You love cheese. You may even think you know a lot about cheese, but could you pass a 150-question, multiple-choice exam with questions like these:Which breeds of sheep are used for making Roncal cheese? What sound should a wheel of Emmentaler make when tapped?
Once a year, the American Cheese Society hosts a one-of-a-kind exam called the Certified Cheese Professional Exam where cheese lovers tackle similar questions. Think of it as the Master Sommelier exam, but instead of testing in-depth knowledge about cab franc and chardonnay, students cram on the finer details of raclette and Roquefort. Michelle Vieira, a cheesemonger at Whole Foods in Upper Arlington, recently passed this year’s CCP exam. Vieira, who has an art degree from Ohio State, has also gained a following on Instagram, where she writes mini-profiles of cheesemakers, expounds on different varieties of fromage and even shares her own delightful illustrations under the handle @ColumbusCurdNerd.
How did you first discover that cheesemongering could be a career?
I honestly stumbled into cheese as my career. It started as a summer job at my favorite Jewish deli, Katzinger's in German Village, which happened to have a spot behind their cheese counter. It wasn't until later, when I started finding other cheese people on Instagram—like Erika Kubick (@cheesesexdeath), a former monger that has turned into a full-time blogger, writer and preacher about cheese; or Tenaya Darlington (@mmefromage), another writer that I admire—that I realized I could make this a lifelong career. The thing about cheese is that it isn't a clear trajectory from point A to point B. There are lots of facets of the industry and that path is different for everyone, which I find beautiful.
What does your role entail at Whole Foods?
My current job title is the cheese buyer. What this means is that I am the person responsible for bringing the cheese in, creating a selection for the folks in Columbus and mentoring the other mongers behind the counter so we can be the best team we can be. I also just passed my Certified Cheese Professional exam, which means that I am also the resident expert in the store. If anyone has any challenging or academic kinds of questions—I'm your girl, I got you.
How long did you study for the CCP exam, and what was your study process like?
It's a comprehensive test that covers topics all across the industry, from selling cheese, distribution, making and aging cheese, as well as history and simple biology—you gotta know your ruminants! I've been preparing for this exam for the past year and a half. I started my blog, Columbus Curd Nerd, on Instagram to hold myself accountable to studying. Having to write every day meant I had to read and research every day, because I had to know what I'm talking about. I feel that having a long time preparing little by little helped me a lot for the exam because by the time I took the test, just about everything that was asked was something I'd encountered myself, read about, or written about on my blog. Whole Foods also has an amazing program and really invests in their team members taking the exam. They also have their own training program and a review day the day before the exam where we got to hear from industry professionals in all areas of the cheese industry. I also got to go to Vermont, visit makers, pet goats and eat a LOT of cheese.
Your Instagram account is a super interesting and a great resource for cheese lovers. What are some of the themes you’ve written about?
Thank you! So the way I structure Columbus Curd Nerd is I have different themes that I write about every month. A few past topics I've focused on are women cheesemakers during women's history month. The month I went to Vermont, I wrote all about Vermont cheeses. This past June, I wrote about California cheeses but also did portraits every week of LGBT+ cheese producers and how they've shaped the American cheese world. I'm excited for October, where I'm tying in cheese and Inktober, an October challenge in the illustrator world where you draw every day to prompts. As someone with an art degree, I'm pretty pumped about it.
What are some up-and-coming Ohio creameries to watch?
Two that I'm really a fan of and am excited to see how they grow are Black Radish Creamery and Urban Stead Cheese. Black Radish is based here in Central Ohio. You might have seen their cheese counter at the North Market. They're also developing cheeses over in Alexandria. They partner up with a local farm in Coshocton called Stone Wall Dairy. They're growing and definitely still developing their lineup, but what I've tried from them is definitely exciting. Their owner and head cheesemaker, John [Reese], also just passed the CCP exam too. Urban Stead, based in Cincinnati, is an urban creamery out of a reclaimed factory space. They have a tasting room in downtown Cincinnati where you can watch Scott, their owner and head cheesemaker, make their cheese. Their clothbound cheddar is stellar, and their quark is some of the best I've ever had. They make a pimiento cheese out of that quark, and it’s impossibly fluffy and perfect.
If someone is thinking about becoming a cheesemonger, what advice would you give them?
My biggest advice is to keep an open mind and be willing to learn. Working behind a counter is a HUGE learning curve, but it's a fun and rewarding challenge if you like to learn. It's both a physical and intellectual job. Wear supportive shoes and take care of yourself. A major monger milestone is breaking down a 90-plus-pound wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano (aka the OG Parmesan) and that takes time to get used to how heavy it is and how much you use your whole body breaking it down. But there's no greater satisfaction than sharing a fleck from a fresh cracked wheel with a customer and sharing that joy. I say if you're interested, life's short. Do it! It's a really fun and rewarding job. It's not all glamour, but it is worth it. Plus, the greater cheese community is a lovely group of nerds, you'll fit right in.
What are some great cheeses that you’ve recently discovered?
Oh man, there are so many. A few that I tried for the first time this year that blew my mind are Bossa from Green Dirt Farm Creamery in Missouri and Rocket's Robiola from Boxcarr Handmade Cheese in North Carolina. Bossa is a sheep's milk washed rind that's like custard on the inside. Lop the top off, dip a hunk of bread in there, and you'll get flavors of prosciutto and rich cream. It's insanely beautiful and nuanced on the inside, and the rind provides a welcome saltiness. I definitely ate an entire round of it by myself at one point studying for the CCP test. Another one I'm a huge fan of that I recently tried is Rocket's Robiola. It's a cow's milk soft cheese that's ashed on the outside. (It's kind of like a goth brie.) It's super creamy and gooey, but also has some mushroom and cream notes going on. That one is amazing with a drizzle of some Mike's Hot Honey, a sweet and spicy honey from New York City, though I'm pretty convinced that Mike's Hot Honey is good on every cheese.