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Dinner at the Cheese School

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Twice in the past few weeks I've spent an evening at the Cheese School in San Francisco. Since the time amounted to both an enlightening class and a fancy dinner, I thought more Chowhounds should know about it.

The Cheese School celebrates its first birthday soon and currently occupies a cozy second-floor suite in Northpoint/North Beach. It is run by Sara Vivenzio and features a range of cheese educators and -makers. I'll concentrate here on the Cheese School class as a dinner destination, although I think it's also a huge boon to the Bay Area from an culinary-o-intellectual viewpoint.

At this week's class, led by clever former Harley Farms worker and Queens-raised cheese educator Wil Edwards, we went through a set of sheep cheeses. They are all cheeses you can buy in the Bay Area at retail, and they were diverse in style and flavor. For the record:

Yogurt from Bellwether Farms (Sonoma).
Sally Jackson sheep (Oroville, Wash.)
Brebiou (Rhone-Alpes, Fr.)
Ombra (Catalonia)
Vermont Shepherd (Putney, Vt.)
Woodcock Farms Westin (Westing, Vt.)
Berkswell (Berkswell, U.K.)
Cacio di Basco Tartuffo (Tuscany)
Serra da Estrela (Beira, Port.)
Carles (Roquefort, Midi-Pyrenees, Fr.)

With these comes a basket of bread, both the sweet baguette and the walnut-brown bread from Acme. Three additives included Marshall Farm wildflower honey, which is an important element in the adventure of cheeses versus other things. That is, if you like a cheese and it has strong flavors, try it with honey and see what that brings out. Cheese, unlike wine or a salad, doesn't really have a way for the maker to add sweetness, even when sweetness will complement the cheese's fatty, salty, umami qualities. The other condiments were a Frog Hollow nectarine preserve and a fig and almond spread from Gracious Gourmet, both good in their own right but very intricate when you are trying to taste ten different cheeses (and two breads and four fruits).

Other side plates contained a huge portion of cut figs, good raspberries, better strawberries, and very good Granny Smith (I think) apples. A water glass, a bowl of Marcona almonds, and we were ready to go.

The best of the cheeses -- like the Sally Jackson and the Serra da Estrella -- slightly overshadow some of the others. One of the good things about being in a class is that you go slowly, so you can taste even the intricacies of a less pugnacious or assertive cheese: Berkswell is remarkably good to eat and has a fun history to learn about, even when it's among more swaggering company.

The Cheese School might seem an expensive dinner, at $60 for a class like the one we took. However, you are getting a full meal, all set at once and without any wine bill or tip. On your plate is about an ounce each of ten or so cheeses. This is a lot of cheese.

The two wines, chosen by the school, are appropriate, and your glass will prove nearly bottomless, as one of the school's workers refills it should you decide that, say, your pecorino needs a pint of pinot to wash it down. Our wines were '02 Monmousseau Vouvray chenin blanc (Loire) and '06 Mark West pinot noir (Sonoma). Both hold up to sheep cheese richness.

Cheese School is a good solo dinner or a swank date. No menu, no choices, and you have to like cheese and be willing to listen. Mostly, you are getting to try in a pure state some of the best foods that often end up as ingredients elsewhere.

Cheese School of San Francisco
2155 Powell, 2nd fl., San Francisco, (415) 346-7530, www.cheeseschoolsf.com

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  1. Interesting idea, but $120 for two doesn't seem like a very good value compared with buying an assortment of cheeses at a first-rate cheese shop.

    Did the class include a lot of information you couldn't get from the standard references such as Steven Jenkins's Cheese Primer and The Murray's Cheese Handbook?

    3 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      It definitely isn't a way to save money or a cheap date. Here are the advantages:

      You get the information cheese by cheese, and the educators have stories and some data that neither Jenkins nor the Handbook contain. In one class, for example, Wil handed out the EU application for protection of the status of the Serra da Estrela cardoon-curdled cheese. Plus, you can ask questions.

      The selection is of one-person portions of cheeses in prime condition. I guess you could buy 2 oz of each cheese at Cheese Plus or at the Ferry building, but it would be hard (for me, at least) to know which cheeses to buy.

      It's also an evening out, which is different from an evening at home.

      I come away from each class with a more articulate idea of what I like and don't like about the cheeses.

      1. re: David Sloo

        Thanks for the info! My husband and I are signed-up for the Basic Cheese Primer class at the end of the month. I agree that it's difficult to know which cheeses to buy. Hopefully this class will help - I'm really looking forward to it!

      2. re: Robert Lauriston

        Seen from that perspective, no, it's not a good value...but seen as an educational program to learn about cheese, it's reasonable...UC Extension classes on wine, or food and wine, can run to $350 per person, and sometimes there's a "materials fee" of $75-$90 added on...so, the Cheese School's programs aren't bad...

        My Beloved Karen and I took the introductory cheese class at the school, and were satisfied with it...even though we already had some self-accumulated knowledge, the class gave that information a context...I'd say it was like taking a survey course in college...