Local cheesemonger Benjamin Roberts is raising money for a cheesemonger education fund this weekend at the two cheese shops he runs -- France 44 in Minneapolis and St. Paul Cheese Shop in St. Paul. A portion of the proceeds will go for a cheese scholarship in honor of the woman he describes as his "cheese mentor." Benjamin Roberts spoke with MPR's Tom Crann.
Tom Crann: You are officially a cheesemonger. Tell us about this profession that many might have thought might have been nearly extinct a number of years ago.
Benjamin Roberts: My business card does, in fact, say, "Cheesemonger in Chief," so that is my title. We are a group out there that is gaining in popularity in the last five to 10 years, kind of a renaissance of experts who can help guide your cheese selection.
Crann: This scholarship fund is in memory of your mentor, Daphne Zepos. Tell us a little about her.
Roberts: Daphne worked in the cheese business for over 30 years. She started her career as a cheesemonger at Artisanal Cheese in New York City, and she founded her own import company called Essex Street Cheese. And the final thing that she was doing before she passed away was she was running the Cheese School of San Francisco out in California.
Crann: Now this weekend, all of the cheese sold, a portion will go to a scholarship fund in Daphne's honor. Tell us about a cheese scholarship. How does it work? What does it pay for?
Roberts: I was able to travel through Switzerland and France and Holland with her. And, as you can imagine, that was quite an expensive trip, to travel and visit small producers through the countryside. And I would love for everybody to have that opportunity, everybody that's serious about doing this profession.
So the scholarship is for someone who's been in the cheese business for three years, and they can then apply and if they win, they will be given $5,000 for cheese education. So they can use that to travel to Europe, or travel domestically, take some time off and work with a cheese maker, just whatever it is to further their cheese knowledge.
Crann: How important is it to get that first-hand knowledge from someone who is an expert, the way you got it from Daphne, and also then the people that you were introduced to in Europe?
Roberts: It's an amazing experience. We went to tiny, tiny producers. We saw a producer in the Netherlands that had 40 cows on a tiny island. And to be able to talk to customers about why this cheese is special, and why they're taking such good care of their animals, and why they're taking such good care of their land, is invaluable.
And unless you go, and actually get your -- as we say in the business -- "get your hands in the vat" -- and really see what's going on there, you can't really speak intelligently about it.