Alexandra Jones' favorite way to eat cheese is raclette. The Philadelphia cheese expert and author grew up eating the Swiss dish, a favorite of her mother who was raised in Quebec.
“It’s a really wonderful communal wintertime meal,” Jones said.
Jones, who recently published “Stuff Every Cheese Lover Should Know” (Quirk Books, 2020), is a freelance writer, leads virtual cheese tastings and manages Collective Creamery, a women-run local artisan cheese subscription serving the Philly area. But originally, she wanted to be a tuba player.
“I realized about halfway through [my degree] that I also wanted to write and be a journalist, which was good because I wasn’t very good at playing tuba in the grand scheme of things,” she said. “Amongst mortals I was good, but amongst actual professionals I was not.”
Jones graduated from the University of Michigan with degrees in creative nonfiction and tuba performance in 2006, then moved to West Philadelphia in 2008. She started working at Trader Joe’s in Center City, where she fell in love with the cheese section.
“I was setting up tastings and ordering the products and merchandising the section, and I enjoyed doing that,” she said.
From Trader Joe’s, Jones moved on to a job running the CSA at Greensgrow Farms, incorporating cheese and dairy into the weekly subscription boxes. " I really loved working with farmers and got connected to a lot of amazing local cheesemakers." She now gives tastings and virtual classes through Collective Creamery, a subscription service she started with cheesemakers Sue Miller from Birchrun Hills Farms and Stefanie Angstadt of Valley Milkhouse.
Jones sat down with The Inquirer to talk about her new book and all things cheese.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Q: How did you get the idea for this book?
A: I’m a freelance writer by trade in addition to my work selling cheese with Collective Creamery, leading tastings and things like that. Quirk reached out to me to contribute to their Stuff You Should Know Series. Each one covers one specific subject. They’re these cute little books: There’s one about beer, there’s one about wine, there’s one about cooking. There are all these different topics, and they wanted to add cheese to that series.
Q: Talk about your favorite part.
A: I love the section where I describe how cheese is made. When they look at cheese, it’s not immediately obvious to people what its original component parts or ingredients were. It’s a complicated process, but it’s pretty easy to understand when you see it broken down. A great piece of cheese starts with really high quality milk. It’s understanding that capturing these fats and proteins from the milk and leaving the liquid behind gives them an idea of nutrition, of the flavors, of the textures that are gonna be in that cheese. And really pulling back the curtains on what cheese is, why it’s made, why it tastes a certain way is something that I really enjoy doing for consumers. Going through those steps helps consumers understand cheese.
Q: What’s your favorite cheese or cheese product?
A: I love Cheetos. I will go to town on a big block of extra sharp cheddar, that’s what I was raised on. I love a hunk of stinky cheese from a local farm like Birchrun Hills’s Red Cat. I love grilled cheese sandwiches. I love cream cheese on a bagel. I love Valley Milkhouse feta on salad. I don’t actually have a favorite. But there are cheeses that I eat more often than others, whether that’s because of access or because they’re really comforting.
Q: Why do you want people to learn about cheese?
A: I want people to become really conscious cheese consumers. We have amazing cheese here in Pennsylvania. We are the fifth largest dairy producer in the United States and the seventh largest cheese producer, and we have a really wonderful artisan cheese community that’s centered just outside Philadelphia in Chester County. outheast PA has a lot of great local cheese going for it.
One of the most important things that I think people don’t know about cheese is that you should let it come up to room temperature before you eat it. You need to open up the wrapper and leave it out for an hour or so before you dig in. The flavors will be much livelier and the texture much more supple—just a better, more delicious experience.
Customers can sign up to pick up a monthly bundle of four cheeses at host sites around the region through Collective Creamery. The Fall-Winter season of cheese lasts from October through March and includes a monthly e-newsletter with tasting notes, pairing tips, and recipe ideas.
Sign up for a cheese subscription at at collectivecreamery.com.