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Cheese Guru Janet Fletcher’s Napa Classes Offer Deep Dives Into Unique and Seasonal Cheeses
The aroma was unmistakable: beefy with a whiff of sautéed onion. Or was that a hint of sulfur, like you might get from eggs? The greenish tint was another sign.
Janet Fletcher, former Chez Panisse chef and Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle contributor turned cookbook author, cooking teacher and cheese expert, was standing amidst a group of students at the Silverado Cooking School, encouraging the students to understand alpine cheeses of France and Switzerland through their five senses. The aroma originated from an aged sheep-milk cheese from the Wallis (or Valais) Canton in Switzerland, a slice of which sat prettily on a plate with six other newly minted cheeses.
Fletcher’s enthusiasm for her subject is palpable—this is a woman who is clearly thrilled to share her cheese passion and knowledge with others—and it makes being a pupil in her classroom an exciting, engaging experience. Students arrive with a range of knowledge about cheeses, from absolute novice to experienced affineurs (those trained to age and purvey cheese) and Fletcher is able to engage each one, encouraging everyone to name the aromas they notice, to share their sensations of the cheese on the tongue.
“Break open the cheese,” she urges. “Take a sniff. What do you smell?” From another cheese of the seven experienced that evening, a more delicate fragrance floated up. One student burst out: “Chocolate!” This for a raw cow-milk cheese from the Savoie region of France. “Yes!” Fletcher cheered.
“I love sharing what I’ve learned,” Fletcher says. “Cheese is a lifelong learning experience and if can turn around and teach cheese to others, it doubles the fun.” Indeed.
Fletcher, who has been teaching about cheese for 13 years, had been looking for a suitable venue in which she could hold her classes when one turned up almost in her backyard: She lives a five-minute drive from the Silverado Cooking School located on the Silverado Trail in Napa. She now offers a monthly cheese class at the school, highlighting cheeses that vary depending on what is in season.
Fletcher’s most popular class has been what she calls Locavore Night. For this class she scopes out the ever-shifting scene of Northern California cheesemaking and brings a handful of new cheeses to class. “There are always new cheeses,” Fletcher assures me. “Some are seasonal, some are very small-production, some are not ready when class is ready.” Her World Cheese Tour class is also wildly popular, selling out weeks in advance.
With each new cookbook (Fletcher’s most recent is Yogurt: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner (Ten Speed Press, 2015)), recipes from which were published in the Summer 2015 issue of Edible Marin & Wine Country, Fletcher attracts new fans and, accordingly, her classes are in high demand. She also offers regular classes at The Cheese School of San Francisco, crafts custom classes for winery member clubs and designs tasting events for parties at private homes and elsewhere.
Two of Fletcher’s favorite pairings—cheese with beer and cheese with cider—will be part of a series of cheese events she is hosting at Healdsburg’s SHED (Cheese and Beer: Better Together, Saturday, July 16, HealdsburgShed.com/events/ cheese-beer-better-together/; and Cheese and Cider, Sunday, September 25, HealdsburgShed.com/events/cheese-cider-janet-fletcher/). It helps that Fletcher is as crazy about craft beer as she is about cheese.
Fletcher remains energized throughout the two-hour class, offering insights into the cheeses’ provenance gleaned from her trip to the French Alps and, in the case of a Tête de Bruni—a yeasty, misshapen lump of rather stinky cheese from the Vaud Canton of Switzerland—sharing a story she learned from the cheese’s importer. Sold only from a truck outside the Bundeshaus (Switzerland’s White House) in Bern, at one farmers’ market in Bern and at two exclusive New York restaurants, this uniquely “dented” looking cheese is very rare in the United States, and anywhere else cheese is consumed. We, the chosen few, we cheese classmates, were members of the exclusive group able to partake of the cheese known by the name of the affineur, aka, the Head of Bruni. “I would call it charmingly rustic,” declared Fletcher.
After class, guests regularly share their takeaways with Fletcher. “Guests often say that they did not like ‘X’ cheese’ (washed rind, goat cheese, etc.), but tried one in my class and changed their mind. And people love the stories, they love to learn about cheese as repository of history,” says Fletcher. And no one is better suited to guide them through the sensory tasting experience of cheese than passionate gardener, chef, food columnist and author of more than 28 cookbooks—and, oh yes, cheese expert—Janet Fletcher.