Back to School 2: Cheese Masters
That’s going to be the name of the screwball cheese comedy that I eventually pen. Not bad, right? Now, I just need to pick my perfect cast.
Annnyyyyyways. As previously mentioned, I attended my second course at The Cheese School on March 13th (over a month ago now! what a blog slacker I am). However, this was a different class of experience (yuk yuk), as it was a Master Class (aimed at cheese professionals, not just enthusiasts) on Identifying Cheese Flavors and taught by a Bay Area cheese legend, Cowgirl Creamery’s Peggy Smith (take a minute to read that bio — it’s worth it). Not only do I love me some Cowgirl Creamery cheeses (just the thought of some Mt. Tam makes my stomach grumble), but I’m also a huge fan and regular user of their online cheese library. That library has been an incredible resource in my dairy discovery, and that made me even more excited about the opportunity to learn from this lady. But, in addition to being excited, I was also a little bit scared. Me? At a Master Class? While I’d like to believe that I’ve surpassed the ‘enthusiast’ level (and even that just barely), I’m certainly no master nor am I, technically, yet a professional. I furiously studied my Cheese Primer in anticipation of the course but, when the time came, I still wasn’t sure that I was ready. Well, there would be only one way to find out!
As I climbed the entry stairway up to The Cheese School, I was immediately hit by the buzz and energy in the building. It was more lively — and more crowded — than the previous class that I had attended, which I attribute to the celebrity and credibility of the teacher. At this point, I had already been offered (and, of course, accepted) the Cheese School summer internship position, and as I entered I received an especially warm welcome from co-owners Kiri Fisher & Daphne Zepos, which served to alleviate some of my anxiety. After I grabbed a complimentary glass of white wine (since I’m saving up for the cheese change, I’ll take just about anything that comes free), I spotted two familiar faces: cheesemongers from Mission Cheese, my favorite next-door neighbor and one of my employment dreams. I’d received tons of information (and cheese samples) from both of these two people, but I’d always been too nervous and embarrassed (are you seeing a pattern here?) to admit to my aspirations. Well, not this time! I sidled up and introduced myself to these two, who I then learned were Steve Hall and Liz Rubin, two of Mission Cheese’s O.G. opening crew. And you know what? They are awesome and lovely! I spent the next 10-15 minutes detailing my upcoming career change (and excitedly bragging about the internship) and they, in turn, treated me to adorable sheep pictures from a recent Mission Cheese dairy farm field trip. Interacting with animals on farm field trips? Yeah, I think I’ve made the right decision.
At that moment we were asked to find our seats in the classroom, and so we did. I found myself seated across the room from Steve and Liz (allowing us to exchange silly looks and knowing smiles) and next to a chatty woman who promptly informed me that she had been to over 20 such classes. When I asked her what she did for a living, I was surprised at her response: She’s a cardiologist! She laughed as she told me that she actually warns her patients against the dangers of eating too much cheese, and then she proceeded to clean her plate!
I have to admit that the rest of the class is somewhat of a blur in my memory. It might be because a month has passed since the occasion, or it might be because I’m a lightweight and I had two glasses of wine. Probably both. I do remember that Peggy got right down to business welcoming the students (many of whom appeared to be old friends and colleagues, the faces of whom I have seen on various cheese & dairy websites and in cheese industry event pictures posted on Facebook) and letting us know what she in store for the next two hours. I immediately felt welcomed and at ease, and I was so enthralled by Peggy’s words and the friendly chatter in the room that I barely even glanced at my cheese plate!
Peggy explained her cheese tasting process: Look, Touch, Smell, Taste. For each cheese we ate, we went through each step. First, we LOOKED at each cheese: What color is the rind? What color is the paste? Where does the color change? Is the cheese more transparent or opaque? Are there bubbles, eyes, mold, etc.? Then, we’d TOUCH: How soft is the cheese? How hard? Is it grainy, smooth, or oily? Not only is it good to know how the cheese feels, but this is also a helpful trick for bringing the cheese up to temperature! Then, we’d SMELL: We’d smell the cheese first while whole, then break the cheese down the middle and immediately give it another sniff. Wow! That second smell, while similar to the first, is about a thousand times more intense (that’s a rough estimation) and provides an amazing preview for what you’re about to taste. Ah, TASTE! We put a small piece of cheese in our mouths and let it rest a moment on the tongue. Then, we were actually instructed to smack our gums, as it helps to turn the cheese into a paste and spread it across the tongue and the roof of the mouth. Fun! A room full of grownups all playing with their food and having a great time with it. I learned to pay attention to flavor waves, letting the cheese linger in my mouth long enough to experience a few. So great.
While I had definitely tasted cheese before, I had never tasted cheese in this way. Not only did we examine and savor every piece, but we also discussed and explored The Cheese Aroma Wheel with the use of some incredible “flavor aids” — white mushrooms, raw peanuts, wet and dry hay, stones, truffle salt, onion confit (mmmm), bittersweet chocolate, roasted pineapple, and toasted almonds. While obviously these aren’t all things you can eat, they all have flavors and/or aromas that can be cound in cheese. As we touched, smelled, and tasted each, we were encouraged to also smell and taste the flavor aids we thought might help to enhance and coax out cheese flavors. It was both enlightening and so enjoyable to mix and match cheeses and flavor aids and the challenge (and the wine) definitely added to some teamwork around the room.
Well, I bet you’re wondering what we ate, huh? I’d encourage you to use the list below, as long as the flavor aids mentioned, to put together a tasting of your own!
- Cowgirl Creamery Fromage Blanc
- Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam
- Barinaga Ranch Baserri
- Redwood Hill Farm Terra
- Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk
- L’ Amuse Aged Gouda
- Queso de la Serena (at your own risk, this is a crazy one)
While I now have a hard time making heads or tails of my notes, one thing is clear: I had an incredible time. As I boarded the bus back south to my neighborhood, I texted Mike (still home in Massachusetts) that it had been one of the best nights of my life. Why? While eating cheese was great, it was so much more than that. That master class was, really, my first experience as an industry ‘insider’ and I was overjoyed to finally be part of this new community. This cheese thing is no longer just a dream, it’s a reality, and it’s a reality in which I’ll be surrounded by inspiring, intelligent, and kind, caring people. I can’t wait to start my work at the cheese school, to be responsible for putting together the classroom and the plates, to get to welcome cheese professionals and enthusiasts and to help them further their education. I’m even looking forward to washing the dishes!