Lovers of artisan produce can now attend the Academy of Cheese. Chris Allsop discovers what it takes to be a master of the board
The Academy of Cheese was founded to revolutionise how artisan produce is considered – and even transform how cheese is sold around the world. Chris Allsop attends to discover what it takes to become a master of the board.
After a disappointingly limited variety for decades, there are now countless cheeses to choose from for your board. But can traditional and artisan coexist? Read how to prepare the the best cheeseboard.
THE ACADEMY OF CHEESE
Would a breakfast cheese-tasting encourage more students to throw off their duvets for 9am lectures? It’s hard to say for sure, but for those attending the Academy of Cheese’s one-day Associate course, this is how the learning day begins.
A group of around 20 cheese fanciers, myself among them, gather within the perfumed fug of cheesemonger Paxton & Whitfield, one of the academy’s 10 training partners spread across the UK. Outside, commuters stride along Jermyn Street scanning their phones, while we scan the name tags of the flagship store’s 150 cheeses reverently. Paxton’s Hero Hirsh, one of our teachers for the day, asks us which we would like to taste.
Launched in 2017, the not-for-profit Academy of Cheese is the brainchild of cheesemaker Mary Quicke. The irrepressible Quicke – a grandee of British artisan cheese, whose company, Quicke’s Cheese, produces award-winning clothbound cheddars – first conceived the idea while on a cheese-judging visit to the US. Witnessing the excitement of the cohort primed to sit the American Cheese Society’s Certified Cheese Professional exam, Quicke was inspired.
“After the exam, I saw that excitement transferred to cheese stalls, mongers, in restaurants with a cheese sommelier selling their heart out,” Quicke recalls. “I realised that from cheesemaking to retail, the exam was upping the game.”
Returning to the UK, Quicke discovered that others – including the Guild of Fine Food’s John Farrand – shared her enthusiasm. Funding was sought. When the Associate course was launched, it offered tailored learning for both career cheese types and passionate consumers. This dual approach – unlike the purely-for-professionals US exam – nods to the directors’ grander vision for the academy.
“The academy has the potential to change how cheese is sold around the world,” Quicke says, without blinking.
Her hopes are that cheese can follow in the footsteps of wine. The Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and its programme of education has played an important role in transposing wine from the preserve of the few to the enjoyment of the many, bringing terms such as ‘sommelier’ and ‘Syrah’ into the public consciousness. On the course we learn that: “a loss leader block cheddar in a supermarket may sell at £5 per kg, while a traditional, vintage cheddar in a quality cheesemonger may sell at £30 per kg”.
With the majority of consumers focused on price, such disparities quickly turn them off artisan cheese. But with a greater understanding of why such disparities exist – industrial versus smallholding, and the expertise of a quality cheesemonger – the academy hopes that its teachings will filter out and bring about a revolution in the perception of artisan cheese. To this end the academy offers the opportunity for remote learning, and so far there have been academy graduates as far afield as Norway, Russia and Australia.
Back at Paxton’s, Hirsh, already teaching, guides our selections. We progress smoothly from fresh and fluffy Sinodun Hill via Ebersbach mature (a bold and winey mountain cheese) and on to the shop’s most expensive cheese, at £65 per kilo: the decadent in-house truffle brie. Eight cheeses and half-an-hour later, we move giddily through to the classroom.
No cheese here. It really is a classroom, just over the road from the cheesemonger. There are several rows of tables, as sterile and ordinary as any you’d find in a working dairy, with a projection screen up front. Hirsh confides later that they had a few alarmed attendees when they first launched, who had expected it to be more of a jolly, with a bottle or two of claret to help ease down the day’s ‘education’. There are drinks but of the soft and caffeinated varieties.
Hirsh – now joined by the manager of the Jermyn Street shop, Dan Bliss – asks us to introduce ourselves. Perhaps it’s post-tasting buoyancy or the presence of fellow cheese lovers, but there’s little British reserve demonstrated during the intros.
“I’m Helen and I’m a cheese eater,” proclaims a woman at the front. The day is beginning to feel like an addiction support group. It transpires that the room is divided quite evenly between casual consumers like Jonathan – a middle-aged vet from Lincoln – and more insider types like my tablemate, Emma, a 20-something cheesemaker who’s just returned from a six-month placement on a farm in the Australian outback. She’s now working for an online cheese seller and is seeking some intellectual stimulation and embellishment for her CV.
She might also be looking to rejoin Paxton’s, which she has worked for previously. While the certificate and coveted pin you receive for passing the course is essentially – and literally – a badge of honour for the consumers taking the course, Paxton’s has taken on several attendees from the classes. With Ros Windsor, managing director of Paxton’s, one of the academy directors, it’s no surprise to learn how much weight they place on the formalised training offered by the course. All of Paxton’s staff are being put through the academy and Hirsh reports that, “the tasting module, in particular, has been really useful. Our staff have to talk about cheese day in, day out, and the course expands that vocabulary.”
IN GOOD TASTE
Known as the ‘Standard Approach to Tasting Cheese’ (SATC), the tasting module is unique to the academy. So why didn’t they borrow one of the many already developed?
“A lot of those we looked at didn’t sit well with British cheeses [which tend to have bitter flavours and an acidity unusual for the Continent], so we wanted to make sure ours was Brit-centric in orientation,” Quicke explains. A quarter of the cheeses on the curriculum are British.
The tasting session begins with five clear liquid shots. These correspond to salt, sweet, bitter, savoury and sour tastes – the five core flavours anchoring the academy’s flavour wheel. Branching out from this are more detailed tastes (acid splits into: ‘other sour’, ‘fruit sour’ or ‘lactic sour’), and wrapped around those are more subtle, precise options such as ‘roast chicken pan’ or ‘Himalayan salt’. Once we’ve calibrated our palates by sipping the shots, a spoonful of goat’s curd appears before us. In pairs and on a standardised sheet, we mark our impressions of its rind, interior, smell and flavours. Unfortunately, as a class, it’s decided that this goat’s curd offers clean dairy flavours with notes of – we consult the wheel – ‘baby sick’.
Happily, the goat’s milk baby sick is whisked away to be replaced by a triangle of Parmigiano Reggiano. I begin nibbling thoughtlessly. What I should be doing – as we’re taught – is holding my nose, chewing with my mouth open for five seconds to absorb the core flavours, before releasing my nose to breathe in and better experience the subtler tastes.
Bliss and Hirsh, who partner on Paxton & Whitfield podcasts, provide a lively and engaging partnership as we progress through the morning. Prior to the lunch break – Scotch eggs, pork pie and, yes, more cheese – we’re tutored in the art of the cheesemonger; discover that Roquefort was Julius Caesar’s go-to snack; and learn how to cut brie properly, among other cheese-related essentials.
While dithering at the buffet afterwards, I chat to some of the other attendees.
“If it was a choice of the best chocolate or the best cheese, my wife would go for the cheese every time.” Gavin is a cinematographer from London who was given the course as a gift from his wife (she’s already a proud pin-badge owner). “She loved it and it’s an enjoyable day. It’s also nice to interrogate yourself as to why you like something and have it explained in a formal way.”
Thirty-somethings Lewis and his wife, Megan, in tweed and blue blazer respectively, are there for Megan’s birthday treat. They’re both cheese lovers, though Lewis says that Megan, “takes it to the next level”. “We’ve taken the Berry Bros wine-tasting course and thought this would be similar,” Megan says, “with fun stuff to taste as well as some education.” They’re keen to do the next level at Berry Bros and will probably do the same with the Academy of Cheese, which rolled out the second of its four certificates in October. This latest ‘Member’ certificate represents a “significant progression from Level 1” and is for those “cheese lovers who seek a more profound understanding of the world of cheese”.
Everyone I speak to has a deep desire to earn the elegant Academy of Cheese pin badge. There’s one for each progression through the academy, with a handsome teal circle for Associate and a majestic gold pin for its terminal certificate: Master of Cheese. What that title might require is still being hashed out but the directors see it as a cheese equivalent to the lofty WSET Master of Wine.
Key to achieving that gold pin – and the fulcrum of the afternoon’s learning – is mastering the curriculum’s other pillar: the Make & Post Make (MPM) model. It sounds technical but really it’s a simple way of, as the academy has it, “bringing order to the unruly world of cheese”. In the MPM model, a cheese is categorised by how it is Made (crumbly or hard, for example) and then by what processes it goes through in later Post Make stages of the production process (Internal Blue Mould, Washed Rind). Roquefort, as an example, categorises as a Soft Make with an Internal (Blue) Mould Post Make. By being able to pigeonhole in this way, the academy hopes the model will enable a student to have an expectation as to the taste and texture of a cheese.
Throughout the course, Hirsh and Bliss highlight things to pay attention to for the exam, which is taken at home. You can revise the day’s teaching notes online before beginning the 30-minute, multiple-choice exam. There’s a high pass rate – as you might expect from an exam taken by such a passionate group of pupils (and with no invigilator) – though I find myself experiencing, with the timer bearing down on me, a passing queasiness not felt since my Latin GCSE.
But there’s no queasiness on the day, not with such incredible cheeses to treat as revision. The Associate level requires you to know 25 cheeses intimately (100 at Member level). The day ends as it began with a substantial cheese tasting, this time starting with feta and ending with whiffy Epoisses. Not quite 25 tasted but it feels like it. And for those still gasping at the lack of wine served up by the Academy, trust me – after this many cheeses in a single day, you’ll feel positively cheese-drunk by the end.
For more information about the Academy of Cheese, visit: academyofcheese.org
Price for the Associate course starts from £160, while the Member course can be booked for £595.