Several months ago, before I’d begun bike commuting in earnest and MUNI was my go-to method of transport, I made a project of finding the quickest two-bus route to work. I’d take the 21 or the 71 downtown, then catch either the F (Note: yes, I know the F is not a bus), the 8BX, or the 30. One morning, disembarking the 8BX, I walked past a sign advertising The Cheese School of San Francisco. Cheese school? I thought. Is this for real?
Is this ever for real! The Cheese School, as I learned, offers workshops in the history, production, and appreciation of cheese. There are offerings for those who wish to pair cheese with wine or with other foods (Cheese & Wine Pairing, Whisky & Cheese, Belgian Beer & Cheese, Red Wine & Cheese: Pairings that Tame the Tannins, and so on); there are courses about cheeses from different geographic regions (Cheese & Wine of Spain, Cheeses of Italy). There are And for those who just want to know the basics, there’s a cheese primer. In fact, there were so many choices on the course list that I was pleasurably overwhelmed: where would I begin my educational journey about this food of the gods, this beloved food o’ mine?
I decided to start simple. I registered myself (and Hook) for Home Cheesemaking, the description of which follows:
Chef, educator and cheesemaker extraordinaire Sheana Davis will lead this brand new class focused on making fresh cheeses at home. Through demonstration and discussion this class will provide an introduction to the basic principles of making fresh cheese, covering three different fresh cheese types for the home cheesemaker. As a special treat, each student will be provided with fresh chèvre to form and infuse with their own custom blend of herbs and zest, and will be able to take their creation home to share with family and friends.
Sounds good, right? It seemed only logical that I begin at the beginning, learning how to make my own cheese before learning about cheeses of a specific country, or about pairings with 72%-cacao chocolates. (Note: Taking this seminar also puts me closer to achieving one of my resolutions from last New Year’s: “Learn to make my own cheese.” I bought a book on the topic but sadly, regrettably, have not cracked it yet. Oops.)
When Hook and I arrived at the school, an airy group of rooms on the second floor of a building on Powell, we were promptly handed glasses of sparkling wine. Holla! (Note: I’m immediately more inclined to appreciate an experience if said experience begins with sparkling wine.) In the “classroom area,” rows of tables were set with tablecloths, plates of samples, baskets of bread medallions and trays of figs; rustic decanters of water and tumblers were placed at one end of each table, pyramids of empty jars at the other. In the front of the so-called classroom was Ms. Davis’ demonstration table, complete with burner, cheesemaking gear, and samples of cheeses she’d prepped the night before. (Ms. Davis brought jars of creme fraiche and chevre that she’d started earlier so that we, the students, could see these cheeses in a more advanced stage of development.)
The class itself was relatively informal. Ms. Davis had prepared a handout detailing the eight main steps of cheesemaking (common to the preparation of all varieties, that is) and including recipes for the three soft cheeses — paneer, chevre, and creme fraiche — that we’d be sampling during the class. An assistant distributed said handout to the participants, and we mulled it over while we sampled the cheeses we’d be learning to prepare. The plates of cheese samples were beautifully presented; accompanying the cheeses was a portion of Meyer Lemon preserves that was maybe the best thing (or preserve, anyway) I’d tasted in the last month.
Davis first made paneer; the whole process, from heating the milk to Finished Product, took about fifteen minutes. Score! I thought. A cheese for someone with my limited attention span! Instant gratification has its drawbacks, though: while the cheese was prepared quickly, it was a bit bland, similar to mozzarella but without the same bite. (Note: Hook and I decided that, if we make paneer, we’ll add chopped herbs or maybe black pepper to kick up the flavor.)
Next, Davis demonstrated how to start making chevre and creme fraiche; both varieties have to sit overnight, so Davis explained the process in-depth while showing us how to heat the milk to the correct temperature (and emphasizing that heating the milk is a process that requires vigilance: overheat it and you’ll have to start from scratch). It was at this point that the pupils, myself and Hook EXcluded, became quite chatty, murmuring amongst themselves about Cowgirl Creamery and where to find raw milk and god knows what else. I’ll say that I was put off by the seeming disrespect of the other attendees, but the workshop was casual and Davis didn’t seem to mind the chit-chat.
Glasses of wine and two hours later, We the Students were allowed to “infuse” fresh chevre with our choice of add-ins: chopped red peppers, chopped cranberries, pumpkin butter, or nuts. (Note: the jars stacked at the far end of each table? Those were for our so-called “cheese infusions!”) Hook filled his jar with plain chevre and called it a day. I mixed mine with pumpkin butter and cranberries and could barely screw the lid on. (Oops.) I liked the mix-ins the school provided: I only wish there had been more options — fresh-chopped herbs, say, or a greater variety of dried fruits. Still, the cranberry-pumpkin chevre mixture hit the spot, especially on a flax-blend English muffin.
How did this first cheese class rank? Thanks to the generous samples and even more generous pours, pretty highly. Davis is both experienced and very enthusiastic about her profession; she aptly handled the questions shot at her by the students without blinking an eye. Cheerful, energetic, and exuberant, Davis’ enthusiasm was so great that it made me want to run out and buy a cheese thermometer and cheesecloth immediately. In any pursuit, a good teacher is key: not only does the instructor impart the knowledge essential to the craft, but piques the pupils’ enthusiasm. Davis did both.
That said, I wish the class had been more interactive. Given the fairly high enrollment and the limited classroom space, I understand that a total hands-on experience was out of the question, but this event felt more like a tasting than a true workshop. Still, I’m ready to take my new-learned cheesemaking skillz to the kitchen. I’ve bought a stockpot; I’m going to buy my cheesecloth, thermometer, and cultures. Then, I’ll hit the ground running (and will hopefully have some luscious curds & whey to show for my efforts).