In a bright, naturally lit room lined with six long black tables and headed by a podium, each of the 14 places set at the table is a clockface made of cheese. Three beers headline the place settings, and the tables are strewn at their edges with folders, notepapers, pens, and those folded name placards you may have had in elementary school—except nicer looking and professionally printed.
This was what we almost had to run away from last Monday: a classroom centered on cheese. Luckily, our flight was delayed by almost an hour, so Alicia and I decided to stay and finish the final lesson of the Three-Day Intensive Cheese Education Program at The Cheese School of San Francisco.
Sticking around not only allowed us to properly finish the 10- and 11-o’ clock cheeses on our plates (as opposed to my panicked, last-minute method of shoving cheese into my mouth so that I could taste them all!); it also gave us the opportunity to collect our completion certificates, dine on tarts made with Brillat Savarin, drink a glass of sparkling wine, and both walk beneath and take part in holding up the human hand gauntlet that went up every time the next person finished her or his course survey and exited the classroom for the courtyard, cheese tarts, and California champagne.
We also got to more properly say goodbye to the wonderful people we’d met: classmates from around the US and the cheese world, our final speaker, Debra Dickerson (of Tomales Bay Foods, Cowgirl Creamery’s distribution arm), our magnificent instructor, Juliana Uruburu (of Market Hall Foods), and the fantastic staff of the Cheese School who nourished us with food, intellectual stimuli, conversation, and good structure during our three days there.
In essence, we completed an experience that was every bit as “worth it” as we could have hoped. For two cheesemongers from Seattle, the class was inspiring, thought-provoking, and, well, great fun.
Sure, there was a good deal of information that we already had in our arsenals. But it is always nice to reinforce what you know and give yourself a silent pat on the back for knowing the answer. It’s also a good idea to hear things different ways from different people.
We also learned quite a lot that we didn’t know, or weren’t aware of, anyway—which is one reason why the course was so great for us. Our little brains were constantly churning and ticking, processing new ways of doing what we do on a daily basis—why do we cut cheese this size, anyway? Would it be more efficient to tackle Reggiano the way she does it? Why wouldn’t you pair this thing with that cheese? Who knew hazelnuts could be so damn nutty?
Of the people we heard from during those three days, our instructor Juliana resonated so much with Alicia and I. After all, we are the same breed: cheesemongers.
Juliana led us through lessons on the types of cheeses through two different tastings: a horizontal tasting of four different types of dairy items in order of cow’s, sheep’s, buffalo, and goat’s milks, and a vertical tasting of cow’s, sheep’s, buffalo, and goat’s milk products of different types. She also had us taste cheese with wine and various pairings, taught us her way of cutting cheeses, which is admittedly very different from how we cut cheeses in our shops back in Seattle, and talked to us about basically everything.
Importantly, Juliana and the Cheese School took us to a goat dairy farm in Pescadero, an hour south of San Francisco along Highway 1. Harley Farms Goat Dairy not only put us in touch with cheesemaker Dee Harley and her team, but also with a herd of Alpine goats who were basically like super chill dogs—and all of the baby goats that were being born in the spring rush.
Everyone got to hold a two-day-old goat, aka ruminant puppy. It was like we were on Oprah: “you get a goat! You get a goat! And you get a goat!”
Back in the classroom, we crossed paths with the Cheese School’s sommelier, Naomi Smith, who used to live in the Seattle area, is super cool and obviously possesses a wealth of knowledge. She didn’t feed us “rules” on what to pair with what, instead providing us a rundown on what tends to pair best and encouraging us to find out own happy pairings.
There was also Barbara Jenness, a retired cheesemaker who now owns a cheese shop in a more-or-less rural area, which was intriguing on the level of locavore movements and bringing special cheeses to the masses outside of the cities. She taught us how to make mozzarella curd on a home stovetop, which I have now failed at doing twice; I now know for a fact that it can be done, and I will succeed!
On the final day, we heard from a business owner, Ray Bair of San Francisco’s Cheese Plus, who was frankly inspirational. He told us all of the trials and tribulations he went through on his journey to success—as well as what worked and what didn’t. His presentation was of the caliber that made me want to start a kickstarter fund, quit my job, and go open my own store.
As I mentioned, there was also Debra Dickerson, who spoke to us about so many things: distribution, the care and keeping of cheeses, the American artisanal cheese movement, and California cheese. She led us through a cheese clinic to tell whether or not the five cheeses on each plate were still good, salvageable, or sad and ready to compost (think of it as “Is my cheese still good?” in real time); our team got all five cheeses right—totally beating everyone else. (That’s why you always want the cheesemongers on your team.)
The cheese school staff, including the owner, Kiri Fisher, chef Jocelyn Vanlandingham, and cheese buyer Eli Joyce, kept tossing in little nuggets of info that continued to pique and entice. The work they do there is amazing; there’s no other word for it.
Also, Jocelyn’s food is nothing short of badass. As if the cheese course bits weren’t enough, she just had to keep serving up delicious lunches. Geeze.
In a nutshell, we spent three days being blasted with information from all areas of our field, and we LOVED IT. LOVED IT.
Whether you’re a cheesemonger keen to keep on learning, someone who wants to open a cheese-centric business, or in the cheese distribution or cheesemaking games, this class comes totally recommended and worth it.
The class is only offered twice a year, too, and boasts a small class-size, so we had captured our spots in it like rare birds. We were the last two people to register, and practically at the last minute. After all the class ain’t cheap—but then again, neither is cheese.