If you've already burned through your standing queue of true-crime podcasts, you might consider one that's both lighter and heavier: Cheese the Day. In its most recent episode "Cheese Crimes," the sixth produced by the North Coast Co-op, hosts Thomas Wehland and Veronica Rudolph, the respective heads of the Eureka and Arcata stores' cheese departments, dive into what Wehland calls "the dark, criminal underbelly of the cheese world." Specifically, they discuss a series of Italian heists totaling $875,000 worth of stolen Parmigiana Reggiano — 2,039 wheels of cheese.
Self-proclaimed "cheese nerds," Wehland and Rudolph say they are loath to "glorify" such crimes but, on some level, they get it. If they didn't understand how important, how valuable cheese was, they probably wouldn't have become cheese mongers themselves or bonded over cheese, or spent their off hours eating and talking about cheese. And they wouldn't have a bi-weekly podcast about cheese.
Rudolph, who hails from Nevada City, came to the county in 2000 to attend Humboldt State University. A cashier job at the North Coast Co-op turned into a stint in the floral and produce departments before she nabbed a spot in the cheese court, where she says, "My journey with falling in love with cheese began." By 2006, she was heading the Arcata branch's counter and all in on cheese, versed in the ever-expanding varieties and training new staff.
One of those was Wehland, who also came to the area for HSU and immediately started frequenting the co-op for cheese. He recalls being asked at his interview there five years ago why he was applying. Wehland answered, "Because I have a cubic foot of cheese stored in my refrigerator right now." Rudolph — his "cheese sensei" — trained him well and he's run the Eureka cheese department for the last year and a half.
There's a lot to learn. "You learn as you go," says Rudolph, adding it takes months to get up to speed on everything. Cutting and wrapping cheese requires a whole skillset, lest you cross-contaminate a fresh burrata with a moldy hunk of Gorgonzola, or use the wrong tool and reduce a pricey block of bleu to mush. Those mistakes add up when you're divvying up hundreds of pounds of cheese a day.
Familiarity with the products, however, comes through sampling — lots of sampling. And Wehland and Rudolph are dedicated, striving to try every one of the more than 100 cheeses the co-op sells, including vegan alternatives. With heels of bread from the sandwich department, they tasted and discussed.
For three years, the two spent 40 hours a week side by side, cutting, wrapping, sampling and stocking. "We just chatted and talked all day long," says Rudolph. "We covered philosophy, food and cheese." Other employees would occasionally stop and listen. Some suggested they do a podcast.
Wehlan says the co-op's marketing and membership manager Alex Villagrana "just made it happen. ... And so far, no one's taken it away from us." The episodes, which cover which cheeses to buy when sheltering in place, cheeses to take on outdoor adventures, an interview with Adam Dick of Dick Taylor Chocolate and the "Great Norwegian Cheese Fire," are propelled by the enthusiasm they have for their subject and their easy chemistry. "It helped that we already had that friendship and rapport. We can talk for hours about nothing, so if we have a topic ...," Wehland trails off.
So far, the two have recorded a dozen episodes and, if anything, the pandemic has spurred them on. "We decided, all right, if people are going to be at home quarantining, it makes sense to go for it now," says Wehland, who's happy to find another way to reach the community and members they once had so much contact with. Besides, he says, "It was a lot of bored people at home who'd already powered through Netflix."
For now, they've paused recording partly to prepare for the holidays and to let Villagrana catch up with producing the episodes. Wehlan says, "We very much have the easy job of sitting down and having a conversation."
"While Alex has the hard job of editing," Rudolph finishes.
In the meantime, they're still exploring — and talking about — cheese.
"I'm currently obsessed with a cheese called Red Fox, which is a red Leicester from England ... because it's new and that's always a lovely experience," says Wehlan, describing it as a sharp, aged, crumbly cheddar, red with annatto and blessed by "the perfect level of salt."
As Rudolph contemplates her recent favorites, they digress briefly on some garlic curds they tried that day. Eventually, she says, "I'm really digging the soft bloomy, really stinky cheeses right now ... especially a soft-ripened goat cheese called Le Pico. ... I'll get a bottle of wine and take that home and the boyfriend and I will just wipe that out." It comes in a cute little wooden box stamped with a "sly looking" goat on the top. "He knows," she says, setting Wehlan chuckling. "He knows you're gonna eat the whole thing."
Asked if they have any advice for the less experienced, their answer is the same.
"Try it all," says Wehlan. Start by trying it plain.
"And don't limit yourself by thinking you have to enjoy it in a very specific way," adds Rudolph. "Just try it. Melt it on something, try that."
Wehlan warns against letting fancy-seeming European cheese intimidate you, since it was "probably enjoyed by some monk at the end of a hard day."
Rudolph agrees and encourages experimental pairing. She's down to smear some Cypress Grove Purple Haze on Rice Krispies treats, noting the creamy tang works with the sweet buttery crispness of the cereal and marshmallow, which "plays off perfectly on that touch of lavender and fennel pollen."
"Just eat it," she urges. "Some pairings will be more delicious than others ... but if you decide you love that wine with that cheese, who is anyone to say no?"
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.