By JIM WILLIS
When Caitlin O’Neill, cheesemonger at Sickles Market in Little Silver, tells PieHole that cheese consumption and cheese buying is not as cultivated in our country as it is in European countries, we’re not surprised.
Our national cheese — the rubbery Day-Glo orange square that serves as the perfect creamy foil to the tang of a few slices of pork roll — undeniably lacks the character and terroir of a nice sheep’s milk cheese from Spain.
O’Neill wants to help her customers understand what they might be missing out on.
She tells PieHole she wants consumers to be aware of the experience and tradition behind what they’re eating, and to teach them the vocabulary they need to discuss cheese in the way that they would discuss, say, an article they read in the morning
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And while she’s happy to impart that knowledge from behind the cheese counter at Sickles, she knows that her customers have limited time.
“You may have your kids with you, or you’re on your way home from work and just want to make dinner. You don’t necessarily have the time to invest in learning these things at the counter,” says O’Neill.
So a few months ago, she proposed cheese classes at Sickles Market. The idea was well received, and the series of courses is now underway.
The classes are casual, and will help cultivate better informed cheese buyers, she says.
“We want you to be able to go out and enjoy cheese wherever you are,” says O’Neill. “If you’re out somewhere up in the city, you should be able to knowledgeably buy cheese up there.”
O’Neill says students will sit around a table set for dinner with friends and sample multiple cheese pairings in each class.
“It’s more of a conversation about what you’re enjoying,” she says. “By gaining the vocabulary, you’re able to take the conversation further.”
O’Neill says that, as with wine, understanding the traditions behind different cheeses and having a vocabulary to discuss them can add depth and meaning to the experience. But she adds that bringing the experience of cheese into your daily food ritual is easier and more affordable than wine.
“In most cases, you’re not going to be able to try a wine before you buy it,” says O’Neill. “With cheese you should always be able to taste everything before you buy it, and you should also be able to buy just the portion that you want at any point in time.”
She adds that “people don’t always realize that if you’re looking at a $35-a-pound cheese, it’s still not inaccessible to you because you can buy a $2 piece that you can still enjoy it.”
Two more classes are currently scheduled, one February 27 and one March 27. The classes take place in the Sickles Market greenhouse from 6:30 to 8 p.m. and are $30 per-person or $50 per-couple. You can reserve a space by calling Sickles at 732-741-9563.
O’Neill says that given the demand, Sickles will continue to offer the classes throughout 2014.