Three Cheers for Cheese

By Kelly Visser, Iowa Food & Family Project

On a cold January afternoon, a steady flow of patrons step inside The Cheese Shop to explore and indulge in a variety of specialty cheeses. The cheery cheesemonger, a term for a cheese seller, stands behind the counter dressed in a navy pinstripe apron, eager to describe in detail a cheese of interest and lend pairing advice.

Located in Des Moines, The Cheese Shop proudly offers more than 100 artisan and farmhouse cheeses. Founded in 2011 by C.J. and Kari Bienert, the shop is committed to developing relationships with its producers and inspiring an appreciation for high-quality cheese.

Prior to opening the shop, C.J. Bienert, a Newton, Iowa native, took a trip across the U.S. to gain perspective on cheese production from dairy to retail. During this journey, he gained a deep appreciation for cheese makers and wholesome, transparent production practices.

"Cheese making is hard work. Building relationships with the men and women who make cheese every day brings you a new respect for their products and gives us a pride in showcasing the work they do," said Vanden Berge.

Today, The Cheese Shop partners with producers around the world but also values working with cheesemakers close to home, including Milton Creamery (Milton, Iowa) which is known for its well-aged white cheddar, Prairie Breeze™ - a customer favorite.

"At the end of the day, it's all about taste," said Vanden Berge. "That's what keeps our customers coming back for more."

Consumer Cravings

In recent years, Vanden Berge has noticed consumers are more interested in artisan cheese than ever before. Beyond the four walls of The Cheese Shop, Iowans are flocking to Cheese Bar, the shop's recently opened restaurant in Des Moines, as well as cheese counters in Hy-Vee stores statewide and Gateway Market in Des Moines to satisfy their cheesiest of cravings.

"We believe a rising tide lifts all boats, and have enjoyed seeing consumers become more educated and interested in cheese before they come in the door," said Vanden Berge.

To support the growing appreciation for their products, The Cheese Shop frequently organizes Monday night classes, allowing cheese lovers to dive into a variety of topics - from 'Cheese 101' to wine parings - alongside the shop's experts and cheese producers. Classes are limited to 25 participants per session, and prices vary between $35 and $65. Click here to find upcoming classes.

Beyond the Big Cheese

As the shop's name implies, cheese is the star of the show, but it also sells meats, wine, beer and chocolates to compliment the wide variety of cheese offerings.

"Our mantra is that we sell cheese, and everything to go with cheese," said Vanden Berge.

The shop sources "everything to go with cheese" with the same priorities as the cheese itself. They choose to work with producers around the state, nation and world who demonstrate a love for their craft and are committed to responsible production processes.

One key producer The Cheese Shop works with is La Quercia, a producer of artisan cured meats in Norwalk, Iowa.

"We are incredibly fortunate La Quercia is just down the road," said Vanden Berge. "It has allowed us to build a special relationship with the owners. In fact, they're in the shop once a week, at least."

BYOCB - Build Your Own Charcuterie Board

Novice board builders should take creative freedom when building a charcuterie board. There's no right or wrong pairing, and should be based on personal preference.

Vanden Berge suggests hitting a few different styles of cheese on one plate. This can be accomplished by blending milk types (sheep, cow or goat) and textures (surface ripened, hard or bleu) to create a nice balance and variation across the plate.

Beyond cheese selections, he suggests pulling together a mix of cured whole muscle meat, like prosciutto, cured salami and cooked salami. Accoutrements can add an extra pop of flavor and texture to a board. Some standard accoutrements options include bread, crackers, pickles, pickled fruits, dried fruits, toasted nuts, compotes or mustards.

To learn more about cheese and Iowa's dairy producers, stop into The Cheese Shop or visit Iowa Food & Family partner websites AE Dairy and Midwest Dairy Association.