Before starting this blog, I googled “cheese aficionado” to see if there was an alternative word for a cheese expert. Affineur, I learned, refers to someone who ages cheese and/or purveys it. Not the word I was looking for. However, in my search I was left dumb struck by an on-line poll that asked; “What is your favorite cheese?”, and “How do you like to eat it?”
The answers lead me to believe that most of the people answering that particular poll were so young their mom buys the groceries, keeping the good stuff for after the kids go to bed . . . or their entire exposure to cheese is based on whatever is stocked in a basic supermarket dairy case. Monterey Jack, mozzarella, gouda, and cheddar got a few votes, but I was gob smacked, (perfect timing for this term) seeing votes for Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese! Tell me you’re joking!
Thank goodness no one voted for Velveeta, or American cheese — those slices individually wrapped in cellophane. I guess everyone knows that Velveeta and American cheese are actually milk products processed to the smithereens to make it look like cheese, totally missing the actual taste of cheese. It shouldn’t be lost to history, that in the 1920’s American cheese was called rattrap cheese, or rat cheese. That’s pretty much what I’d use it for. . . IF I had the need for a rat trap.
I admit it . . . I appreciate great cheese, but I’m certainly no aficionado. But, fortunately, Sarasota does have an honest to goodness cheesemonger, who lives and loves the culinary art of cheese at The Artisan Cheese Company, located on lower Main Street. That’s good to know, because my knowledge of all things cheese could certainly use a refresher course.
Here, our local cheesemonger, Louise Converse (affectionately known as Cheese Louise) teaches advanced cheese knowledge at a class called Cheese 101. I dropped by The Artisan Cheese Company just prior to her most recent class, where I saw first-hand the preparation and dedication Louise and her team of Kira and Angela, take preparing for the class. Cheese 101 classes take ‘students’ through 8 – 10 cheeses, covering a little bit of milk science, stories behind the various cheese makers and a lot of fun.
The classes are limited to 14 people, the evening designed to exact detail. Each student gets their own large cheese board, with freshly sliced cheeses along the bottom half, and various parings arranged along the top. At this class’ boards I saw the expected parings; figs, strawberries, honey and salami, but also a few head turners . . . a fresh slice of raw walnut, pickle, (?) black tea preserves, balsamic jam and pickled raisins. Their board even included a new lavender caramel sauce for the class to taste. Wow!
Accompanying each cheese board was a cup of cold bottled water, another each of Prosecco, Pinot Grigio and – because it’s summer – a rosé instead of a red wine. Artisan Cheese Company’s team knows precisely how much to pour into each glass so every guest has the exact same pour, and each bottle of wine was poured to empty. That’s amazing in itself!
After a fair amount of effort, the classroom is set and ready for the class to start. “We teach the difference between a fresh cheese and an aged cheese, a cow cheese from a goat or a sheep’s milk cheese. But what we really want is do with Cheese 101 is take away the intimidation of trying new cheeses,” Louise explains. Just cheesy!
“Knowing where your food comes from is key to learning how the fresh ingredients from that area affect the taste of your food,” Louise shared with the class. “Tasting cheese is akin to wine tasting. We start each Cheese 101 class learning how to smell cheese before you taste it. Smell is subjective, and we teach that cheese is best tasted by first experiencing it retro-nasally — smelling all the way back into your nasal passage where the smell becomes a memory or conjures a memory of something you’ve smelled before. ”
“Smell this next cheese, ” Louise asks of the class. “What does it remind you of? Do tell – there are no wrong answers.” Louise rarely suggested what a cheese would/should smell like, something I personally appreciated. The class often came up with the same smell “memory”, but every so often someone suggested something unique to them, and once mentioned, other students picked up on their suggestion and marveled at how that affected their perceived taste of the cheese.
“Can’t think of a word to describe the smell you’re experiencing? Louise shares. “Just add a ‘Y” to a word and it becomes a way to describe the smell and taste of cheese,”
Several times she asked which cheese the class liked best. “I can’t say! ” one student said gleefully, “My mouth is so confused!”
“I thought the 1st cheese was my favorite,” another said. “Then I thought it was the 4th cheese. Now I’m liking this one . . . I think it was the 7th cheese. Can we start over?”
As the class moved through the various choices, Louise and her team suggested the different pairings on the cheese board, as well as the wines. “Take a bite of this next cheese, taste it and give me a word that describes the taste. Now, take a sip of the Prosecco,” Cheese Louise said. “Taste the bubbles and the crispness of the wine as it goes down your throat. Now take another taste of the cheese. Can you detect a difference in the taste of the cheese? Delightful, don’t you think?”
As expected, not every cheese was as popular as the next, and you can bet those who prefer a nice “stinky” cheese, like a blue or a gorgonzola, weren’t as big a fan of the fresh, lighter flavored cheeses. That’s where the parings really showed their power.
“I’m not liking this gorgonzola, ” one student said. “It’s my least favorite.” Others in the class did not agree.
“I’d have to describe that particular cheese as “One that doesn’t play well with others.” Louise shares.
“Oh! Try it with the raspberry jam!” assistant cheese monger, Kiera suggested, resulting in a complete flip-flop on that student’s initial response.
Cheese 101 classes are sold out every time they’re scheduled, so you’ll want to attend a class, go to their website and register for the first available spot. Can’t find a class with enough room for you and your friends? Ask Louise about hosting a private event. The shop hosts a number of private classes for bridal showers or family reunions, charity events or office gatherings.
I had to ask Louise how the shop fared after a year of road construction right outside their front door. “We’re busier than we’ve ever,” Louise smiled. “Happily, our clientele are locals who drop by after the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market, or during lunch or on their way home after working downtown, with a lot of support from residents of nearby high rise condos.”
The Artisan Cheese Company recently extended their hours of operation until 8:00pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Classes and private events take up other nights of the week.
I’m thinking cheese is the ideal ingredient for brightening up the standard summer menu. When most of us start eating lighter, cheese provides so many choices in flavors and variety, without the hot oven or stovetop. And honestly now . . . What salad or light pasta wouldn’t be better with cheese as a featured ingredient?
Now that I know a little more about cheese, I’ll feel better experimenting with this wonderfully expressive food. Cheese 101, 102, 103 . . . here I come!