By Cindy Atoji Keene
Cheese monger Peter Lovis has been behind the counter at the old-fashioned Cheese Shop of Concord for over a decade, but his background as a turophile goes back to the 1970s. During his long affiliation with the cheese industry, he has seen American taste buds change from a handful of few standards like Jarlsberg and cheddar to today’s mind-boggling artisanal selections. “Most people didn’t know or care about cheese in the past, as compared to the thousands of imported cheese we have now,” said Lovis, 51, who said that he feels like his whole life has been an apprenticeship to owning this store. When he was 15, he started working at a mom and pop store in New Jersey (“as a way to avoid playing football”), then for a gourmet shop, importing company, and finally a distributor. “I’ve worked through the entire supply chain. Instead of getting my MBA, I should have gotten a HVAC refrigeration license,” said Lovis, who just purchased two new freezers so he can expand his inventory of prepared and frozen foods.
Q: Are cheese sales seasonal?
A: I make 30 percent of my gross sales during December. That’s when more people are entertaining more, serving quality cheese; making hors’ d’oeuvres, and enjoying comfort foods. That’s when we also when we host a parade and roll out the red carpet for a 400-pound wheel of Crucolo cheese from northern Italy. This giant supply of cheese ensures that we won’t run out of it during the holiday season. I’ve even been to Trentino, Italy, where I helped make this cheese as well.
Q: What should someone look for when tasting a cheese?
A: First and foremost, do you like it? Does it taste good and bring you pleasure? Don’t be forced to like it because someone said you should. One thing I look for is complexity of flavor – it should evolve as you taste it. Perhaps it is creamy and smooth and then develops a bite; or starts off stinky, then has a creamy richness and hint of salt.
Q: Your head cheese buyer’s name is Brie. That’s very serendipitous.
A: Brie Hurd was a college student who started working here and has been with us ever since. There’s a new energy and excitement among many young people who don’t see this as a job but a cool new profession, as demonstrated by the American Cheese Society’s new certification program, a comprehensive test that attests to a cheese purveyor’s knowledge and professional status.
Q: How do you decide what sorts of cheese to carry?
A: We have between 150-200 types of cheese at any time, and over a thousand different cheese over the course of a year. Our inventory changes all the time, depending on availability, season, and demand. There is no firm metric. Cheesemakers send us new products all the time. But we will have some standard items; for example, we’ll always have a one-year-old Manchego cheese in stock.
Q: The Concord Cheese Shop is one of the oldest continuous cheese shops, established in the 1860’s. How did you come to buy the cheese shop?
A: I was in the wholesale cheese business and I called on this store. The first time I walked in, it was like being at home – it was exactly like the store I first worked in as a teen, from the banners to the counters. A good friend of mine was general manager here, and said to me, “You should put on an apron and get back in the retail cheese business.” A few years later, in 2001, I was told the store was for sale, and I was so excited, I raced home and got two speeding tickets. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Q: Have you ever purchased from a chain grocery store with their plastic-looking cheese?
A: My wife and I were on vacation and we ran out of cheese. I went to the supermarket and I picked out what I thought was a nice gruyere. I brought it home and it was dead, well past its prime. She still teases me about it today, but it proves my rule: don’t buy cheese unless you can taste it first.