The cheese stands alone: Staff of Life’s fromager maps out party-pleasing cheeseboards

Cesar Olivares, fromager for Staff of Life.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Cesar Olivares, a world-class cheese expert who personally tastes and selects each of the 300-plus cheeses Staff of Life stocks, is our go-to for tips on not just which cheeses you need on for that holiday cheese arrangement but how to cut and present them.

Being in a well-stocked cheese shop can fill one with the same giddy feeling as a kid in a candy store. But unless you’ve actually tried everything in the case, it’s helpful to talk to someone who has. In this situation, you can’t do better than the cheese selection at Staff of Life Market with fromager Cesar Olivares as your guide.

You might have rolled a grocery cart through the cheese sections at Staff of Life’s Santa Cruz or Watsonville locations, not realizing that you were stepping through one of the most competitive cheese shops on the Central Coast. Or that Olivares, the friendly manager of the cheese, wine and beer sections of the store, had personally tried and hand-selected every one of the more than 300 cheeses Staff of Life stocks.

What’s more, he probably knows the farmer, has visited the diary and met the sheep, cows, goats or buffalos. And he regularly competes internationally with other fromagers, or cheesemongers, frequently ranking in the top 10.

These four local Santa Cruz County nonprofits make it their mission year-round to empower youth, fight hunger, and...

Olivares’ passion for cheese began when he was in college at UC Santa Cruz in the early 2000s and worked at Staff of Life as a cashier, occasionally cutting the cheese. In 2005, after graduation, he moved to Chicago, where his experience working at Staff of Life got his foot in the door at a small cheese shop.

The store, Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine, would go on to open three more locations and an online store before eventually shuttering in 2018, and Olivares grew along with it. As its cheese buyer, he traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe, visiting dairies and meeting cheesemakers, and of course tasting cheese and developing his palate.

Cheeses at Staff of Life

Upcoming events at Staff of Life

Nov. 19: Wine and cheese tasting, 4-7 p.m. in Santa Cruz

Dec. 12: Wine and cheese tasting, 4-7 p.m. in Watsonville

Jan. 11: Cheese tasting course series with Cesar Olivares. Details TBD.

Truly inspired by what people connected with the land were creating, he visited chocolate makers, coffee roasters, winemakers and Italian olive orchards. Back in Chicago, he attended and graduated from the International Sommelier Guild’s Sommelier School.

“I’m so greedy when it comes to experience,” says Olivares of this time. “I started to meet the real movers and shakers of this industry in places like London and France, people that have really helped solidify the actual existence of these things in America,” he said, referring to the artisanal products he was falling in love with.

Eventually, he started to gain an international reputation as somebody who is not just passionate and knowledgeable about cheese, but as somebody who can also appreciate the story.

I asked Olivares to select a few exceptional cheeses he thinks customers should experience. I also asked him for advice on how to serve them.

On building a cheeseboard, he advises to have “more of less things.” “People are always like, ‘I have to have 80 cheeses!’ and it’s overkill, and then you only get one little taste. What if you like it and you want more?” he says. “Get two to three cheeses, and get more of it so you can enjoy it.”

Staff of Life stocks more than 300 cheeses, and Cesar Olivares has tried them all.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Olivares says that setting the cheeses out for two hours to allow them to come to room temperature before serving is vital to allow the flavors to open up. And be conscientious about how you cut it: “I see people do stuff to cheese where I’m like, ‘Whoa, poor cheese.’”

Cubing cheese should be avoided. He suggests serving cheeses whole for an optimal experience. For an aesthetically pleasing cheese tray, focus on making different shapes by slicing some cheeses and breaking off chunks of others.

There is a misconception that raw milk cheeses are somehow better than pasteurized cheeses, so don’t let that influence your decision-making. “I’ve had terrible raw milk cheeses, and I’ve had great pasteurized cheeses,” says Olivares. “It’s about the cheesemaker, their skill set and timing.”

As for pairings, it’s always safe to follow the adage, “Whatever grows together, goes together.”

“Things that were raised in the same soil go together,” Olivares says. “If you have several Spanish cheeses, pair them with Spanish wines, Spanish ham and Spanish olives. You can’t go wrong.”

Or chuck all that wisdom and just have fun with it: “I get wacky now and put M&M’s on my cheese plate, just for color. Chocolate goes great with cheese, so why not, right? It’s funny.”

Here are Olivares’ picks for stunning cheeses you should bring home for the holidays.

Cesar Olivares prepares some samples.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Picolo (Andante Dairy, California): The paper-thin rind of this triple creme cow’s milk cheese gives way to a creamy layer and a crumbly interior, an arrangement of textures called interfacing. The flavor is earthy, bitter umami. ($8.99 each)

Sofia (Capriole Farm, Indiana): Goat cheese lovers, rejoice — this one’s for you. One bite of this Loire Valley-style goat cheese and a barnyard perfume fills your nose and lingers enticingly on your palette … and lingers, and lingers. Olivares worked at this farm in Indiana for a time and has a few stories — ask him about it if you get a chance. ($29.99/pound)

Quadrello di Bufala (Italy): This lovely, mild cheese is similar to Tallegio but is made with milk from water buffalo. The texture is deliciously creamy and tastes of fresh milk. ($29.99/pound)

Cyprien affine a la liqueur de noix (France): This semisoft cheese has been washed in walnut liqueur. It has an unbelievable aroma of toasted walnuts and tastes of espresso, dark chocolate and bouillon. ($27.99/pound)

Monterey Jack (Schoch Family Farmstead, California): The Schoch Family Farmstead is located in the Salinas Valley, and is one of the only remaining dairies in Monterey County. Which means this excellent cheese is one of the only true Monterey Jack cheeses you can buy. ($19.99/pound)

Junipero (Schoch Family Farmstead, California): Also from Schoch Family Farmstead in Monterey County, this Swiss cheese is young and creamy, and made from fresh batches of raw milk. ($19.99/pound)

Appleby’s Cheshire (Neal’s Yard Dairy, U.K.): An orange sherbert-colored cheese with a fruity, almost citrusy flavor and the crumbly texture of a classic Cheshire cheese. ($26.99/pound)

Staff of Life fromager Cesar Olivares working with the goods.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Essex Manchego 1605 (Spain): This is the same cheese Don Quixote ate 400 years ago. No, really. The Spanish government has certified a small handful of Spanish dairies who create this historic cheese and Essex Dairy is one of them. Unlike lesser Manchegos, this has a natural, unwaxed rind, a crumbly, oily texture and a clean, sweet taste. ($26.99/pound)

OG Kristal (Cheese Affineurs Van Tricht, Belgium): An incredible Gouda with a fudgy texture that tastes of butterscotch and bacon. Olivares says this is one of Staff of Life’s most popular cheeses, with customers frequently coming in to ask for it by name. He suggests pairing it with a dark porter to enhance the chocolate flavors. ($27.99/pound)

Triple Play “Extra Innings” (Hook’s Cheese Co., Wisconsin): A cheddar made from cow, sheep and goat milk. This rindless cheese has a creamy, pasty texture and a sweet flavor with hints of kerosene. ($21.99/pound)

More from Lily Belli