Ask Lana Shepek to name her favorite cheese and she promises she's not dodging the question: "Every cheese is my favorite -- really!" she says, slicing into a creamy wedge of green-onion Cheddar from a small dairy farm in Normal.
From "stinky" to mild, firm to silky, milk-white to golden orange, the gamut of great cheese now produced in the United States gives Shepek a heady rush.
"Cheese is art. It's wonderful."
The Belleville resident has good reason to gush. Lana is a cheesemonger. It's an old-fashioned word for someone who sells cheese, but also offers advice and education.
It's a later-in-life career change for the 63-year-old dietitian who worked with cardiac patients at St. Elizabeth's Hospital for a decade. Lana, who has been married to husband Gary for 43 years, has two daughters and a granddaughter. When she left her job about seven years ago, she realized she wanted to delve further into her enjoyment of cheese.
"I've always wanted to know more about it," she said. "I'm an eager learner. I sort of dabbled in it, read books."
But she needed hands-on training.
"I decided I had to go where I could learn," she said. After inquiries, repeated visits and a bit of pleading, she wedged her way into an internship with the cheesemonger at The Wine Merchant in Clayton, Mo.
"Simon Lehrer, he became my mentor -- that was October 2006. I had quit St. Elizabeth's and he took me under his wing. Every day was a new cheese to learn."
Lehrer is a big fan of Lana. To learn about cheese, you need to work with someone selling it, he said. "You can read about, but you need to taste it, feel it, smell it."
"It was a bit of coup for us," he said of her coming to work there with a strong background in food. "She has an undying devotion to cheese. She learned as much as she could and picked it up as quickly as possible."
That December, Chris Eckert, of Eckert's Orchards in Belleville, came into the St. Louis store and found Lana working behind the counter.
"He knew me and asked what I was doing there. I said, 'I'm learning about cheese.'"
The Eckerts needed a culinary educator to teach in the classroom in their expanded Country Store. Lana left The Wine Merchant in March to work for the Belleville family business.
"We call her the Food Enthusiast of Eckert's," said her boss, Angie Eckert. "She gets so excited about new things. It's contagious, and a lot of fun. ... Her knowledge is wonderful and rich."
The cheese supply in the Country Store now rivals any in St. Louis, though she is quick to mention the Cheesekeeper in west Belleville as an excellent source for fresh cut cheese.
"We have 60 different cheeses here, and that doesn't count our packaged cheese," said Lana. "Just the fresh cut -- and that changes with the season."
She respects the work of making cheese.
"It's all about the agriculture and the tradition and craftsmanship," she said. "Think of it like craft beer; looking at old recipes."
She focuses on purchasing Midwestern and locally grown cheese, including Marcoot Jersey Creamery in Greenville and Ropp Jersey Farm in Normal.
"People like something that is local," she said. "And ours is as good as some European" cheese.
Still, a great cheese supply in a store shouldn't be without an authentic Spanish Manchego or Italian Parmesan-Reggiano. Americans today are more traveled, more aware and more exposed to a variety of foods and flavors, Lana said, noting the craze for specialty coffee, olive oil and chocolate.
Prices reflect the time, effort and economy in which they're created. If a hot summer means less pasture grass for the cows, dairy farmers have to buy hay and prices may rise. Like craft beer, small batches of cheese cost more: The cheeses shown here range from $12.95 to $22.95 a pound.
"But, you won't buy a pound," noted Lana. "You'll buy a small piece or wedge. You only want to buy what you will use right away."
Cheese lovers are even willing to wait for certain cheeses. For example, when cows and goats eat the sweeter grasses found in pastures in the spring, that milking can produce a very flavorful cheese. But it will need to age and won't be ready until fall. So, fans will wait until then to buy it.
"Summer (grazing) is not as lush or sweet, so there is a difference in flavor."
Lana says most cheeses are given a sticker that dates when it was made. Many also include how long it was aged.
"But most cheese can go on forever," she said, meaning with the exception of some very soft varieties, they don't go bad. "They just get harder and not as tasty."
A good cheesemonger will ask questions to help with pairings, offer samples, explain origins and the process of making the cheese.
"It's about education," she said. "Think about cuts of beef. A filet is buttery, melts in your mouth. But a sirloin, it's got a beefy, big taste that's full of flavor. That's what cheese can be."
Having an open attitude helps, too.
"Try something different. Be a tiny bit adventurous."
Want a lesson from Lana? At 3 p.m. Saturday, during Eckert's annual Wine & Food Festival in the Country Store, she will serve cheese samples and educate guests, using some of the 60 cheeses available at Eckert's. The class is free.
Buy only as much cheese as you need.
Remove wrapper. Wrap leftover cheese as tightly as possible in fresh plastic wrap. The more airtight it is, the longer it will last.
Fresh cut cheese will continue to mature if left in the open, but not once it is wrapped.
All cheeses need to be refrigerated once a wedge or wheel has been cut into.
Before serving cheese, let it sit for an hour to breathe. "Much like wine," Lana said.
Got mold in cheese? You can safely remove it with a knife to where the spores end. Note: Clean the knife immediately before cutting farther into the cheese so as not to spread the mold that could be on the knife.
Four mild cheeses for newbies to taste:
6-month Cheddar: Rich, nutty flavor becomes increasingly sharp with age. Smooth, firm texture becomes more granular and crumbly with age. Usually golden; also available white.
Parmesan-Reggiano: Buttery, sweet, nutty flavor that intensifies with age. Granular texture. Aged more than 10 months.
Fresh Mozzarella: Delicate, milky flavor. Slightly elastic texture. Stored submerged in water to keep fresh.
Double-cream gouda: Rich, buttery, slightly sweet flavor and smooth, creamy texture. Develops complex caramel flavor, firmer texture when aged. Dutch origin.
(Descriptions from the Wisconsin Milk Board.)
Want to experiment with cheese and wine pairing, but don't know where to start?
"Basically, you can never go wrong with a Parmesan-Reggiano or an aged Manchego," Lana said, adding that "a young, 6-month (aged) Cheddar is a wine favorite."
A full-flavored wine needs a similar cheese, so pair a cabernet with a porterhouse steak and bleu cheese.
Or, a sparkling wine with brie.
How to display cheese: "Show a chunk or a wedge, so people can see what it looks like alongside the slices."
Nuts go well with cheddar. "Try a hand-milked Amish cheese on a plate with pecans and apples." Almonds and pears pair well, too.
Two fast appetizers:
Try a drop of high-quality balsamic vinegar on a cube of Parmesan-Reggiano.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour a jar of pizza sauce over 4 ounces of unripened goat cheese and bake 10 minutes. Spread on crackers or bread with fresh basil.
Lana Shepek likes to serve her sweet dessert, such as a brownie or cake, then an hour or so later, bring out a "second dessert" that includes cheese. Here are two suggestions:
Present a plate with slices of Irish scones, bleu cheese and a tiny pot of honey. "Putting the honey on the bleu cheese changes the complexity of it."
Gather a collection of vintage silver tablespoons. Arrange a dollop of creme fraiche on each, topped with crumbled chocolate-toffee candy.