How well do you really know your cheese? Long gone are the times when our choices were limited to cheddar, Swiss and American. Today, a veritable flow chart of questions presents itself when deciding which cheese to buy. What’s the difference between cow’s milk, goat’s milk and sheep’s milk cheeses? Do you prefer your goat cheese aged or are you an advocate of chevre frais? What’s so special about buffalo mozzarella as opposed to that shredded stuff in the bag? Is it true that the smellier the cheese, the better?
The anxiety is not unlike the nervousness one encounters when selecting a bottle of wine. Wine shop owners and label distributors began hosting wine tastings in order to assuage the apprehension of their customers. At St. James Cheese Company, owners Richard and Danielle Sutton decided to apply the same educational tool for cheese, and thus their “Cheese School” began accepting students.
The professors du fromage are Casey Foote and Justin Trosclair, two cheesemongers who guide each class through six different cheeses paired with six different wines or beers. Classes are organized around a theme based on commonality among the cheeses, whether that is geographic origin, type, texture, aging time, or other distinguishing characteristics. How does such a small store gather such an extensive catalog so as to design class after class without repeating the same old mold? “The cheese world is a rather small community, and [St. James owner] Richard [Sutton] has connections throughout the world,” explains Trosclair. These associations are how aged cheddar from a tiny farm in Indiana winds up next to epoisses flown in from Bourgogne.
Classes are held inside the store, where tables are arranged in a jigsaw manner to accommodate the various groups. Each student is provided with an individual tasting plate. Baskets filled with sliced baguettes from La Boulangerie are scattered amongst the tables. The tasting begins with a brief introduction from Trosclair and Foote, who offer insight as to why the taste differs from one cheese to another.
As scholars of their trade, Foote and Trosclair can succinctly explain the science behind the cheese, such as the chemical process behind a washed-rind cheese, or how a golden yellow cheese denotes a grass-fed animal. Having worked in a number of positions in the industry and visited a wide variety of cheesemakers, the duo has firsthand knowledge of whose cheeses suffer from inconsistencies and who sources their own milk. Such subtleties are magnified in the flavor and texture of the product.
Lessons are not limited to the science of curds and whey. Instead, Foote and Trosclair often interject their own personal anecdotes from their time on the cheese circuit. While enjoying a sharp wedge of pecorino, Trosclair educates the class on the strange seduction technique of male goats, who perfume their heads with urine in order to attract females. The ludicrousness of the FDA’s pasteurization requirements often comes up, but the discussion usually deteriorates into a cacophony of laughing and clinking glasses with the first mention of “barely legal cheese.”
Contributing to the festive atmosphere are the libations that accompany each course. St. James typically works with Beth Kehn, their representative from Glazer’s Distributors. “We usually call Beth and give her an idea of what cheeses we will be serving or what geographic region we are focusing on, and she tries to find wines that are either from the same region or will complement the flavor profile of the cheeses,” says Trosclair. The collaborative effort produces an eclectic list of pairings, ranging from a domestic microbrew with muenster to a German sparkling riesling with aged goat cheddar.
Because they recall their own increased enthusiasm for show-and-tell during school, Trosclair and Foote often incorporate special guests into the classes. Cheesy celebrities such as Wanda Barras from Belle Ecorces Farm are periodically in attendance and offer stories from the farm. On September 16, St. James will go porcine when Herb Eckhouse hosts a Thursday night prosciutto tasting of his Iowa-based La Quercia Meats.
Originally, classes were held every Wednesday evening, but demand is now such that there are duplicate classes on Thursdays. Despite the tight seating and shared tables—or because of them—the cheese class has become the party of the week for many local cheese lovers. For more information, go to StJamesCheese.com.