This is part of a series introducing the Cheeselandia Council, brought to you by Wisconsin Cheese.
Good cheesemongers love one thing as much as cheese: people. Born in La Crosse and raised on a farm in Mauston, Wisconsin, Kowalski’s Cheese Specialist Liz Nerud grew up with a keen understanding of the connectivity between people and the food they eat.
Liz curates a collection of specialty products and shares her love of cheese with customers at the Kowalski’s Woodbury Market. There, one of the most special things in the Specialty Cheese Department isn’t inside the case. Hanging on the wall just over Liz’s shoulder is some pretty impressive paperwork: a certificate from the American Cheese Society proclaiming Liz as one of a rare few ACS Certified Cheese Professionals.
Liz has been a cheesemonger for 20 years, has competed in and judged the Cheesemonger Invitational, and judged at the ACS Conference in 2016. She teaches, consults, writes the occasional article, and stars as "Liz the Cheese Lady" in Kowalski's ongoing series "The Monger Minute.”
Her extraordinary credentials are evidence of Liz’s true passion for quality cheese and her commitment to serving her customers. With the holiday season in full swing, we caught up with Liz (who is also a Cheeselandia Council Member) to get some valuable insights on how to shop for cheeses and build a perfect cheese board.
HRN: How did you become involved in Cheeselandia?
Liz Nerud: I received an invitation to join the Cheeselandia Council about a year ago. I was delighted to accept! I was born and raised in Wisconsin, and it is forever beloved to me. Over the course of my cheese career I had sought out opportunities to visit Wisconsin and visit cheesemakers. If there was a chance to be the ambassador for these people and their beautiful cheeses, I was all for it! I feel that living next door to Wisconsin (I currently am in Minnesota) is like living next door to the Loire Valley. It’s such a unique concentration of culture and heritage. Being on the Council has given me the chance to do further study, to write and speak and participate in the promotion of Wisconsin cheese!
HRN: You are an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional. What steps did you take and knowledge did you gain in order to earn that certification?
LN: I became an ACS CCP in 2013, the second year the ACS conducted the exam. The purpose of the certification is like that of certification in any field, it denotes a thorough knowledge of the field and elevates the expertise of the profession. The ACS has requirements you must meet before you qualify to take the exam. It was good that I had the four thousand hours of experience in the field because that practical experience was essential as I hauled out the library to study. My work as a cheesemonger gave context to the story of the cheese, whether I was concentrating on the science, the history the service or nutrition of the cheese. Paul Kindstedt’s books as well as Max Mccalman’s Mastering Cheese were my main textbooks. Being able to relate the information I was reading to the piece of cheese I held in my hand was crucial. Having participated in a question developing workshop in SF this past January I have a real appreciation for the integrity of this exam.
I always say that I feel like the ACS CCP Certificate is like a marriage license. It take a really awesome relationship to the next level, with all the benefits and responsibilities attached to that piece of paper. It has been a joy to continually learn and teach.
HRN: What are some of the most frequent questions you get from shoppers at Kowalski’s cheese counter?
LN: Can I be really honest here? The most frequent response I get when I greet a customer and ask how I may help is “I’m just browsing.” And you know what? 98% of the time that customer is not “just browsing”, they actually do not know what to ask to get the conversation rolling. Is this a Minnesota thing? I don’t know, but I do know that follow up questions are in order, and I have to tease it out of them what they have in mind so that I can guide them through the case and connect them with the perfect cheese for their purpose. It's a little ritual we do before we can get to the heart of the matter. The whole point of mongering is to be the friendly expert that puts people at ease and make them feel happy that they visited the counter that day.
Once that conversation does start though, people LOVE to talk about pairings. What cracker works, and why? What’s a great condiment? I like to supply little bite-size educational notes on what makes a good pairing from a sensory perspective. Never too heavy, but enough to spark enthusiasm for exploration. Teaching vocabulary for describing flavors, aromas and textures makes the cheese come alive! This is especially crucial in these days of no sampling.
People are really interested in putting together cheese boards. They love to learn about different ways to cut cheeses and how to lay them out on the board for presentation. A great mantra is to think outside the cube! I demonstrate the cut with the cheese in my hand so they get an idea of their possibilities. Visual aids for the win! Again, descriptive language as we walk through the creation of the tray helps make the process come alive in their minds, helps paint the picture of their masterpiece. Cheese boards are such a sumptuous and special way of enjoying food. It’s playful, accessible, and luxurious all at the same time.
Now if only I could get people to stop referring to them as charcuterie.
HRN: What are some tips or tricks you can share to people shopping for cheeses, especially if they’re shopping somewhere that doesn’t have a cheesemonger available to help?
LN: Try to remember to take a picture on your phone of cheeses you enjoy! So often we play “Name that Cheese” which is actually kind of fun. I can usually name it in less than 3 guesses. But if there is no monger, that phone trick will go a long way!
Google is your friend! Do a little research on something that looks intriguing.
Be always on the lookout for quality. Try to pay attention so that you know the standard appearance of quality cheese. Does the cheese look bleached out or otherwise discolored? Is that brie fluffy white or mottled brown? Unfortunately we can never assume that the case is being properly looked after, and staleness or over-ripeness can be real issues.
HRN: What are some of your favorite rare Wisconsin cheeses, and what’s your advice for cheese lovers trying to seek them out?
LN: The funnest place to acquire rare and special Wisconsin cheeses are at a cheese counter that has a skilled monger in the house that can tell you the history of the cheese and maybe a personal anecdote of the people who made them. Buying from someone who has met the maker and visited the cheese factory guarantee an added layer of connection and interest to the cheese and makes eating it so much more gratifying. Telling the story is the passion of the monger.
FUNNER STILL: go there yourself! Take a trip to Wisconsin and trek the Wisconsin Cheese Trail, sampling and soaking in the atmosphere of a gorgeous state that is so proud of their products!
Visit Marieke Gouda in Thorpe Wisconsin for a glimpse into the inner workings of an award-winning creamery. You can see the barns and the milking parlors, the creamery itself and the aging rooms. You can’t beat a visit to Fromagination, one of the most beautiful shops I have ever been in, cheese related or anything else. Ken Monteleone has curated a collection of the finest of Wisconsin cheeses and the accompaniments that love them, plus gorgeous vessels to serve them in. They ship to a limited area.
Wisconsin is rightfully proud of its tremendous output of readily available cheeses that can be found in any dairy case. Joyfully, there are a number of other more unusual cheeses that have gained in popularity over the past few years.
I love Dunbarton Blue, a dense and flavorful cheddar-blue hybrid from Chris Roelli in Schullsburg. Red Barn Family Farms are certified humane and their cheeses are outstanding! Check out Cupola and their Heritage Weis 3 Year Old Cheddar. Joe Widmer makes Brick cheeses, both aged and young. They are washed rind cheeses with varying degrees of funk. True Wisconsin classics! Hook’s 20 year old cheddar is the rarest of the rarest, I have only sampled it once. It was sublime, still lively and bright after all that time. Rumor has it that Carr Valley is aging out a 25 year cheddar—be still my heart! Speaking of Carr Valley, their cheese curds are the best I’ve ever had, and the Penta Crème Blue is the smooth and sexy blue velvet experience. I mentioned Marieke’s goudas above. Crafted from raw milk, they are award-winning and phenomenal, with some stunning flavored varieties and well as straight up. For sheep’s milk, Landmark Creamery’s Anabasque is just stunning, boasting rich sheep milk flavor.