Murray’s Cheese Boot Camp!

8 Aug


This past weekend, I enlisted in Murray’s Cheese U Boot Camp, a 15 hour course in which participants learn many aspects of cheese from its production to its composition to pairing strategies.  This course was not for the faint of heart; we tasted about sixty cheeses in a three day span. 

On day 1, I entered the Murray’s Cheese classroom to find a room full of fromage enthusiasts like myself chomping at the bit to get started.  Promptly, the class began when coordinator Taylor Cocalis introduced the course and warned us of the intensive path that lay ahead.  There was a silent understanding among all of us that this “boot camp,” would probably be the most enjoyable experience to be labeled as such.  We proceded to taste ten different cheeses while being guided in plating and tasting strategies and told what to look for in different varieties. 

The following day, in session 2, we explored the underground Murray’s Cheese caves, the place in which former Murray’s affineur, Zoe Brickley, and her successor age the cheeses for the store.  Washed rind cheeses, blue cheeses, bloomy rind cheeses, and natural rind cheeses abounded, exhibiting various stages of ripeness.  We tasted about fifteen cheeses in this session.  Each tasting was an example of how aging/ripening (affinage) techniques give cheeses different characteristics.  In one instance, a simple warm-water wash transformed Prefere de Montagne into a completely different cheese with a distinct flavor profile from its unwashed counterpart.  Too, we tasted the difference between three cheddars–a clothbound Cabot cheddar was drier and more complex and nutty than its criovacked version.  Nuttier and milder still was the English clothbound Montgomery cheddar.  Tomme Crayeuse and St. Nectaire were both examples of natural-rinded cheeses whose rinds were home to a variety of molds that imparted character.  Appreciative of the lifeforms that characterize cheese, Zoe Brickley could barely contain her excitement over the fact that the Murray’s caves had begun to foster a new, yellow-hued mold on the cheeses’ rinds.  Witnessing the growth of surface fungi, smelling different microbial activity, and feeling the different climates of each cave was a learning experience that illustrated the importance of affinage.

Only two hours later, we were back in the Murray’s classroom for session three–a course on the history and geography of cheese, comparing old-world varieties to new-world varieties.  Instructor Liz Thorpe guided us through a discussion about the origins of various cheeses, and we tasted ten cheeses in comparitive pairs.  For each pair of cheeses, there was a shared style but different origin.  Asked to evaluate each pair of cheeses, we discovered that not all old-world cheeses were better, but also that some new-world takes on the classics sometimes paled in comparison.  In my opinion, the Valencay goat cheese was more balanced in flavor than the ubiquitous American Humboldt Fog.  This session clarified the fact that a true cheese-aficionado should not associate him or herself with only foreign or American cheeses, but rather he or she should pay attention to which versions are better regardless of provenance.

On the last day (already??), we gathered in the morning for an intense lecture regarding the chemistry of milk and cheese making, given by Zoe Brickley.  We started by talking about the various nutrient contents of different milks (of different cow varieties, goats, and sheep).  Could it be that my love for sheep cheese is resultant of its higher than average fat content?  Did you know that goat’s milk is so white because goats digest beta-carotene into vitamin A instead of passing the pigment onto their milk?  We then tasted three yogurts and challenged ourselves to guessing which animal each came from.  Finally, we talked about the process of cheese making.  The addition of starter culture and rennet both affect the proteins in the milk, and enzymes cause the cheeses to become what they eventually become.  Exploring the breakdown of lactose by the enzyme lactase, the breakdown of proteins and fats through proteolysis and lipolysis respectively, and the affects of surface and internal ripening on cheese, we became enlightened.  This was the behind-the-scenes stuff of cheese–really intriguing business.  Still, after such a mind-boggling class, I think my class was ready for session five–wine/beer and cheese pairing.

During our last (sigh…) session, sommelier Amanda Crawford and beer pro Chris Munsey guided us through  a lesson in pairing beverages successfully with cheese.  Pairings ranged from bright and acidic Sauvignon Blanc or light, crisp Moa Pilsner with young goat cheese to a Sauternes-style wine or Hair of the Dog’s Adam Old Ale with Lively Run’s Cayuga Blue.  My favorite pairing might have been the Nogne O Imperial Stout, a dark, chocolate-y, molasses-y beer with creamy, cloudy La Tur cheese from Piedmonte.  This could have worked on a cheese board at a party or as a dessert in my opinion.  We tried some incredible beverages at this session, but perhaps the most important idea was the reason behind each pairing.  Each choice was evidence that complimentary flavors or contrasting ones that balance each other out are important.  By choosing a successful pair–whether beer or wine–with cheese, one can bring out the best nuances in both the beverage and the cheese.  Subtleties are exposed in the presence of another element.

I left our last class feeling enlightened by my weekend of cheese education but heavy with the sadness that it was over (or was that the heaviness of having eaten too much cheese…?).  I’m not one to endorse, but I feel obliged to say: TAKE MURRAY’S CHEESE BOOT CAMP!  It is because of Cheese U that I wax poetic about the way chymosin in the rennet added to milk trims off the negatively charged ends of cappa-casein, the outer part of a protein micelle, in order to create a mat of protein molecules that is cheese curd.  I have begun to call my friends, telling them about the way that lipolysis frees fatty acids, allowing short-chain fatty acids in goat milk to impart a more “goaty,” flavor to goat cheeses.  I have become addicted to cheese–both the eating of it and its numerous factoids.  I can now definitively say, “I LOVE BREVIBACTERIUM LINENS!” (the bacteria fostered on washed rind cheeses, which imparts a pungent aroma and flavor) instead of “yeah, I dig stinky cheese.”  This is a revelation, and I don’t plan to terminate my cheese-fest here.  In fact, I will continue to strive for a deeper understanding of cheese.  Ask yourself: Do you dare St. Nectaire?  Does plastic-y, grocery-store brie make you flee?  Do you want to know all about Emmental?  Perhaps you should enlist in Murray’s Cheese Boot Camp.  If you ask me, its probably the most fun boot camp ever created–and perhaps the only one attended by choice.


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