Mariah Christensen has every cheese lover’s dream job — traveling, tasting and deciding which of the world’s cheddars, goudas and mozzarellas should be sold at Harmons Grocery Stores in Utah.
The 32-year-old specialty cheese buyer is good at it, too.
She recently was inducted into the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers, the French name for the International Cheese Guild. She’s only the second Utah resident to be accepted into the worldwide organization that promotes the art of cheese making and education.
At any one time, Harmons carries between 150 and 200 cheeses, with new and seasonal items rotated in regularly, said Christensen. In addition to being the “big cheese” and putting together the selection, Christensen leads the cheese monger certification program for all 18 Harmons stores, said co-owner Bob Harmon.
“When it comes to cheese, Mariah’s knowledge and excitement is contagious,” he said. “She is proud to share her knowledge with other Harmons cheese mongers and our customers.”
Utah cheese fans can take a cheese class from Christensen — and other Utah experts — during The Natural History Museum of Utah’s fifth annual Chocolate and Cheese Festival, Saturday and Sunday, March 24-25, at the Rio Tinto Center east of the University of Utah. (See box below for more details.)
In advance of the event, we asked Christensen how she got her start, her favorite cheese and how to go beyond orange cheddar. Her answers have been edited for space and clarity.
How does one become a specialty cheese buyer?
It’s not really something you think about in elementary school. I started working at Harmons 13 years ago, slicing meat and cheese at the deli service counter. Sometimes the cheese mongers would come over and ask for our help. That’s when I was introduced to cheeses I have never heard of before. I grew up on mild cheddar, mozzarella and Velveeta. The cheese program was growing so fast, and in 2007 I moved into the cheese department full time. Since then, I’ve tried to read all the cheese books and learn as much as I can and, of course, eat all the cheese.
What’s the best part about your job?
Discovering small farmers and cheese makers and introducing their cheese to customers. I go to shows six or eight times a year, mostly in New York and San Francisco, but I’ve also been to France. I try to see as much of what’s out there and select the best things for our stores. In addition to those educational trips, we take the cheese mongers to the American Cheese Society annual conference. We call it “cheese camp” and it’s all the people in the country who love cheese as much as we do.
What is your favorite cheese?
If I was stranded on a desert island and could only pick one, it would have to be Kaltbach Gruyère from Switzerland. I love Gruyère. It’s good with so many things. I love melted cheese, too, and Gruyère melts really well.
Is there a cheese you don’t like?
At one time I didn’t like blue cheese at all. Isn’t that crazy? But I thought I didn’t like it because I didn’t like the bottled blue cheese salad dressing. But since then, I’ve been willing to try things over and over again and found that there are a lot of blue cheeses I do like that are peppery and bold. There’s a big world of cheese, and if you keep trying, you will definitely find something you like.
Is there a cheese you wish more customers would try?
Harbison, a spreadable, bloomy rind cheese from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont. It’s wrapped with spruce bark and it looks a little bit rustic, so people don’t necessarily go straight to it. But it’s so delicious and has a spoonable texture. Just cut the top off of it and spread it on a baguette with mustard. One of the keys to navigating all the cheeses we have is to talk to the cheese monger and ask for a sample. We will open any item. We want you to taste the cheese and know you like it before you buy.
Cheese and Chocolate Festival
The Natural History Museum of Utah’s fifth annual Chocolate and Cheese Festival includes a food market as well as several workshops on chocolate production, chocolate and cheese pairings, fondue, mozzarella pulling and more.
When • Saturday and Sunday, March 24–25, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Where • Rio Tinto Center, 301 Wakara Way, University of Utah
Cost • Entrance to the festival is included in the cost of museum admission. Workshops have additional fees. To see a complete list of classes or to register, visit https://nhmu.utah.edu/events/2018-chocolate-cheese-festival.