SAN FRANCISCO — “Always taste from mild to wild,” proclaims Caitlin O’Neill, a certified cheese professional with The Cheese School of San Francisco.
We scribble the edict in our tasting notes, next to “cheddar is a noun and a verb” and “don’t eat the rind, if it smells like cat box,” trying for the hundredth time not to inhale every cheese on our plates, including a lush, rare French blue with origins in Roman times.
This is Cheese 101, an introduction to the fascinating world of preserved milk. We’re perched on the second floor of the school’s new digs at Daily Driver in the Dogpatch, the city’s only organic creamery, and hanging on O’Neill’s every word. A curd nerd of the highest order, she has taught classes on cheese in 40 states. Thirty minutes in, and we already know the anatomy of a triple cream, the name of the crunchy thingies in gouda – tyrosine crystals – and sparkling wine’s “scrubbing bubbles” effect on the palate.
If you want to learn the ways of whey, you can start by chatting up your No. 1 teacher – your favorite cheesemonger – at spots like Livermore’s Cheese Parlor, Berkeley’s Market Hall, Los Gatos’ Tasting House or Redwood City’s Sigona’s Farmer’s Market. This being the Bay Area, you can also bond with goats and sample cheeses made with their milk on a Marin farm tour, make mozzarella at Oakland’s Preserved and pair rare cheeses at San Jose’s Devine Cheese and Wine.
Later this month when the California Artisan Cheese Festivals rolls into Sonoma County, you’ll even be able to partake in the region’s first-ever cheese crawl.
'I want it to be completely accessible'
If you prefer a slightly more formal setting, The Cheese School of San Francisco is an ideal spot for exploring the wide variety of cheeses and cheesemaking, milk types, fermentation and different flavor profiles, so you know what you like the next time you visit a cheese shop. Who are we kidding? You take a class to stuff your pie hole with decadent, happiness-inducing cheese.
“There is scientific data on how cheese gives us the same high as certain drugs,” says Jeanine Egan, who owns the school. Egan left the corporate world in 2012, giving up offices in Paris and Berlin and gobs of money to become a cheesemonger. Last year, after a lengthy transfer of ownership, she saved the school from pandemic bankruptcy and moved it from the city’s Ghirardelli Square to its new Dogpatch home.
She says having a piece of cheese is like experiencing a piece of history.
“Learning about cheese comes across as being bougie, but really it’s a peasant food,” Egan says. “It’s a way to preserve milk, so people would have a protein in the winter. It is very connected to the earth. People might not know how to approach it, but I want it to be completely accessible.”
In addition to on-site classes – a whopping 21 through June, including “Ricotta & Fromage Blanc Cheesemaking” and “Mooove Over! Focus on Goat, Sheep and Buffalo Cheeses” – you’ll soon find The Cheese School popping up around the city, from the Ferry Building to Chase Center (Warriors cheese plate, anyone?). There’s talk of a cheese, charcuterie and bubbly cart, and taking the school on the road across the Bay Area and beyond.
“Our role is to lift up the cheesemakers, farmers and other small producers who make things that go with cheese,” Egan says. The Cheese School uses Acme baguettes and Ghirardelli chocolate in its Cheese 101 class, as well as sensational boozy raisins made by staffer Monika Nicolaescu.
Wearing all the hats
At Devine Cheese and Wine in San Jose, California, the only dedicated cheese restaurant in the South Bay, owner, chef and fromagier Liana Ryan offers 25 to 30 cheeses per night alongside charcuterie and seasonal small plates. A Bay Area native, Ryan grew up in San Francisco and Pacifica but found her cheese calling while living in New York City and working at Casellula, a cheese and wine cafe in Hell’s Kitchen. She opened Devine three years ago.
“My aim has been to introduce people to cheeses they’re not going to find at Whole Foods,” says Ryan, who has worked in restaurants for 30 years. Depending on the week, that might be an aged Tennessee blue wrapped in whiskey-soaked fig leaves, or a raw cow’s milk cheese from an all-female team in Switzerland that’s rind-washed in barrel-aged brine.
In those first months – the beginning of the pandemic – Ryan’s virtual classes are what kept the business from crumbling. Now, with a return to indoor dining, the focus has shifted to the restaurant and those impressive pairings (extra-aged Oakdale Gouda with hazelnut brittle, anyone?). But Ryan is used to wearing all the hats. She’ll even be your monger, offering samples and selling you a wedge of brie or cheddar when the restaurant isn’t too busy.
In-person classes, including this month’s spring-themed Cheese 101, are slowly making a comeback, she says. Education was always part of her cheese business plan.
“Cheese is an amazing natural product, and I think it’s important that people realize how much work goes into making it,” she says. “It came out of necessity, preserving nutrition, and now we get to play with it and create tasty new things.”
Creation is the ethos at Preserved, a DIY kitchen shop in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood that runs workshops in culinary preservation arts from pickling to cheesemaking. Owner-instructor Elizabeth Vecchiarelli says the monthly dairy offerings – March is all about mozzarella but they’ve also taught ricotta, paneer and feta – are among the school’s most popular classes. So are the virtual workshops on creme fraiche and other cultured creams.
“Aside from certain dietary restrictions, cheese is one of those things that has universal appeal,” she says. “To see the students’ childlike awe when we turn milk and lemon into farmer’s cheese, or a single ingredient – fresh cream – into butter, you get that immediate gratification.”
Vecchiarelli says the majority of first-time students are always surprised by how easy it is to make things like yogurt and cheese. Taking a class reminds us of our connection to food – and how much commoditization has changed the most basic of staples.
“Sometimes it’s fun to take a class just to learn something,” she says. “But it’s also important when you think of how much foods like ricotta or cream cheese have been altered from their simple origins. Learning what it should be, even if you’re not that maker, may inspire you to explore a better version.”
Classes and other events
Want to learn about cheese? Find classes and other events around the Bay Area at these cooking schools, restaurants and other businesses.
The Cheese School of San Francisco: This school offers certified cheese professional-led classes on cheese appreciation, cooking with cheese and making various cheeses. 2535 Third St., San Francisco; https://thecheeseschool.com
Devine Cheese & Wine: A cheese shop and restaurant, Devine offers fromagier-led cheese appreciation classes, both virtual and in person. 27 Devine St., San Jose, California; www.devinecheeseandwine.com
The Cheese Parlor: Enjoy cheesemonger-designed wine pairings and in-store happenings, such as raclette nights and a rare “parm crack” (opening an 88-pound wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano with special tools). 158 Maple St., Livermore, California; www.thecheeseparlor.com
Preserved: This Oakland kitchen shop, which specializes in fermentation and preservation, offers in-person and virtual classes on making mozzarella, creme fraiche and vegan cultured cheeses. 5032 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, California; www.preservedgoods.com
Kitchen on Fire: The schedule at this East Bay cooking school includes classes led by professional chefs and nutrition consultants, with fromage content such as a ricotta making session held virtually on May 27 and in person on June 10. 1509 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, California, and 6506 San Pablo Ave., Oakland; www.kitchenonfire.com
Planet Cheese by Janet Fletcher: Head for the Napa area for classes by Fletcher, a cookbook author and cheese blogger, who is offering 10 classes, including the long-running World Cheese Tour, through November; www.janetfletcher.com.
The Epicurean Connection: An award-winning cheesemaker and a wine educator teach classes on cheese pairing and hands-on cheesemaking. 19670 Eighth St. East, Suite A, Sonoma, California; https://theepicureanconnection.com
Artisan Cheese Festival: This grand fromage fest runs March 24-26 and includes farm tours in West Marin and Sonoma counties, cheese tastings, pairing demos and a “cheese crawl” at The Barlow in Sebastopol. Ticket prices range from $25 for the cheese crawl to $175 for farm tours that include wine, beer or mead tastings. Find details at www.artisancheesefestival.com.