from experience that the flavors, aromas and texture are best once the cheese comes to room temperature. The flavors open up, the aromas waft and the cheese becomes more supple or oozy, as the case may be. When serving cheese, it should be taken out of refrigeration for thirty minutes to one hour before eating. Only take out as much as you think you will eat in one setting. Leave it wrapped until just before serving to keep it from drying out. Go ahead, try it cold and then try it again in an hour. You’ll be amazed by the transformation!
One of my favorite snacks is Jalisco corn chips dipped in Organic Valley cottage cheese. Is that really so strange, Whitney? I once at¬tended a tasting where they paired nori and fresh chevre. Weirdly, that worked but I gravitate toward less unusual combinations.
I’m enamored with pairing honey and cheese. They work so well together, both being a similar kind of alchemy of plants and land by bee or ruminant. Both cheese and honey can have such unique colors, flavors, textures, based on what plants were in bloom at the time they were made. They both embody a place and a season.
I love a wonderful semi-soft Greek sheep’s milk whey cheese that we carry, called Manouri, paired with Spanish orange blossom honey and toasted walnuts. Another nice pairing is local blackberry honey with Black Sheep Creamery’s Fresh Cheese with Rosemary on a rice cracker but you can’t have it any old time. The local fresh cheese is only available in late spring through the summer. People can be intimidated by cheese but it’s really just a simple subsistence food, just preserved milk. Everyone has a unique palate, so I encourage people to try out different pairing combinations or just keep it simple with a well-made cheese and some crusty locally baked bread.
WB: What would you tell someone who hadn’t explored the world of our cheese department … where should they start?
I would say, use your gut! What are you drawn to? What looks beautiful to you? I would also suggest that people start with our Local section or cheeses that have the green Buy Local sticker on the shelf tag. Also, look for the name–protected European cheeses. These are the traditional ones that have stood the test of time. Most have been around for hundreds of years, are made in a very particular way using heritage animal breeds and come only from a very particular region, for instance, Gruyère AOP from Switzerland, Roquefort AOC from France or Parmigiano Reggiano DOP from Italy. You can identify a name-protected cheese by looking for the letter designations PDO (or DOP), AOC or AOP after the cheese name. We love to tell you about what our current favorites are and make recommendations, so don’t be afraid to ask!
By Whitney Bard, staff member