In a recent trip to Paris, my heart was broken. Same old story, you think, but no: I had been walking around the Left Bank on a perfectly sunny day and decided to forgo a bistro lunch for culinary cliché—a picnic in the Jardin du Luxembourg, with a baguette and a ripe Camembert from Barthélemy, the famous fromagerie.
Barthélemy was closed: a sign on the door said the owners were on holiday.
I found a rebound Camembert, but the sting lingered; I love cheese that much. Proust can have his childish madeleines. I'll never forget that first, rich taste of French Muenster, or Prima Donna, a sharp Dutch Gouda that many people, thankfully, haven't heard about. I tear out mentions of cheese markets in magazines, so I know where to get a fix around the world (if not the shopkeepers' vacation schedules). In my job as a magazine editor, I assigned an article, purely out of passion, that investigated the Food & Drug Administration's refusal to back down from its baseless charges that raw-milk cheeses are dangerous. I smuggle oozy raw-milk Époisses and Livarots through customs, though the FDA has threatened a crackdown. On more than one occasion, I've ordered the cheese course as an entrée at restaurants where I knew it would outshine the food. Honestly, I could survive eating nothing but salty pecorino. Well, maybe not survive—but I'd die happy.
The best cheeses have real personality. My equally turophilic friend Rebecca hammered this point home when we went to Manhattan's premier cheese restaurant, Artisanal—the week it opened—and ordered a flight of 12 varieties, extra stinky. After sampling each, she made a pronouncement: "This one you sleep with and never call." Or "This one I might go out with again, if he were paying." Or even "I would consider cheating on my husband with this one." When we were done, we called the "cheese sommelier" back. Surely he had to have something stinkier....
We are not alone. In the past decade, American palates have become more sophisticated about all sorts of things: mesclun greens, microbrewed beers, fine wines, and, more recently, cheese. Gourmet markets have brought unheard-of varieties to places that knew only big blocks of waxy orange (what my friends call government cheese, and, yes, I realize how terrible that sounds). More people than ever, myself among them, are snootily bragging about how they've found a cheesemonger who hides the raw-milk contraband behind the counter, for customers who know to ask for it. With this comes a certain one-upmanship, a need to show that you are, in fact, the more dedicated connoisseur.
And that need—to prove my love—is what brought me to Warren, Vermont, for a three-day cheese-making class taught by Larry Faillace, who owns Three Shepherds of the Mad River Valley (named after his three children). A reproductive physiologist with a passion for cooking, Larry decided to make cheese in 1993. He did some research and imported a flock of sheep from Belgium; not long after, he began offering classes.
Joining me for the course were Wanda, who wanted to "save the dairy farm"; Mickey, who has an old greenhouse she'd like to put to use, with her son, Chris, a baker looking to expand his skill set; Sarah, a young foodie; and Rigdon and Gigi (Rigdon recently bought a farm in Maine). We started out with some classroom learning above the Schoolhouse Market, which is run by Larry's preternaturally nice wife, Linda. Larry, who resembles an elfin Rob Reiner, explained how cheese was discovered: ancient nomads stored milk in pouches made from animal stomachs, and one day, no doubt, someone left the milk in too long and the natural rennet in the stomach turned the milk to cheese. That's basically how you make it now. You combine a culture with warm milk, add rennet, remove the whey, and allow the curd to ripen. (People who love cheese but hate the idea of veal won't want to read this next bit: rennet, which looks like Pine-Sol, comes from calves' stomachs). Variations in the formula—the type of milk and culture, the amount of rennet, the duration of ripening—are what account for differences in cheeses.
On the way to Vermont, driving through green valleys and past rolling hills, I had daydreamed about my next life as an artisanal cheese maker. I'd live in a small town, perhaps even in Vermont, where the laid-back, hippie-chic people have always appealed to me. I'd have a simple white farmhouse with a tasteful white barn, and would spend the occasional afternoon whipping up fantastic batches of cheeses that chefs from Napa and New York would beg me to sell them—"I learned it all from Larry Faillace," I'd say. I was already creating memories of being elbow-deep in curds, stamping my personality onto the cheese, lending my essence to the art.
My romantic notions ended at the door to the facility. What quickly became clear was that the class isn't for hopelessly yuppie food snobs like me. It's for people who seriously want to make cheese, which is no small endeavor. We were given white aprons, white rubber boots, and white hairnets. (I shudder at the memory.) The metal structure, built by the Faillaces, is sheathed in a white, breathable plastic fabric—an opaque plastic greenhouse. The sun shines through and makes the room glow: with all the rigorous hand-washing and stainless-steel equipment, it appeared that we weren't going to make cheese so much as perform an autopsy on it.
I'd thought cheese making was an art; I was wrong. It's pure science. A thermometer is one thing, but litmus paper?The mere mention of a graduated cylinder and I need the salts.
Overlapping the processes to best utilize the time, we made yogurt from cow's and goat's milk; a soft ripened goat cheese; a hard cheese the Faillaces call Vermont Brabander; quark, which is kind of like mascarpone; and, somewhat inadvertently, crème fraîche (I don't know, it just happened). We learned a lot about everything—I come from a family of teachers, and recognized the gene in Larry—but mostly we learned various ways to separate the curds from the whey. There's cutting the curd with a set of parallel knives, creating what looks like tofu; scalding, in which we "shocked" the curds into releasing whey by adding hot water; pressing, which you do only to hard cheeses; flipping; purging... not to mention the astounding amount of cleaning and sanitizing. Thank God this wasn't one of those classes where they make you help out.
Praise Gouda, there was also eating. Terrific eating, in fact. At lunch the first day, the Faillaces passed around 20 cheeses, including some they'd made (and a spectacular raw-milk goat cheese called La Petite Tomme, from Vermont's Lazy Lady Farm). When Wanda's son, Nate, dropped a Gorgonzola on the floor, we dusted it off. These were my kind of people. While the second day's lunch had a lot less cheese, it was even more pleasant: under a blue sky, at a picnic table outside the market, we sipped wine and ate open-faced grilled Brabander-and-tomato sandwiches. As for the cheese that we had made, the Faillaces served the quark at a dinner at their house. It was actually tasty, but the maple syrup on top—in Vermont it's unavoidable—probably helped.
The other cheese we made had to wait. Taking pains to ensure that the farm doesn't run afoul of government regulations, Larry lets the cheese age for 60 days (he built a cave out of straw bales and mortar, next door to the facility).
"You know," Rigdon said, "even if we never make cheese, it's still been interesting to—"
"After going through this," said Gigi, cutting him off, "we're making cheese."
But I was with Rigdon. Like certain other things—yodeling comes to mind, as does pornography—cheese making is an activity better left to professionals. What I need is to eat cheese, not make it. Of course, that won't stop me from lording my newfound expertise over my cheesehound friends back home.
ERIK TORKELLS is a senior editor at Fortune.
BLESSED BE THE CHEESE MAKERS: FIVE MORE COURSES AROUND THE GLOBE
Die-hard turophiles (cheese lovers), rejoice. Here, some places where you can learn your way around a curd.
Glengarry Cheesemaking & Dairy Supply Whether you prefer Gouda, cheddar, or feta, you'll learn how they're made at a daylong class 1 1/2 hours outside Montreal. CLASSES $93. ALEXANDRIA, ONT.; 613/525-3133; www.glengarrycheesemaking.on.ca
New England Cheesemaking Supply Co. A great introduction for beginners, this six-hour seminar in the foothills of the Berkshires covers everything you need to know to make soft cheeses—plus a farmhouse cheddar—at home. CLASSES $100. 292 MAIN ST., ASHFIELD, MASS.; 413/628-3808; www.cheesemaking.com
Schaukäserei Kloster Engelberg It can take more than three years to become a Milchtechnolog, or cheese maker, in Switzerland, but you can watch the masters at work in a 12th-century monastery. KLOSTERHOF, ENGELBERG, SWITZERLAND; 41-41/638-0888; www.schaukaeserei-engelberg.ch
University of Wisconsin-Madison If you want to know the chemistry behind the cheese-making process, this intensive four-day course delivers. CLASSES $475. BABCOCK HALL, MADISON, WIS. 608/263-1672; www.wisc.edu
West Highland Dairy Intense three-day workshops at a homestead dairy in the Scottish Highlands. CLASSES $500. ACHMORE, KYLE OF LOCHALSH, SCOTLAND; 44-1599/577-203; www.westhighlanddairy.uk
Larry and Linda Faillace make cheese from May through October. Classes are $500, including course materials, all lunches, and one dinner (42 Roxbury Mountain Rd., E. Warren, Vt.; 802/496-4559). The 1824 House Inn (2150 Main St., Waitsfield; 800/426-3986 or 802/496-7555; www.1824house.com; doubles from $128), five miles north of the school, is a lovely bed-and-breakfast. Those looking for luxury might prefer the Pitcher Inn (275 Main St., Warren; 888/867-4824 or 802/496-6350; www.pitcherinn.com; doubles from $330), a Relais & Châteaux property. The inn's restaurant is one of the best in Vermont. It offers an extensive cheese selection; after a few days of working the curds, however, it just might push you over the edge.