MONTANA AVE — It is a fine thing indeed when we happen upon such a glorious creation as cheese.
Perhaps divine intervention played a hand the day a young traveler decided to pack an animal intestine full of milk before traveling what was probably several hundred miles on muleback enduring hot temperatures.
And to his dismay (but our eventual enjoyment), that milk had miraculously turned to cheese when he arrived at his destination. Of course, he didn’t know it was cheese and was probably fairly upset that he couldn’t guzzle a bagful of warm milk he’d been daydreaming about along the way. Suffice it to say, he must have been famished to test the unknown solidified creation. Maybe he wasn’t so bright, or maybe he was a mad genius and had planned this all along. Whichever it was, I’m glad for it, because since that fateful day a long line of cheesemongers have perfected a multitude of dairy products for us all to appreciate.
I had the good fortune of taking a beginner cheese making course at The Gourmandise School of Sweets & Savories, but that only made me want to know more. So, after a little research, I found a class offered at Andrew’s Cheese Shop on Montana Avenue. It was nearby and we would be able to sample several cheeses during the event. Score!
Andrew, the proprietor and instructor of Andrew’s Cheese Shop, may appear a little rough around the edges upon first meeting, but there’s no mistaking his love of cheese. He began by telling the class that he has a lot of pet peeves, which he would explain thoroughly so that we would know better when we came into his shop.
I think his biggest one was when people ask him for a “good” cheese. Per Andrew, you need to trust that all of the cheeses in his shop are good. That said, I distinctly remember him saying that he cannot determine what I might like because he’s not me and therefore doesn’t know what I like. It’s very much the same with wine. Wine connoisseurs often ask questions like, “Do you prefer something robust or one that is more smooth?” and “What do you plan to pair with your selection?” or “Do you just want to enjoy this alone?” or “When do you plan to consume this?” Once he knows the answers to those types of questions, a wine (or cheese) connoisseur can better assess what type you may enjoy.
Andrew also gave the class a very clear explanation of what cheese really is. Using the story of the desert traveler as an introduction, Andrew explained that cheese results when milk is heated, agitated and combined with some form of enzyme or acid. It can also be described as the controlled spoilage of milk. The curds that separate from the whey (just like in the nursery rhyme) are what we consume when we eat cheese.
Of course, lots of factors combine to determine the flavor and texture of any given cheese. For instance, the diet of the animal whose milk is used to make the cheese can greatly influence the flavor. This, along with the surrounding soil and climate, are often referred to as “terroir,” and terroir, more than anything, contributes to a cheese’s unique flavor. In short, two cheeses made in two different locations using the exact same processes would not taste the same because of the difference in environment.
Throughout the two-hour class, Andrew delivered more fascinating anecdotes on the nuances of cheese. Ever wonder why cheddar cheese is orange? Apparently after a long day of grazing in the pasture, a cow will produce a richer, more flavorful milk. The farmers back in the day would often milk twice and the cheese made with the late day milk would be colored a yellowish-orange from the higher levels of beta-carotene. People noticed the orange cheese tasted better and in turn those wheels sold faster. So, the cheese makers, to boost sales, began mixing in annatto seeds with the curds to artificially color it orange. Luckily, now people aren’t as easily fooled and we see cheddar cheeses without the added, unnecessary colorant.
And I learned that we owe a lot to monks. Not only do we credit them with inventing beer, but they are also responsible for creating a great number of cheese varieties. They figured out that by stepping on the cheeses and rubbing off the bacteria from their feet (gross, right?), a protective barrier was formed that helped the cheese to age better. The resulting moldy rinds are usually edible, but that doesn’t mean you have to eat it. (Andrew recommended eating it only if you like but don’t feel like there’s a right or wrong way to eat cheese).
Another legend states that a monk left a half-eaten sandwich in a cave where cheese was aging and the mold that formed on the bread became airborne. It was unknowingly incorporated into the vat of cheese and instead of starting over they determined that the mold actually helped to protect the cheese from bacteria. And, of course, this is how we get the pungent and flavorful blue cheeses where you can literally see the veins of mold.
While filling our heads with all of this cheese knowledge, we also sampled a Camembert from France which was made from cow’s milk, a goat’s milk cheese from Spain called Leonora (my favorite), and another cow’s milk cheese from France called Beaufort. There were several more tasty treats and an almost endless supply of rustic bread and wine to boot. It was a good night and a class I highly recommend for those interested in more cheese knowledge.
If you go
Andrew’s Cheese Shop
728 Montana Ave.
Santa Monica, Calif.