For those who don't know, Cheese School begins with coffee, fresh quiche, and ginger scones (served with some damn good butter). I quickly learn that our class is an incredible mix of cheese people: owners of new cheese shops in Iowa and Alberta, cheese department folks from grocery store chains, a few techies with a serious love of cheese, even a woman from the Philippines wanting to be a water buffalo cheese-maker!
We come from all over with one thing on our minds (and maybe even in our mouths): CHEESE!!
Lesson One is Classification of Cheese & How to Taste. The Cheese School of San Francisco uses the following categories for cheese types: soft, semi-soft, semi-hard, hard, and blue cheese. There can also be different milk types: cow, sheep, goat, and water buffalo are the most common. And of course, cheese will be different depending where it is made: France, Italy, Greece, Spain, California, San Juan Island.
An artisan cheese is a complex food. We learn how to look at it, smell it, break it in half, smell it again, smoosh it between your fingers noticing the moisture and oil content on your fingertips, smell it once more, and finally pop it in your mouth and roll it around your tongue and roof of your mouth, coating every taste bud with flavor. That is the way to truly taste Comte.
An intriguing tray is set down in front of everyone (I start to tingle with excitement). I'm looking at 12 small plastic cups each labeled with an animal type and either milk, yogurt or fresh cheese. First we sip the 4 milks. The sheep's milk was creamy and slightly oily. The buffalo milk was unbelievable, fruity with a finish of white chocolate macadamia.
The fun has just begun...
Another tray is set down, this time with 16 cheeses. (I'm serious, take a look!)
This is called a horizontal tasting, with 4 milk types represented by 4 cheeses. Now, at Cheese School, you have to be on your best behavior and not take a bite before the teacher tells you to. Sitting on your hands helps. Our first bite for this tasting is a mouthful of burrata. Juliana, our instructor, tells us "All at once. Pop it all in your mouth, like a shot." What a thrill of cream and freshness. The tasting becomes a bombardment of flavor and smell and texture sensations. We end on an aged goat cheese from Bend, OR that was dotted with fenugreek seeds and tasted sweet like maple syrup. That cheesemaker is the founder of webmd.com!
I learn that triple cream cheeses are fortified with additional cream to bring them to 75% butterfat, versus 45% for single cream. I learn that cow's milk cheeses can begin nutty but will end creamy, as opposed to sheep's cheeses which often end with a nutty finish. I learn that I am in love with Casatica di Bufala from Lombardy, Italy. Delicious.
There is so much to learn and taste that we end up having a late lunch. (Complete with water buffalo ice cream) After lunch we go through the process of making cheese.
Nothing can be so simple and so complex at the same time. Plus, there are endless variations on cheese-making. The basics are: 1) warm milk and add culture, 2) add rennet, 3) set/cut/stir curd, 4) heat/cook, 5) drain, and 6) press/no press. The cultures are microorganisms that love to digest milk sugars and create lactic acid. They can come from freeze-dried cultures, "backslop" from yesterday's whey, environmental sources, cultured dairy product like buttermilk or yogurt, among others.
The first day ends with a delightful cocktail and mingling. I leave feeling charged up on the energy of cheese and my fellow cheese eaters.