If you’ve ever walked into a cheesemonger’s shop, the experience can be overwhelming and intimidating. A good shop has a variety of styles many people have never heard of or seen, from all over the world, comprised of different sizes, colors, milk types and firmness. With the mystique of high culture that surrounds cheese, one might be hesitant to visit such a place for fear of committing a cheese faux pas—for example, asking for a sharp soft cheese. But every now and then you find a place that doesn’t mind breaking some of those rules.

“I don’t adhere to a lot of ‘dos and don’ts,’” says Marnie Clarke, co-owner of Cheese Cave in downtown Claremont, California. “Really the most important part of going to a cheese shop and buying cheese is eating cheese. It should be something that is enjoyable and tastes good and makes you happy.” That may seem like a simple idea, but it can be a profound comfort for the curious who may not know the difference between a Crottin de Chavignol and a Comté, or a Reblochon and a Robiola. The cheesemonger is there to help you figure out what you like and help you find something that fits your palate.

Although Marnie Clarke—with her sister and business partner Lydia—grew up in La Verne, Cheese Cave’s sixth year at 325 Yale makes sense. “Claremont was always the place that we went to if we were going out to dinner with our family or if we were back in town,” says Clarke. In the immediate downtown area, you’ll find eclectic shops like the Folk Music Center—now owned by musician Ben Harper, whose family raised him in the instrument store—and the famous Rhino Records. Downtown is within walking distance of the Claremont Colleges. It’s a perfect place for a family business. It’s a perfect place for artisan cheese.

“Initially we thought ‘only cheese’ but as we were getting serious, we decided we needed to do some meats,” says Clarke. “We couldn’t find good salumi anywhere with a natural casing, and all these ingredients we wanted to cook with we couldn’t find. When we found this space, it was so much bigger than what we originally thought we’d have.” As a result, the “cheese-only” concept expanded into charcuterie as well—along with some dry goods, books, cheese presentation utensils, and a small collection of beer and wine. In December of 2013, the sisters expanded again by adding a cheese shop in the ultra-hip Grand Central Market in the historic district of downtown Los Angeles, aptly named DTLA Cheese. Lydia Clarke runs that shop with business partner and chef Reed Herrick.

Marnie Clarke is more than a shop owner—she is an evangelist of cheese knowledge and somewhat of a rock star in the cheese world. She sits on the board of the California Artisan Cheese Guild, an organization whose website says its mission is to “celebrate the quality and diversity of artisan cheeses produced in California through partnerships, outreach and education.” At a recent visit to Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes, 440 miles away from Claremont, I found out that the cheesemonger helping me behind that counter, Cristy Caye, knew Marnie Clarke. Caye had been adjudicated by Clarke in the Cheesemonger Invitational Competition last January yes, such competitions exist.

I decided to get Clarke’s take on ways to eliminate the intimidation factor and common misconceptions customers might have when approaching the choices at the cheese counter. As it turns out, there isn’t too much to worry about.

1. The Cardinal Rule—
Strike up a conversation.

The underlying theme throughout our conversation was that to have a good experience at a cheesemonger’s shop, you have to communicate and ask questions.

“We’re always talking about all aspects of cheese,” says Clarke. “It’s different questions for everybody. We’re talking about flavor, but we’re also talking about stories of why this cheese was made in this region and—for example—why you would make a skim-milk cheese. It’s because you need to make butter. I’m always very curious about different cheeses. When you’re contemplating it and paying attention to it, you’ll experience the flavor more. Knowing all these things and contemplating what’s happening inside of the cheese, where it was made, who made it, and how long they’ve been making it makes you slow down to taste what the cheese is.”

When I visit, crew members like Jamil make the experience great—he is friendly and knowledgeable about the cheese, and nonjudgmental when I have a question that may or may not be a good one. “I feel extremely lucky and blessed that we’ve had such a great staff,” says Clarke. It takes us a long time to find somebody—I mean, the cheese can be learned, but you have to have somebody that is compatible with the crew, that has the right attitude and willingness to learn. We’re not a very big crew, and right now there are a few people in here, but when it’s empty, we’re still talking about cheese.”

2. Have a plan of attack
or a theme in mind.

“You can definitely walk in not knowing what kind of cheese you want, but it’s really helpful if there’s some sort of idea to have at least one thing in mind that you know you’ve liked in the past,” says Clarke. “Even if it’s just to say, ‘I really like sharp cheddars but I want to try something that’s not a cheddar: what do you have that I might like?’”

According to Clarke, it is difficult to find the right cheese if a customer says, “I like everything: pick one.” Clarke says, “If I pick something you don’t like, then both of us say, ‘Well, that didn’t work’ and it’s awkward.”

“You could pick a theme,” says Clarke. “Something like, ‘I really want to try something from Switzerland I’ve never had,’ or ‘I want to have something soft that’s domestic’—some way it can help the cheesemonger show you some really cool cheeses without having to randomly pick something. I think having a plan can enhance your experience with a cheesemonger because it’s our job to guide you to the right cheese for you.” Even if the shop doesn’t carry a cheese you’re thinking of, ask anyway. Clarke pointed out that cheesemongers have to know not only their inventory, but also have to be aware of “what cheese we don’t have so we have a good frame of reference when somebody asks for something.”

3. When discussing flavor,
try to use nouns and not marketing adjectives.

Describing the flavor profile of a cheese is necessary because at a shop like Cheese Cave that offers paste samples, you’re going to want to communicate what it is you like or don’t like about the taste or aroma of what you try. If you are worried that you might not have the same flavor vocabulary as the cheesemonger, you could be right. But don’t worry about that—create those descriptions as you go. “It’s more about connecting with the person you’re talking to. It’s making common language that you’re agreeing on,” says Clarke.

Clarke’s advice regarding flavor is to use nouns, “like saying ‘it tastes like pineapple,’ instead of saying ‘it tastes tropical.’ ‘Tropical’ could be interpreted as banana, guava or pineapple, but if you say, ‘this is pineapple,’ then I know what a pineapple tastes like, and I know it’s going to be quenching and tart and sweet at the same time. You have these taste memories that are associated with specific, tangible things.”

The words used to market cheeses can cause difficulty in communicating a specific flavor you like or dislike. “What does ‘tangy’ mean?” asks Clarke. “Or what does ‘sharp’ mean? That’s always really a hard one when people are saying, ‘Oh, I really like sharp cheeses,’ and then they ask me for something soft and sharp. To me, those don’t go hand in hand because in my head when I’m thinking ‘sharp,’ I’m thinking something that’s acidic and aged. So we have to have a conversation over the counter to make sure we’re talking about the same thing.”

4. Narrow your selection
and buy a reasonably-
sized sample.

Artisan cheese pricing is a study in sticker shock, especially if you’re used to paying five dollars a pound for grocery store cheddar. Artisan cheese is different—it’s often made in small batches and seasonal, soft European cheeses are flown by air freight, and the families that make many of these cheeses pay more for the raw materials that make their product. Some cheeses can run from $20-30 a pound—but don’t let that intimidate you. It is OK to ask for a smaller amount. But how much smaller?

“We typically do a quarter-pound minimum,” says Clarke. “There are always some exceptions to the rules, but a quarter pound is the best measurement because—on firm cheeses especially—it’s really difficult to cut something smaller.” It also comes down to the quality of the cheese—smaller pieces tend to dry out and won’t live up to the quality of that particular cheese. “With some of the smaller-format cheeses, it’s easier to cut something a little smaller,” says Clarke. “For a Camembert, we’ll sell a half or a whole, and I won’t do a quarter because then that last quarter ends up being wasted, and it’s not really honoring the cheese and the trouble that somebody went through to make that and get it to Claremont.” As a home cheesemaker, I have to agree that after weeks or months of care, it is disheartening to see my artisan cheese treated the same way we might treat something that’s mass-produced.

Clarke points out that it also shouldn’t be a priority to buy a bunch of cheese at one time. “There’s always space to eat more cheese,” she says. “I think it really makes for a better experience for everybody if it’s just a couple of cheeses because then you can really get to know that cheese and that flavor: you retain some of that taste memory so when you come back the next time, you might say, ‘hey, you recommended that Tarentaise Reserve Spring Brook Farm, Vermont, and I know it’s seasonal, and now it’s gone. What else would I like?’” So stick to a couple at a time unless there is a specific purpose for buying more, like entertaining guests.

As I get ready to leave the shop, I’m reminded of the communal atmosphere in Claremont’s downtown. A member of Ophelia’s Jump, the local theater company, comes in to buy some cheese and bread, and offers Clarke tickets for one of the two Shakespeare shows ‘in rep’ this summer. Cheese Cave has a special deal where you can phone in a box dinner to pick up before heading over to the Greek Theater at Pomona College. Over the course of our interview, she’s been on a first-name basis with many of the customers who visit the store.

Cheese Cave is set to expand again, not to add a restaurant or build a larger cheese counter, but to build an educational classroom in the adjacent suite where cheese and beverage classes can be held regularly. It’s a fitting and important piece for a business that already does so much to teach its customers.

Cheese Cave

325Yale

Claremont, CA 91711

909-625-7560

DTLA Cheese

317 S. Broadway Grand Central Market

Los Angeles, CA 90013

213-290-3060