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Behind The Cheese Counter With Maria Brummett

This week, we hear how Murray's Cheese Master Maria Brummett built her unexpected career. Then Robyn Morton explains why making mozzarella can be so tricky.

Maria Brummett has managed the Murray's cheese counter at College Mall Kroger (Bloomington, Indiana) for nine years.

In December 2016, Kroger and Murray’s Cheese opened their 350th store location, and it just happened to be in Bloomington, Indiana.

That’s a fun fact to kick off our conversation with Maria Brummett. She’s a Murray’s Cheese Master in Bloomington. A job that was initially intended just for pocket change has now given Maria the opportunity to be an expert in her field.

The Cheese Bible

There are 175 different varieties of cheese at Maria’s cheese counter. Each block has an info card that describes the taste, the milk type and how it was made. That same info is collected in a hefty binder in the break room. This is Maria’s cheese bible. She’s using it to study for the American Cheese Society’s test to become a Certified Cheese Professional.

“I already didn’t pass once, but I’m going to try it again,” she says. “We have to know all the (cheese making) steps and the temperatures that each different cheese has. The temperatures of the caves that they’re in and what they have to do to them. And gotta know which beer and wine go with the cheese as well. It’s a lot.”

She has to know which cheeses are name-protected:

Like Parmigiano-Reggiano can only be made in a certain area in Italy. The milk can only travel so far or it can’t be called Parmigiano-Reggiano. They also save the leftover whey. They serve it to their pigs and that’s how they make Prosciutto di Parma. That also has to be made in a certain area, and that’s why it’s so rich and buttery.

And she has to know the fat content of the different milks:

Goat milk is a lot lower in fat, and then sheep milk is higher. So, it goes goat, cow, sheep and then buffalo. And they usually just make mozzarella with (buffalo milk). You cannot drink buffalo milk because it’s like yogurt.

That sort of memorization is easy for her. It’s the math component of the test that’s tricky. “Like, the margin and markup and converting grams to ounces and pounds. That’s kind of tough for me because I only did the basic math in school. My son, he graduated from IU with honors and did the highest math you could do. And I’m like, maybe I need to have him help me.”

From Government Cheese To Saint Angel Brie

These days, her brain is flooded with facts about fancy cheeses, but she grew up eating government cheese. She was raised by a single mother; they lived in California, Florida and New York, but Maria calls Indiana home.

She dropped out of her senior year of high school when she discovered she was pregnant, but she went back to school the next year. “I was married, had a baby, lived in my own house, and graduated high school,” she says. “I got the comeback kid of the year award because I was out on my own and I went to school every day and I got good grades.”

She was 25 and a mother of three when she decided to pick up a job at Kroger to make some extra money. First, they had her frying chicken. Then she worked as a cake decorator. After that she learned how to bake bread, and then she managed the deli. “I was helping in the bakery, doing their fancy cakes and all that, and the manager was like, ‘Hey, we’re going to have a cheese shop. You’ve always been a good leader, would you like to take it over?’ And I was like, ‘Sure I’ll try it. I haven’t done that yet.'”

That was nine years ago. She was named a Murray’s Cheese Master three years ago. She’s 46 years old now. In addition to managing the cheese counter at the College Mall Kroger, she also travels around the state helping other stores open cheese counters. She’d love to do that full time.

“I didn’t think I was going to have a career,” she says. “I thought I’ll just go work for a little bit and then move onto something else, but I think out of all of the jobs I’ve done at Kroger, this is my favorite… Just the learning part of it is pretty cool.”

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Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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