Drawn together: the cheese wire

Categories: Behind the stalls

In his latest series award winning blogger and Borough Market regular Ed Smith displays a talent for illustration as well as the written word, as he talks to stallholders about the tools of their trade. This month: the cheese wire

Words and illustration: Ed Smith

Jon Thrupp, Mons Cheese

The point of a cheesemonger is that we select, mature, care for and then portion cheeses for sale. Relationships with good producers are important. Really, the two tools of our trade are irons and wires. As it happens, these are both used within the logo for Hervé Mons’s company in France—in the same way, I guess, a guild or livery company incorporates its tools in its coat of arms.

Cheese irons are those things that are poked into hard cheeses to enable us to check how a cheese is maturing at its core. They look like a wide metal drinking straw, or apple corer, with a wooden handle, and they pull out a small cylinder of cheese, which can be plugged back in.

The tool you see us using all day, every day at our Borough Market stand, though, is the double handle cheese wire. It’s a vital tool because it’s the best way to cut open and portion up a whole wheel of cheese.

Of course it’s possible to use knives for this purpose—the Swiss and Dutch do, for example. But, on a practical basis, we find the wire is superior. Thinking about it, there are a number of reasons for this.

Cheese wire

Easier and more efficient
First and foremost, it’s easier and more efficient to cut open a hard cheese like a comté with a wire than with a knife, particularly on a cold day at the Market, when the cheese becomes quite brittle and susceptible to splitting.

Though a knife starts with a sharp and thin edge, its blade is wide and creates friction and therefore becomes pretty tiring and a strain on the wrist. Also, the back edge of a knife can be quite wide: up to two or three millimetres. What this means is it forces the cheese apart as you cut, and can often cause the hard cheese to crack and split, potentially leading to waste, and certainly creating less than perfect wedges of cheese. You don’t have this problem with a thin cheese wire.

Cheese wires might also have evolved as the cutting tool of choice for French cheesemongers because of the way their shops were traditionally set up. Often they’re long and narrow and the customer is literally immersed among the cheeses. The monger will take a customer through the shop from front to back with a small board, and a wire with a short string.

They don’t need to keep cleaning the wire every time they cut a cheese as they would a knife, and because it’s short, there’s still enough room to use it, despite the cramped nature of the shop. We’re behind a counter, but for sure the fact we use wires that are only 45cm long means we don’t keep elbowing our colleagues every time we cut a cheese.

An old lawnmower
That 45cm wire is the length we use when cutting cheese to a manageable size for a customer, whereas when we open up a wheel for the first time, we’ll use a 90cm long wire. You cut up and through the cheese, and end up with your arm almost vertical above your head. It looks like you are pull-starting an old lawnmower!

There’s some debate, or perhaps snobbery, about using double handle cheese wires versus ones that are affixed to a board ie, the fixed wires are not held in such high regard. Double handle ones, which we use, certainly take a little bit more time to get used to, and perhaps require a touch more skill. But really I suspect it all stems from the practicalities I mentioned about small shops and being mobile, and it means we can be a bit more flexible about the angles the cheese can be cut from.

Our wires are disposable and probably last a couple of days before we throw them away, so we get through a fair few every week at Borough. We use a small paring knife to cut the softer, washed rind cheese as they won’t break or split, but for all the blues and hard cheeses, the wire really is the best thing.

I don’t use a wire at home, though. That would be a bit keen and, to be honest, unnecessary. As I said, it’s the cheesemonger’s job to cut cheese into manageable sizes, so by the time it’s at home, the work has been done and a sharp knife will do just fine.