It’s not every day you get to meet a dedicated group of cheesemongers, cheese makers, and one of the biggest influencers in cheese in the US, but I did, thanks to a last-minute invitation from Whole Foods to attend a cheesemonger training program north of San Francisco.
I was able to participate for one wonderfully inspiring afternoon of their multi-day training session, held at Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. But who were these cheesemongers seated around me? As it turns out, the American Cheese Society administers an annual exam to cheese professionals who would like to earn the title of “Certified Cheese Professional” (CCP). It’s an intensive test requiring a certain number of hours worked in the industry and thorough knowledge of cheese industry practices. Whole Foods and Cathy Strange have demonstrated their commitment to the CCP certification by supporting many Whole Foods cheesemongers throughout the exam process. The mongers here had to go through an additional application process to attend this trip, and all displayed strong knowledge, motivation, and passion for their cheese careers.
Ms. Strange’s commitment to fine cheese is something I’ve long known and admired. She told me that her goal is to have one certified cheese professional in every Whole Foods store (there are over 435 worldwide). However, the cheese professional exam aside, she really believes in having knowledgeable, passionate folks behind the cheese counter selling customers high-quality artisan cheese. This is not just something she told me that day. It’s something I’ve seen over the years at my local Whole Foods stores. And yes, I got kind of starry-eyed when I met her!
The mongers present that day had been flown in from all over the country—from Hawaii, Florida, Colorado, and other states—and they were ready to learn. Over the next couple of days, they were to visit local cheese greats like Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese and Cowgirl Creamery; taste cheeses, beers, and wines; learn about cheese storage and transport; go over regulatory points regarding cheese; and learn about making cheese. Their schedule was packed, but I think they savored every moment.
When I joined the mongers, we did two tastings: first, a vertical tasting of Carmody by Bellwether Farms, led by Liam Callahan himself; and second, a cheese pairing session with Lagunitas beer and local wine. Mr. Callahan’s tasting was eye opening. We tasted seven specimens of Carmody, aged one day to six months. I loved that day-old curd, not even salted, with its slightly acidic bite, and REALLY loved the six month aged morsel! You won’t find either in stores because Carmody is usually sold at about 6 weeks of age. It was so fascinating to taste through all of the cheeses. I sensed the paste lose elasticity with age, and the flavor become more concentrated with slight caramel notes in the more mature specimens. We also got to taste Blackstone, a new mixed milk cow and sheep cheese. Be on the lookout for this in your cheese case!
The following wine and beer tasting with Bellwether and Point Reyes cheeses gave me some great insights into how these makers like to enjoy their cheeses. Most notably, we got to taste Cornelia, which is Point Reyes’ Toma aged by Murray’s Cheese Shop. Washed and aged with the alpine cheeses, it has an earthy, asparagus, peanut butter flavor that would pair well with a Lager or Pilsner beer. Additionally, I found a great use for one of my favorite wines, chenin blanc. Our taste from Dry Creek paired beautifully with Toma—there were notes of peaches and honey all at once. It was all rather estival!
To close the day, we enjoyed a family-style meal comprised of chicken from Mary’s, greens and Point Reyes Blue, and delicious polenta infused with Toma.
Every time I drive home from Point Reyes, I marvel at how much agricultural wealth lies just beyond San Francisco. This day, I got to see a group of dedicated cheese professionals experience that for the first time. Ah, the joys of cheese!
See more photos from the day below:
*I was invited to attend in this program by Whole Foods. I received food and drink as a participant. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
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