Cheese 101 @ Formaggio Kitchen

Cheese 101 is billed as Formaggio’s most popular cheese course, and at $35, it’s a bargain.  They offer it about once a month, and it sells out fast, so you’ll have to plan accordingly.  I reserved a spot for the March class back in January.  They have a generous 24-hr full refund policy, in case you realize you can’t make it as the date closes in.

The coworker with whom I had originally signed up unfortunately had to back out at the last minute.  I went solo and had a great time, but I definitely recommend going with a friend if you can (most people were there in pairs).

Adam Centamore and Vince Razionale, two of Formaggio’s genial cheesemongers, led the class.  I will not dwell on the frustration of my failed zipcar reservation, but it did make me a half hour late.  I got there toward the tail end of the introduction on the history of cheese and the basics of the cheese-making process (the function of rennet, separating curds from whey, adding flavoring, aging).  In a later aside, I was given the 30-second version of the history, and I will give you the one-sentence summary: a very long time ago, cheese was discovered by accident.  I thought the intro provided a broad but scant overview, this impression colored by the fact that I missed some of it.  The more interesting details came out over the course of the night via questions raised and by explication through the particular cheeses that we tasted.

Inside Formaggio:

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Cheese knives — check out that wicked one on the bottom left:
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Distracted by hanging meat:
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The weiner-wielding rabbit is standing on the counter that is stacked high with cheese during the day:
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There is no denying the consideration went into the cheese selection.  It displayed exceptional variety not just in type, but in texture, consistency, age, rind, and taste.  I was just as impressed with the accompaniments to the cheeses, which showcased the quality of Formaggio’s other products (and how that $25 jar of honey might best be deployed, if you have the guts to buy it).  There were also two wines: an Austrian white, and a French boxed red, a questionable attempt to cast away the perceived evil of boxed wines.  I was not a huge fan of the latter, and I’m by no means a wine snob.  The white however, a 2009 Berger Gruner Veltliner, was delicious and enjoyable even on a cold rainy evening.  I defer to this reviewer’s more precise description: “Fresh, clean, light citrus fruit flavor, refreshing acidity, with floral and mineral hints.”  I tend to stay away from whites, but here I found the sweetness light enough, and moreover grounded by the “floral and mineral hints” to which the review refers.

Part of the menu for the night (the blue cheese section and wine pairings got cut off):
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First cheese plate: the whitest cheese on the plate is the Mekkerbek Crottin from Belgium, and you can refer to the sheet for the other four cheeses, going clockwise from the Mekkerbek.  The blood red spoon contains the preserve from Brittany, the second spoon holds the Tarassaco honey, and the last is the Pierre Robert cheese.
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The fresh goat cheese was the first taste of the night and one of my favorites.  “Fresh” refers to cheese that is younger than 60 days old, so that much of the moisture is retained, giving you a wetter cheese.  And if you like the soft, tangy stuff, toss out whatever is in your fridge and get this stuff.  In texture it reminds me of a marshmallow, airy and delicate but without the sponginess.  The flavor is clean, and pleasantly tart, with a lactic kick at the finish.  The “real deal”-ness of this cheese, if you will, is undeniable.  But all were a pleasure to sample, lending themselves to different sensations and responses from the crowd.  My least favorite of this batch was the Pierre Robert (last spoon).  I might have been fooled into thinking I was spooning a glob of smelly butter into my mouth.  A dainty spoonful, but containing the pure sensation of fat nonetheless.  Thankfully, bread cubes were distributed freely throughout the night, providing some respite from the onslaught of dairy.  Speaking of fat, I learned that sheep’s milk cheeses generally contain twice the fat of goat’s or cow’s milk cheeses.  But I didn’t catch why (I think maybe more cream is incorporated into the final product?).

The Turco Floriano Tarassaco Honey generated unanimous approval from the class, and it’s impossible not to love — sweet, yes, but with prominent floral tones, lovely thick texture, and a vivid gold hue.  At $26.95 for 500g, it ain’t cheap, but you should decide for yourself if it’s worth it.

The second cheese plate with the rest of the cow’s milk cheeses, including the fabled blues.  Starting from the cheese to the left of the jelly– the Cabot Clothbound Cheddar (the one I took home), the Woods Cider Jelly, the washed-rind cheese (washed-rind = the funky barnyard kind), a creamy blue cheese from Germany, Taza Salted Almond Chocolate, and a potent Stichelton from the UK.
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The Cabot Clothbound Cheddar is one of the current customer favorites at Formaggio (and in the wider world of cheese).  Most people know Cabot as the commercial producer of those standard rectangular blocks of cheddar in almost every grocery store in the NE.  Lesser known is this cheese, which is so popular its revenue enables Cabot to fund its commitment to small, local farms in VT.  I fell in love with its nutty, savory quality, and the crunchiness lent by the protein granules.  As a caveat, some may find it gritty.  I forgot to ask why this particular cheese developed such a unusual texture — not sure if it has to do with the way it is stored (wrapped in muslin cloth, then rubbed with lard).  It’s also interesting that this was the only cheese of the tasting made from pasteurized milk.

The side-by-side comparisons of the two sheep’s milk and two blue cheeses, coupled with running commentary from Adam and Vince, proved highly informative.  It’s one thing to taste a cheese by itself and another to taste and judge it in relation to other cheeses.

In addition to discussing the specific products we tasted (and convincing some that one of the cheeses smelled like cat urine), Adam and Vince also talked a bit about Formaggio’s relationship with local producers like Twig Farm, which is run by a former Formaggio employee and his wife.  It was a brief but promising look into the kind of community that can be created on the supply side of the food economy.  I know at least I normally think of food communities from the consumption aspect, and I imagine most people that don’t work in the industry do as well.  It certainly deepened my appreciation for the cheese, grasping the dogged commitment to excellence on the part of the farmer, and that the customer’s support is so tangibly involved in keeping the family farm afloat.

More of the cheeses we sampled:
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After the class we got a sneak peek at the cheese cave in the basement of the store.  Stinky stinky goodness!

In the cheese cave:
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The door worth a thousand words; does it not beg for a story:
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The 09 Veltliner, a darn bargain at $13.95 for a liter:
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Adam and Vince take obvious joy and care in what they do, which alone makes the cheese course worth taking.  That kind of enthusiasm is just fun to be around, even if you know nothing about cheese.  And after this course, you will at least know a thing or two, and find yourself wanting to learn more.

Thanks guys!

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Formaggio Kitchen
244 Huron Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
(617) 354-4750

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2 thoughts on “Cheese 101 @ Formaggio Kitchen

  1. great post. (what happened with zipcar?) too bad i dont like cheese. as much as i liked your photos, i couldn’t bear thinking about how bad all that smells. yuuuuuck. dx

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