Andrew's Cheese Shop owner Andrew Steiner is not one to be bashful with his opinions. If you mention you like a certain cheese that isn't tops on his list, be prepared for a raised eyebrow and the ensuing commentary. But that's also why he's a great cheesemonger. For starters, Steiner doesn't "give a shit" what kind of cheese you buy, or what sort of praise your friends bestowed upon that well-known California cow's milk cheesemaker -- as long as you like that cheese. "People come in here and say they only want to buy a California cheese, or that they only like certain cheeses," he says. "I really don't care where a cheese is from if it's an interesting cheese. We have a lot of California cheeses that people think are good, but really aren't as great as they think."
Which gets us to Steiner's second house rule: tasting. "A good cheese shop will let you taste anything, and you should," he says, adding that he has little patience for those customers who don't taste a cheese, then come back to complain they didn't like that cheese. But the issue that really lights a fire under Steiner's tongue is seasonality. "Cheese has seasons," he says. "People don't understand that they can't get a lot of good soft cheeses in February. You can't get persimmons, either, and you don't hear people complaining to the farmers." Turn the page for more from Steiner on why you won't find many stinking good soft cheeses this time of year.
Squid Ink: What do you mean when you say cheese is seasonal?
Andrew Steiner: Well, February or early March, especially for soft cheeses, is not a good time to find good cheese, unless you go with one of the big soft cheese producers that make their cheeses year round. But those don't have any interesting flavors.
SI: But we're talking about dairy. What's seasonal about cow or goat's milk?
AS: It's the grass. If the animal is grazing on fresh grass and herbs, early in the season, those are going to be the best cheeses. So if the animal was grazing in mid-April when the grass is perfect, then those soft cheeses are going to perfect in June. It's the earlier the better with grasses.
There are some exceptions in the world-class cheeses made exclusively from winter milk. The great Vacherin Mont d'Or, Forsterkase, Winnimere, Rush Creek, and a handful of others. But generally, by February, your soft cheeses aren't going to be any good because by the time those cheeses were made, there was no damn grass left. It's snowing outside. The animals are eating cooked grain, not grass anymore. I mean, what do people expect? Cheese is like any other seasonal product, but people don't understand that.
SI: Like the cycle of winemaking or making olive oil. You're going to only find new releases at a certain time of year, especially with soft cheese that have a shorter shelf life than hard cheeses.
AS: Yes. And that's the other thing. You don't expect a wine or persimmon to taste the same way twice, so why do people expect a certain cheese to? With small production stuff, there is always going to be seasonal variation, animal variation, and other things that affect the cheese. Sometimes I'll get customers who will come back and say a cheese wasn't as good as when they bought it before. I say, "Wait, it's not that it isn't good, it's just different." Just because you liked it last time doesn't mean you will like it this time.
SI: Much like wine from a particular producer from year to year.
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AS: Yes, a good cheese shop will let you taste anything. You should be tasting every time you come in because cheese is always different each time.
The other thing people don't understand is a small cheesemaker might literally be one person. I have this one cheesemaker, Soyoung [Scanlan] at Andante Dairy in Petaluma, and customers come in and want to know why there's no cheese. We have some of her soft cheeses, but not her hard ones. And I tell them that she's on vacation. And they say, "What?" I tell them she literally took a vacation. She's the only one who makes the cheese. But they don't understand that if you want quality, you have to wait for it.
SI: Like produce at the farmers market. It's not always in season, and you expect that.
AS: Yes, people have gotten used to that at the farmers market. People need to learn that cheese is the same, it really does have seasons. They'll come in and say they bought a cheese from somewhere else that they bought from me months ago, and they say the cheese wasn't as good. No shit! Don't look at me. It's February.