american cheese society, certified cheese professional exam

From Maine to Madison

I really never thought cheese would be my life. When I went to culinary school, nearly a decade ago, I thought I would end up working in a kitchen or, at the very least, baking full time.  I was a fairly quick study and was pretty successful in my classes. When I left, because my partner at the time was in medical school and we couldn’t afford two tuitions, I didn’t give up. At least not on the journey I had started. The relationship, well, it lasted another few months before I met my Missus, ended things with my ex and moved to Maine.

It was here that I got my first job in a kitchen, which lasted several months, and then I moved on to the kitchen at The Whole Grocer. There, essentially, things changed. As part of my daily tasks, I began to assist the Grocery manager with cutting, wrapping and tagging cheese for their small refrigerated section. It was during this time that my rudimentary knowledge on cheese began to grow and my genuine curiosity was piqued. Before that time Buffalo mozzarella and Manchego were the fanciest cheeses I had known, which were leaps and bounds beyond what I had been exposed to growing up (Land O’ Lakes White American cheese was a staple in our household and a cryovaced block of cheddar only introduced itself on occassion).

At The Whole Grocer, I was introduced to cheeses like Fromage D’affonois, The Drunken Goat and local fresh chevres from York Hill and Sunset Acres. I would bring home little wedges when I had the extra money and would even stop in to K. Hortons to try things we didn’t carry.  Then, The Whole Grocer became Whole Foods and I didn’t follow my budding interest in cheese to the new store. Instead, while working in another department at the time, I would allot myself no more than $20 a paycheck to spend on new cheeses. It was around then, about six years ago, that I also started keeping a cheese journal so that I could keep track of all of the various cheeses, which ones I liked or didn’t.  It only took about a year to get over 100 entries in the book. Now, I have more entries than that just in ‘aged cheese’ section.

Eventually, I did find my rightful home behind the cheese counter and, to date, I’ve spent nearly 10,000 hours of my life standing there, helping customers plan dinner parties or finding the cheese that they had in Italy when they were there on holiday. I’ve taught several classes both in and out of the store and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of the best cheesemakers in America today. I’ve also moved up, going from general Specialty Team Member, to taking on the responsibilities of purchasing the local (New England) products for the department, to Lead Buyer. Cheese has become my life, not only how I pay my bills, but a huge part of my ‘food personality.’  I figure that, when people on the street recognize you and say, “Look, it’s our cheese lady!” that I’ve stumbled on to a pretty rewarding path.

But, why am I going on about this? Well, cheese is taking me on another, unexpected journey.  In just under four and a half months, I’ll be sitting in the Hilton Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, taking the “Certified Cheese Professional” exam that the American Cheese Society debuted last year. The Missus best described as the cheesemonger’s equivalent to the sommelier certification, though to not such an intense degree (at least, not yet). But, until July 31st, I will be delving into a whole different level of cheese obsession–getting into the science of cheese, studying affinage, marketing, etc–more so than I already have.

And, I’m going to take you on this journey with me. We’ll call it “From Maine to Madison,” and you can bet, without a doubt, that I’m going to use this blog to share many of the things that I’m learning along the way. Those books in the picture above? Those are about half of the ones I’ll be studying from, along with the hundreds of pages I’ve already printed out from Power Point presentations that Whole Foods created for the team members to study. Oh, and the FDA HAACP Principles and Application Guidelines. Fun, huh? I won’t bore–or, rather, scare–you with things like food borne pathogens, but I will be highlighting a cheese and/or style every week.

I will try to remember to come up for air every once in a while, but my posting my be sparse until the test is done and my brain–which is surely going to be leaking out of my brain from all of the information I’m going to cram in it–re-solidifies into a functioning mass.


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