The School of Curds and Whey

Earlier this summer, Washington got a dose of serious cheese, when California-based Cowgirl Creamery set up shop in Penn Quarter.

The "coursework" at Cowgirl Creamery's cheese class this week. (Kim O'Donnel)

With a few months underfoot, the Cowgirls are expanding their in-store offerings, including sandwiches, wine and cheese-tasting classes.

Last night was the first in a series of Thursday evening classes focused cheese tastings, led by cheesemaker and CG co-founder/owner Sue Conley.

Our small group gathered in a back food prep area, cheerfully set up with all the tasting trimmings -- cheese, bread and wine glasses. Yesterday's focus was the basics of cheesemaking, with an overview on simple, fresh varieties such as fromage blanc, chevre, ricotta and mozzarella, with tasting notes on the milk of four different animals (cow, goat, sheep and water buffalo) and what happens along the way, from farm to cheese board.

Conley steered the conversation towards seasonality of cheese, pointing out that goats, sheep and buffalo don't produce milk during winter, which inevitably affects supply as well as cheese texture.

To that end, CG makes two seasonal cheeses - St. Pat., a dome of soft cow's milk, wrapped in a rind of stinging nettles, available from March 17 (ergo, the name) until late September - and Pierce Point, (released this week), the same cheese, but yielding a very different experience simply by changing the rind. In this case, it's muscato wine and an herb blend that includes chamomile, calendula and fennel.

The third round of cheese included more rinds -- washed (brushed with a brine solution), natural (from a cave) and bloomy (vegetable ash) -- which although designed to protect the cheese, impart unique flavors and depth, like wine.

The oft-asked question of whether or not to eat the rind was addressed, and the verdict is: Try it, you might like it. If not, remove, and don't worry about it. It's a matter of personal taste, according to Conley.

Over the course of 90 minutes, we tasted a total of nine cheeses, including an opportunity to sip two of CG's new wine offerings (I loved how the Liberty School 2004 Syrah danced with the St. Pat and the Mt. Tam). Conley's passion for the subject is infectious, making me hungry for more cheese school.

Fortunately, there are more classes in the works to satisfy my cheesy curiosity. Next week's session features cheesemaker Pablo Solanet from Firefly Farms, of Bittinger, Md., (Thursday, Sept. 14, 4-5:30 p.m. and 6-7:30 p.m., $12), followed by four tastings in October, details of which soon to be posted on the CG Web site, promises Conley.

By Kim ODonnel |  September 8, 2006; 12:04 PM ET Culinary Education
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Kim, if you happen to visit San Diego anytime soon, check out Venissimo in the Mission Hills neighborhood. This cheese shop has an excellent selection and knowledgable staff. My one complaint is that they're closed on Sundays. We never even bother to make dinner when we buy from Venissimo, and instead put out a wonderful spread of breads, crackers, fruits and chocolates to accompany the cheese. Enjoy!

Posted by: San Diego, CA | September 8, 2006 1:44 PM

Jill, your first paragraph seems to imply that we didn't already have options locally. I disagree...have you checked out Cheesetique in the Del Ray section of Alexandria?

Posted by: Terry Dowdy, Silver Spring | September 12, 2006 1:12 PM

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