How To Get A Cheese Education

This week, I’m thinking about a question from a reader named Mia. She wants to live the golden dream — to work in the cheese world as either a maker or a monger. She wrote to me asking how to gain experience. When I put the question out on Twitter recently, several cheesemongers fired right back: “Tell her to get a job at a cheese counter!”

For Mia and others who are sniffing along the dairy periphery, below are some useful resources. I should note that Mia has already explored some of these books and opportunities. She’s clearly a woman ahead of her time. I hope to meet her soon — hopefully, over a stack of wheels.

Essential Readings

The Cheese Primer

Steven Jenkins, the man who launched Dean & DeLuca’s cheese program, surveys European cheese and offers the expertise of an importer. His primer feels a little out of date now, but I still see dog-eared copies behind every cheese counter. His regional maps are essential to understanding terroir.

Mastering Cheese

Artisanal’s Max McCalman approaches cheese as a master taster. His book on the subject includes fascinating insights into animal husbandry, chemistry, and pairing principles. Best of all, he assigns specific cheese boards as homework so you can learn about milk types and aging periods in a very hands-on way.

The Cheese Chronicles

Liz Thorpe, of Murray’s, taught the staff at The French Laundry how to serve cheese. Her book focuses on the cheese renaissance in America and highlights pioneering cheesemakers from California to Maine. She offers keen personal insights, and her “Cheddar Lexicon” is brilliant.

Janet Fletcher’s Column

Fletcher writes about one cheese per week in The San Francisco Chronicle. Each column offers a glimpse into a new import or recent release. Read her for a year and look for the cheeses she recommends; her discoveries and pairing suggestions are spot on.

 

Worthwhile Pursuits

Make friends with a local cheesemonger.

Find a mentor in your community. Visit a local cheese shop regularly and ask to taste the cheeses that you read about. People who work in cheese generally love to share knowledge.

Go to bootcamp.

Check out the courses offered by Murray’s and Artisanal next time you’re in New York. These come highly recommended, and they’re the equivalent of an SAT prep class on the subject of cheese. In Philadelphia, Tria’s Fermentation School leads the way in cheese education for enthusiasts. If you want a hardcore class for mongers, check out The Cheese School of San Francisco. If you want a class for makers, visit The Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese (VIAC).

Get to know local cheesemakers.

Visit farmers’ markets and ask cheesemakers about volunteer opportunities if you’re interested. Many makers hire interns, assistants, and market helpers.

Vacation in cheese states. 

Wisconsin, California, and Vermont are the biggest cheese producers in the U.S. Make a pilgrimage along Vermont’s Cheese Trail or follow Wisconsin’s Cheese Map. All three states host annual cheese festivals.

Attend the American Cheese Society (ACS) Conference.

This is the equivalent of the Cheese Oscars, a show that everyone in the scene attends — from cheesemakers to cheese retailers. Go! You’ll eat mountains of cheese and meet makers from all over the world. You can volunteer to offset the expense of the ACS Conference. The ACS recently developed a Cheesemonger Certification Exam, but you need documentable cheese experience to take it.

Apply for a job at a cheese counter. 

As long as you’re curious and willing to learn, you have the basic credentials to work at a cheese counter. Apply for a position and see where it takes you. Good Food Jobs is a useful resource for anyone searching for openings.

For more on this subject, listen to Anne Saxelby’s radio program on Cheese Education and visit the ACS homepage for a list of cheese educators.

Valentine’s Cheese Advice

With the economy in the toilette, it’s an awfully good year to be a loving spendthrift. Instead of bedazzling a sweater and going out on the town, I suggest you bedazzle some goat cheese and stay in with some Steely Dan.

It’s as easy as picking up these chevre hearts—available at the Fair Food Farmstand in Reading Terminal—or making your own.

Come on, you can find some fresh goat cheese and figure out how to press it between sheets of waxed paper for some easy molding. Pete Demchur of Shellbark Hollow rolls his cuties in fresh lavender buds and pink peppercorns, but you could roll yours in some paprika, craisins, or za’atar. That’a grrrl, Martha.

Below, I’ve listed all the scrumptious sides you could ever want for a lover’s cheese board. Pick up some goat cheese, a weepy Brie, and a sweet hunk of Valdeon, then lock the door. Turn off all the lights, scramble for a candle, and feed your naughty cherub these tender morsels:

  • Cherry preserves
  • Spiced pecans
  • Dark chocolate
  • Honey
  • Dates
  • Baguette
  • Champagne

Don’t forget to relax the cheese! What I mean is, while you’re taking a warm bath, leave the cheeses on the counter. You want to serve them at room temperature. Otherwise this whole exercise is pointless.

Cheese & Champagne Class: If you want to bone up on the finer points of serving bubbly and Brie, check out the Cheese & Champagne class at Di Bruno Bros., 1730 Chestnut St., on Friday, Feb. 10, at 6:30 p.m. The swarthy Richard-Luis Morillo will demo and discuss. Tickets: $20. For more info, call 215-665-1659.

Downton Abbey Cheese Board

I can’t seem to get enough of the PBS series, Downton Abbey, and neither can you. This became clear at the Cheddar class I taught on Friday night at Tria’s Fermentation School. It was a Masterpiece Theater loving crowd (lots of beards and one waistcoat); Lady Grantham would have fit right in.

By the end of the night, we’d eaten seven Cheddars, and there was hardly a crumb on the tables. After everyone left, I couldn’t help but imagine them settling in on their settees at home with a spot of port and an episode of Downton Abbey cued up for a nightcap. Since today is Sunday, and you’ll surely be watching, let me offer you a few crumbs of wisdom about building a Downton worthy cheese plate.

Read More

Ubriaco

Now that the holiday parties are over and more sleet is in store, a person can easily turn gloomy. If you find yourself prone to despair, I suggest a nice wedge of Ubriaco as a cure-all.

 Ubriaco, which means “drunken,” is a cheese that understands darkness. It spends months in a wine barrel before it comes to market. Originally, Italian cheesemakers hid wheels from tax collectors this way in order to avoid their fees. Eventually, these drunken cheeses became popular. Lucky for us.

Full disclosure: I freelance for Di Bruno Bros. Twice a month, I pick a wedge of my dreams and develop a post for their blog. This is how I cover the cost of my dairy habit.

Reading Raclette

So many award-winning cheeses are made in Vermont these days that it’s easy to feel Green State envy. One Vermont cheese that’s got cheesemongers buzzing this winter is Reading Raclette. Now, the Swiss make Raclette and so do the French, but until Spring Brook Farm introduced its artisanal version from Reading, no American cheesemaker had come forward with a melt-away Alpine stinker this good.

Reading Raclette has another thing going for it. All of the proceeds go to a Vermont nonprofit called Farms for City Kids that offers urban school children a chance to explore farming and cheese making. To continue reading, please visit the Di Bruno Blog.

Full disclosure: I am a freelancer for Di Bruno Bros. Twice a month, I select a cheese and develop a post for their blog. This is how I cover the cost of my dairy habit.