I love giving gifts that are unusual and completely unexpected. I also love giving gifts I can reap the benefits from. For Christmas I got John a gift certificate for a class at The Cheese School of San Francisco. I had stumbled upon the school randomly online one day while googling away my afternoon, hoping that the internet would have the answer to all my problems of how to trade in the day job so that I can pursue my real passions. Daydreaming of writing cook books and going to culinary school to get that street-cred I've always wanted. Well my problems weren't solved, (dammit Google DO BETTER!), but I did find The Cheese School and that was definitely something.
So a few months after Christmas we finally got around to signing up for a class. Turns out there are a lot of food nerds in San Francisco, because almost all of their classes were full, but we managed to squeeze into "Fundamentals of Flavor: How to Taste Cheese". Stop right there. I know exactly what you're thinking. Step 1: open mouth. Step 2: insert cheese. Step 3: chew. Step 4: swallow. Repeat. Believe it or not, there is a lot involved in tasting cheese. And I mean really tasting cheese- the kind of tasting you do with your eyes closed so you can experience every nuance the gooey morsel has to offer. Basically eating cheese while looking like a complete asshat, poking, prodding, sniffing, and examining each wedge like a lab rat.
The Cheese School is absolutely adorable, located in North Beach- the Disneyland version of Little Italy, in an old Victorian house. We were greeted with sparkling wine and perused the numerous books on cheese while we waited for class to start. Daphne Zepos was our teacher for the evening and the classroom was set up with tables in a large u-shape where each student had an assigned seat, a giant sheet pan filled with cheese, and accoutrement of strawberries, sliced baguette, and salted marcona almonds. If only college had been like this, I would have gone to class more. Mom, Dad- you didn't read that.
We would be tasting 12 cheeses that evening, tasting in pairs, going from mildest to most pungent in flavor. But before we could get to eating there was that whole class thing, you know, instructions and information for your brain before the pig-out fest. I learned that tasting cheese can be broken down into 6 steps:
Create the right environment for tasting
Inspect both the outside and inside of the cheese for indications of what the texture and taste of the cheese might be like. If the rind has a bit of a bulge, the cheese is probably gooey, and the color of a cut piece of cheese can indicate freshness.
Sniff until you can sniff no more. A piece of cheese doesn't just smell like feet, it smells like feet that have just waded through a pile of salted cashews and then jumped around in a bale of hay. The point is, don't be general about the way you describe the scent. The more descriptive the better. It was also interesting to find out that the outside of a cut piece of cheese can smell very different from the inside of the same piece of cheese that is broken in half.
Squeeze it. Smoosh it. Does it leave a residue on your fingers? Is it oily, wet, buttery, or does it crumble into pieces. These are all indicators of what the cheese might taste like.
Finally, the moment we've all been waiting for. When eating cheese, take note of the "first bite" impression. Then, assess the texture of the cheese. And then keep chewing, and then chew some more. The flavor of a piece of cheese develops as you chew, so don't just hoover the thing, take your time and really taste all of the flavor notes that the cheese has to offer. Also, cheese ripens from the outside in so you should taste the most unripe part first, working your way to the ripest bits, noticing how the flavor changes and intensifies. Then taste the cheese as a whole.
Wait for the aftertaste by exhaling. This will activate the aromas from the nose and mouth, leaving you with a finish that you might not have noticed while tasting, and allows you to refine your original assessment of the cheese.
Now with all that newfound knowledge I could get to the main event! Here is a list of the cheeses we got to taste.
1. Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.,
2. Cowgirl Creamery,
Clabbard Cottage Cheese
3. Cypress Grove Chevre,
4. Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery,
Abbaye de Belloc
Pecorino Fogile di Noce
9. Cowgirl Creamery,
11. Jasper Hill Farm,
Bayley Hazen Blue
12. Colston Bassett,
Every cheese had its own unique flavor, even though each cheese within a pairing was similar in age, texture, and milk content. My personal favorites were the Purple Haze goat cheese and the the Old Amsterdam gouda, although they were all pretty amazing. I left the class feeling like a cheese connoisseur and really glad that I wasn't lactose intolerant.