There’s a new course being offered at Sterling College in Craftsbury, and the final project is served up on a plate. The school has teamed up with the cheese makers at Jasper Hill Cellars in Greensboro to teach the art and science of artisan cheese. The first two-week session ended with a tasting of some of the students’ mistakes. But first, the instructor, international cheese consultant Ivan Larcher, gave a power point lecture laced with formulas and diagrams.
Cheesemaking is an art, he said, but it’s also a risky science experiment. If the milk isn’t good, or the equipment isn’t sterile, or the heat isn’t right, or the timing is off, deadly, invisible listeria could make its way into your slice of brie. Or if it doesn’t poison you, as Larcher bluntly put it, it could taste a little like—in his words—“baby vomit.”
“This sensation is linked to the accumulation of two molecules in cheese paste, one being the carbon dioxide, CO2, and the other one being ammonia,” he explained.
About 20 students in the Sterling College classroom took notes furiously. In the hallway, staffers began dishing up samples of the cheeses the beginners had made at the Jasper Hill Cellars for this course. Chalky wedges similar to Jasper Hill’s prize-winning “Constant Bliss” were arranged in a circle.
Some were over-salted. Some were too runny. Some were a bit acrid. Professor Larcher asked the tasters to describe the flavors—both good and bad.
“Grapefruit? Oily? Chemicals?” he ventured.
But even if these dairy foods were not perfect—yet—Larcher assured his students that problems can often be corrected over time, as the cheese ages.
“Cheese making is not a recipe,” he reminded them. "You do not press a button and expect the cheese to be ready and good the following day. So you will every day need to control, check, modify, what you are doing in order to drive your cheese where you want it to be.”
For student Jesse Keck, this class was the first step on what he hopes will be a career path. He said it’s one of the few courses of its kind to blend classroom theory with hands-on, trial-and-error production in commercial cellars.
“To actually make cheese in a real production facility was amazing,” he said, surveying the cheese plates. “There’s a lot of classes, you know farmstead cheese-making classes, [where you] really don’t get the technical aspect. Here we are able to talk to Ivan and actually make this. It’s beautiful looking at it. I don’t know how it’s actually going to taste, though.”
He put a wedge on his tongue. "Not bad," he said. But not as good as the next sample, which, for comparison, was made not by students, but by the professionals at Jasper Hill.
“So creamy,” he pronounced.
And he was right.
The next cheese-making class at Sterling College’s Artisan Cheese Institute will run from May 27 through June 6.