cutting the cheese

This is a post about fairness and cheese. When I lived in a single room someplace north of Haarlem (Holland), one day a French fellow student called me asking whether he could come by with a few Friends who wanted to see my harpsichord. I had been to Paris and gone to see people’s harpsichords myself, so I was familiar with the true objective of these visits: wine, bread and cheese consumption. I told my friend to come, went out in a hurry and stocked up on goods. It was a close call at that: Dutch supermarket baguette at that time was pretty embarrassing, the cheeses I found in the delicatessen shop were great, but too cold, and the wine shop was just about to close when I arrived.

Eventually, two carloads of people arrived, and soon my place was overflowing with assiduously discussing and munching musicians, who did not mind me and my slow French too much, but seemed to enjoy the cheese and wine reasonably well. Unlike Bilbo, who had to run about serving the dwarves, I could relax and observe. One of the things I learned on that evening was how to properly cut up a commonly shared chunk of cheese.

The main, and only, rule is this: You do not impose unreasonable large bits of crust on your followers. Even the first cutter will make sure to receive a reasonable share of the back of the cheese, no matter whether soft or hard, and whether the outer layer is edible or not. At a true and polite cheese party, there will be no leftover Brie backs, shaped like a Giant’s fingernail cuttings. Nor will there be any hazardous chef-knife de-crusting administrations to an overbalancing last bit of resilient old Gouda, performed at the edge of a wobbly table after the third glass of wine. After my company left – and that is the whole point – I had a pretty satisfactory little cheese leftover party on my own.

Cheese-mongers ought to have something of the same spirit. In Holland, cheese selling is a craft. The cheese-seller surrounds himself with an air of justice while, at the same time, always trying to sell a few extra grams of crust. The cheese-buyer knows that it is socially accepted to discuss crust surface, so it depends on the latter’s geometrical savviness whether he leaves the shop defeated by a few crust milligrams or not. In Germany, pretty much the same rules apply, but you are allowed to get grumpy at each other. Swedish cheese dealings don’t depend on crust haggling; it is not polite to do so. Often, especially with the better kinds of hard cheese (both harder and more expensive), the shape of the piece you get depends on the ability of the person at the counter to cut through a given piece of cheese at all. Thus I can end up with a luxurious bit from the tip of a wedge of Parmiggiano Reggiano with almost no crust at all. The last customer, on the other hand, will get two faces of crust with pretty much nothing in between for the same price.

The cheese-counter-hard-cheese-crust-dilemma is largely a matter of equipment and training. There is usually only one kind of cheese-cutter available at Swedish cheese counters. This is the standard half-meter-wide bent blade with a handle at each side, perfectly shaped for cutting any large cheese that has some softness to it. Now, Parmiggiano isn’t soft, and it usually seems to come in 1/8ths or 1/16ths of a whole wheel to the Swedish retailers. Trying to cut through such a piece is more likely going to break ones back than to divide the cheese. When considering Parmiggiano or really old Dutch Gouda, it really ought to be the cheese you want to break. I tried to explain the mechanics of Italian cheese daggers that are used to pierce the crust and to wedge apart Parmiggiano to the ladies at the cheese counter of my shop. A pair of these specialty knives would save them a ton of effort. They listened politely, but still: every time I order a bit of Parmiggiano, someone is slaving and sweating with the big knife, defiantly facing the risk of cut-off fingers or a large blade slipping apronwards and afterwards excusing herself for the fact that the cheese crumbled into small bits.

Parmiggiano doesn’t last long in our kitchen. The crumbs actually go rather well together with a sip of the cooking wine, so I say that they don’t matter in the least. In turn, I will be able to bargain for a softer price next time I get the crusty last piece.


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