Meet the Goddess of Cheese
Meet Paula Larsen, Busch’s very own “Goddess of Cheese.”
Let’s get right to it and begin with the “Ultimate Grilled Cheese” sandwich.
Jarlsberg Swiss, Wisconsin mild cheddar, Comté, Gruyère, a light layer of cream cheese on sourdough or rustic farmhouse white. Grill until all the cheese is melted, open-faced if necessary.
“It should be called the ‘Heart-Stopping Grilled Cheese,’” laughs Paula. “It’s all about the mix of flavors and the combinations.”
Paula loves cheese, its history, making, and its varieties and styles. She is aptly dubbed the “Goddess of Cheese.” It says it right on her business card. She adopted the title 20 years ago, working for a chain of grocery stores in Ohio.
“Each store already had a cheesemonger, so I came up with the tongue-in-cheek “Goddess of Cheese” to differentiate myself,” she says.
Cheesemonger: a person who sells cheese, butter, and other dairy products. (Oxford Languages)
Paula got her start in cheese before that when making a career change to a new chain of grocery stores. At her interview, she was asked if she had any particular areas of interest. Paula didn’t. They asked her if she would be interested in their cheese department.
“That grocery store had over 650 cheeses from all over the world,” recounts Paula. “I never knew there was such a thing!”
She has been an avid student ever since. When asked what her favorite cheese is, she struggles to find just one. For her, cheese is diving beyond the taste buds into history and culture.
“Some of the cheeses that I absolutely love have been around since Roman times, like Pecorino Romano,” she says. “Pliny the Elder wrote that it’s a perfect cheese for the legionnaire because the salt replaced the salt loss during sweating. It’s high in protein because sheep’s milk has more protein than other kinds. It’s a hard cheese so they could pack it in their bags, and it wouldn’t crumble.”
“The exciting thing for me is that I can eat a piece of cheese now that has been made the same way for thousands of years,” she adds. “It still has to be made in the same areas under the same conditions with the same kind of milk. I’m not only tasting great cheese. I’m tasting history. I’m tasting a culture.”
When you think of great cheese, your thoughts may naturally go to Europe, which has dominated the world in fine cheeses for centuries. But not so anymore, says Paula.
“American cheese makers have just become incredibly creative and adept at putting out some of the most phenomenal cheeses,” she says. “The number one cheese in the world is Rogue River Blue from southern Oregon.”
Turophile: someone who loves cheese (Paula Larson).
Paula is a certified cheese professional with the American Cheese Society. She had to pass a 150-question test with a three-hour time limit to achieve that. Society only allows 300 people to take the test each year. In 2015, Paula’s year, only 189 passed. Becoming a real cheese professional is no piece of (cough, cough) cake.
“Busch’s is a chain of sixteen specialty food stores with, among other things, a specialty cheese shop,” says Paula. “In nine of our stores, cheese is hand cut. We carry over two hundred kinds.”
Paula joined Busch’s six years ago. Their vision was to bring in great European and American cheeses. Specifically, European cheeses that some people may have had over there but couldn’t find here. However, that turned out to be a transitional concept as the American cheese makers upped their product.
“These are really good cheeses that you’re not going to find everywhere,” says Paula. “That’s what sets us apart.”
In Dexter and Saline Busch’s, cheeses are cut by cheesemongers trained on how to cut, how much to cut, how to wrap it, and how to preserve the life of the cheese. It sounds like a lot of trouble, but the closer the cheese is to the cut, the fresher its tastes, the fuller its flavor, the better the texture.”
“We get a 22-pound wheel of Jarlsberg, a very nutty, mild, lightly bitter finish, Swiss-style cheese,” says Paula. “When you cut into that cheese, the first thing that hits you is the aroma. It’s gorgeous. It will sometimes weep because whey gets trapped in the eyes during aging. If you see a little bit of seepage, that’s called angel tears. That only happens when cheese is really, really fresh.”
Approaching Busch’s cheese display can be a bit daunting. Where do you begin? You can start by checking out the descriptive signs with each cheese that tell you characteristics such as pasteurized or raw milk, the kind of milk, soft, firm, sharp, or mild, and where it’s from. Or, ask for the cheesemonger. Leslie is in Dexter. Jeff is in Saline. They like to talk about cheese.
“We use the term ‘terrior’ with cheese,” says Paula. “It means ‘the total environment.’ Whatever that animal eats, breaths, and drinks goes into the milk, which makes the cheese. When you come here, you are going to have the total experience in every cheese.”
All photos by Doug Marrin