food

'Professional cheese eater' is a real job - and it may just be the best on the planet.

Dairy Australia
Thanks to our brand partner, Dairy Australia

As a child, Sonia Cousins dreamed of being an archaeologist. She came close, working in geology until her career took a dramatic turn and she became something (arguably) even better – a professional cheese eater.

(Yes, it’s a real thing, and yes, we want to quit our jobs immediately to become one too).

According to Cousins, the main qualification is that you eat a lot of cheese, something she says is “not difficult to do.”
“I come from a scientific background, so have always taken an academic approach to things and have done a lot of reading, making my way through every cheese-related book in the library,” she says.

But it was while she was working in the IT industry that she had a lightbulb moment that she wanted to make it her career.

Imagine doing this for a living. Image: Supplied.

"A software developer colleague came in raving about a computer programming book he'd read the night before and I thought to myself, 'I'm in the wrong place'," she says.

"So a bit like jumping off a cliff without a parachute, I knew I wanted to do something with food so I left the corporate world and started working in a big food hall where I gravitated to cheese and got a job in a specialty cheese store and got serious about learning - eating, finding mentors, reading and studying."

A day in the life.

As a cheese lover, educator and judge for the Australian Grand Dairy Awards, Sydney Royal Show, Australian Specialist Cheesemakers' Association and the World Cheese Awards, her days are often as diverse as the range of cheese on the shelves.

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"If I'm working in retail which I do a couple of times a week, I have to check the condition of cheese overnight and ensure it looks beautiful, fabulous in store," she says.

"If I am behind counter, I love getting people to try something new and seeing them loving it, it's the best part and it's so fun getting to talk about it."

She also does training and consulting, both for chefs or industry people and those who just want to learn more about cheese.

Unlike most cheesemongers, that are just involved in selling the finished product, Cousins has her toe dipped in multiple areas, building relationships with local producers.

"I know a lot of the Aussie producers personally and keep in touch with what they've got coming up, how their animals are, new developments and keep direct relationships with them so I can tell their story," she says.

"It's so important having a two-way communication between the consumer and producer and a good cheesemonger can share their story and pass on feedback."

You can never have too much cheese. Image: Supplied.

Yes, we're biased but Aussie really is best.

As you probably already guessed, Australian cheese has a lot going for it - and not just because it hasn't spent a long time on a ship or aeroplane like the imported stuff.

"The fantastic thing is we're not bound by rules or traditions as they are in Europe. We've got great space for innovation, and Aussie producers are always coming up with and trying new things like blue cheese out of buffalo milk, which I think is one of the best cheeses in Australia," she says.

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And of the about 1200 distinct styles of cheese in the world, Cousins believes she's made a decent dent.

"I reckon I've tried at least a third of them. Part of that is going to international events and testings - there are always new challenges," she says.

Her favourite is hard cheeses although she doesn't mind "a soft cheese with quite a bit of pungency."

"Washed rind cheese with sticky orange rind that smells like socks deliver in texture and flavour. You have a mouthful and the flavour lingers so you don't need loads more - perhaps that's why I find it easier to moderate!"

Australia is ahead of the game in the cheese industry. Image: Supplied.

The secret to a good cheese platter.

"There certainly is an expectation I will always bring the cheese," Cousins laughs.

"And people often get intimidated if they are having me over as they don't want to give me cheese."

She has two simple rules to a great cheese platter.

"You always have to have something Australian on there and remember that less is more," she says.

"By that I mean don't overload the platter with pastes and chutneys - just bread, plain crackers and fresh fruit as good cheese shines by itself."

She believes it's better to choose just two or three beautiful generous pieces or even one whole cheese like a triple cream or even parmesan ("It's just fantastic on its own").

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"I would only ever serve three cheeses and on a special occasion would just pick one whole one," she says.

The downsides to being a professional cheese eater.

None.

"Some people say 'How do you manage to keep in shape while eating so much cheese?'. I'm an average height and build and cheese is a really healthy food and if you eat everything in moderation and balance then there's no need to see it as an occupational hazard," she says.

"When I'm judging cheese which normally occurs over consecutive days, it can be pretty intense and full on. I definitely don't often feel 'I can't eat cheese' but I might need a little bit of a break after those days!

"Not a day goes by when I DON'T at least think about it - even if I'm just putting cheddar on the kids' lunches."

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How to judge your cheese.

There's definitely an art (and a science) required to judge cheese in competitions. The main priority is to judge whether the cheese meets it's style criteria.

"So if it is a cheddar, we're looking for texture and a flavour profile that has a tang or 'acidity' whereas a brie or camembert we want a creamy texture and no acidity or sourness, a milky creamy flavour," she says.

Perhaps the most difficult part is leaving personal preference completely out of it.

"Above all it comes down to balance. Is there a balance of salty and creamy? Strength of smell and flavour correspondence? Is one flavour dominant over balanced complexity?" She says.

Professional cheese eater? Sign us up! Image: Supplied.

Where do we sign up?

If you're really dedicated to the cheese, Cousins advises looking for cheese appreciation classes or volunteering at your local agricultural show.

"All of the state capital cities have agricultural shows and all of those competitions will have a cheese category. Entry level step is to volunteer a steward as a behind the scenes helper, bringing out cheeses when they're ready, numbering them and anything the judges requires," she says.

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"There's almost always an opportunity to taste and listen to judges. I've been working in cheese for 12 years now and volunteered as a steward, progressing, to the accredited food judge I am now."

A cheese platter is mandatory for any social event. Image: iStock.

Getting cheesy.

For the love of a gooey brie, please don't just stick to your usual tasty cheese slices all the time.

"If people just stocked what people asked for there would be just five types of cheese for sale. Small speciality shops have 50 on offer, others closer to 200," she says.

"Trust the person behind the counter, ask them for a taste, find out what's local to you and give it a try. To keep our local cheesemakers creating innovative cheeses, we've got to try them."

If you consider yourself a cheese aficionado and want to test your knowledge or learn more about cheese, download a free booklet called “Cheese Please” from The Dairy Kitchen, which covers each of the styles you might find in Australia, how to select, store and serve them, and even what to do with the leftovers.

What's your favourite cheese? Tell us your pick and how you like to eat it below!

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