On the Line: Cheese Monger Tracy Nelsen of SideDoor

Say, well . . .you know. Photo courtesy SideDoor.

Serving some of the best cheese and charcuterie plates in the county, SideDoor has been a favorite of mine for many years. In addition to an enjoyable selection of beers and cocktails, we’ve always been curious about their cheese options. So in honor of National Dairy Month coming in June, we got to know Tracy Nelsen, the resident monger at SideDoor.


Describe some of the cheeses SideDoor commonly carries for their cheese and charcuterie platters. 

SideDoor has categories of cheeses that we fill each week, but the actual cheeses change up. We always have a cheddar on, for example, but that could be a cave-aged cheddar from Wisconsin. Or maybe a bandage-wrapped cheddar from England. Very different flavor profiles, but still a cheddar. We do offer a domestic and imported blue, five different cow cheeses and a hard and soft goat and sheep cheese. Along with a varied choice of charcuterie.


How does one become a cheese monger?

By eating a lot of cheese! That is said in jest, but there is a lot of truth to that as well. The more you train your palate, the more you understand the intricacies of cheese making. There are cheese festivals around that country that can be attended. At the festivals are cheese seminars or classes that are usually open to everyone, and that is a great way to start the learning process. We now have in this country an organization that does offer a professional level certification program. It is offered through the American Cheese Society at their annual conference.


Can you explain the cheese making process?

The cheese making process is better explained by experts at making cheese. But I will say this about cheese: the same ingredients are used by cheesemakers all over the world, but the results are so different it boggles the mind. As more artisan cheesemakers make cheese, it just keeps getting better and better.


What is the best way to store fine cheese? Certain temperatures? Wrapped in something specific? Double-wrapped?

The best advice I ever got about storing cheese was, “Buy small amounts often.” Cheese is a living organism, and will change as it ages. So wrap it in the same wrapping it comes in. And keep it in a fridge the same temperature you would keep vegetables. Cheese paper is excellent, but can be expensive. Wrapping it in cling wrap is ok.


Tell me a common misconception about cheese.

A common misconception about cheese is that they all taste alike. The beautiful thing about cheese is that it takes on the character of the place it is made. Because of the bacteria present in a place, you can only make that cheese in that specific place. If you made a cheese just like it but in a different location, it would be a different flavored cheese.


People tend to pair wine with cheese. Do you find yourself experimenting with other beverages, and have you discovered some good pairings?

Pairing cheese is always fun and interesting. Everyone has their own distinct palate, so this is always fun to experiment with in the restaurant. Some wine can make a cheese totally flat in flavor, while a different cheese will come alive. When I’ve done classes of cheese pairings, people are always surprised at what they like best. Quite often, the cider pairings are the universal favorites. I personally love beer with cheese; a quite natural fit. Cocktails are a bit trickier because you want to enhance the cheese, not overpower it. But it sure is fun to figure out what works and what doesn’t.


Charcuterie and cheese plate from SideDoor
Bring us your finest meats and cheeses! Photo courtesy SideDoor.

Do you have a favorite cheese? Or perhaps, a favorite one for now?

Favorite cheese? That’s almost as bad as asking which is your favorite child! It depends on the occasion and setting. The Charouce cheese, from the Champagne region in France, is a buttery, unctuous triple cream that just melts on the tongue. A nice, crisp apple with a hard-aged cheddar is hard to beat as well. I just can’t choose only one!


I am not a fan of blue cheeses (Maybe with steak?). Can you recommend a gateway blue that can help me appreciate it more?

Blue cheese can be a bit overwhelming, but there are lots of different styles of blue. Cave age blue has that musty, fudgy quality, but there are lighter blues to try. One of the favorites at the restaurant is Smoky Blue from Rogue Creamery in Southern Oregon. They cold smoke the blue cheese over hazelnut shells. Wonderful creaminess with a lightly smoked flavor that highlights the fruitiness of the blue veining. 


Do you see any cheese-related trends this year?

Cheese trends this year are more small creameries popping up. Doesn’t get better than that!


For someone wanting to learn more about cheese, what do you recommend?

If someone wants to learn more about cheese, there are great blogs, books and classes. I also recommend going into specialty cheese shops and quizzing people. They love to answer questions. Your local Whole Foods has great cheese counters. Murray’s cheese in New York City had an extensive online library of cheeses. They have closed the store, but still age cheese. And as of now, the blog is still up. Cowgirl Creamery out of Petaluma (California) also is a great resource for learning about cheese. And not just their own wonderful product, but others as well.


What can diners look forward to with regards to cheese events?

Diners can look forward to learning about a small creamery, and have a chance to taste a variety of their cheeses. This is a unique opportunity to try cheeses that you can’t get in the local stores. Often these creameries only sell at local spots, and we are outside of that area. So that ability to buy direct means a chance to try new cheeses. We also use the cheese to make dishes inspired by the cheese, and those dishes are only on the menu during the event.


SideDoor is located at 3801 E. Coast Hwy., Corona del Mar, (949) 717-4322; www.sidedoorcdm.com.

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