Jaimie Casey has nothing but positive things to say about cheese, from its healthful qualities to its yummy taste.
So it makes perfect sense that the trained chef and caterer founded the Palo Alto Cheese School last fall, offering monthly events at Hidden Villa that are more "club" than class. Her next event is a pairing of cheese and micro-brews.
Casey calls herself a "cheesemonger" — somewhat like a fishmonger, only for cheese.
After training at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Casey went to work at a variety of restaurants. She quickly found the crazy hours and working on holidays not conducive to having a life. So she took a job at a tea shop/food retailer called Leonard's 2001 in San Francisco.
There she was exposed to cheese in a big way: Picture six doors fronting refrigerated storage compartments, each holding 50 different cheeses. Her job was to get to know each cheese, so she could explain their complexities to customers.
Her first taste was of Vella Dry Jack — she now has a cat named after the cheese — "and I realized there was more to cheese than being powdered white or orange, and more to life than Velveeta," she said.
Ultimately she moved on to manage A.G. Ferrari Foods in Palo Alto, where she met her husband while selling him ... cheese.
Today she runs J.C. Culinary, a small private catering outfit, and offers twice-monthly cheese tastings at The Milk Pail in Mountain View and cheese-and-wine events at J. Lohr in San Jose, as well as her monthly classes at Hidden Villa.
"I really like cheese," she said with understatement.
Her personal favorite is a fresh goat cheese. "It reminds me of cream cheese, but it's healthy," she said, citing that it's lower in fat, cholesterol and calories than cow cheese, and is full of Omega-6 as well. "It's considered an almost perfect protein," she said.
Casey and her husband have traveled to London and Paris, where "we ate our way in cheese." They like to joke that when they were first dating he sure was fooled when he heard the cattle-ranch-raised Casey couldn't care less about Prada shoes. He didn't know about her cheese habit.
Casey sees cheese tasting as a cultural experience: "You find out a lot about people when you put food in front of them. If they like it or not, you always get some kind of response."
In her January class, called "Goat Cheese Fun," she offered six cheeses to sample, including Humboldt Fog from Cypress Grove, Calif. — the very cheese she sold to her husband-to-be. The cheeses were complemented by walnut bread, dried apricots, marinated fennel, roasted walnuts and three kinds of wine.
At first her classes drew about 15 people, but this one sold out with 35 students. About half have come before.
It's possible to make cheese at home, Casey said, but a tad challenging. As she puts it, all it takes is a stovetop and part of a day.
Creating a 1-pound log of goat cheese requires about 8 quarts of raw milk (not the pasteurized kind one finds in a supermarket), rennet or other enzymes, a strainer and a large pot.
The tricky part is being very careful with the unpasteurized milk, she stressed.
Those interested in getting started can go online and find cheese-making kits, she added.
At her next class, Casey will co-host with Sayre Piotrkowski, a beer cicerone (that's a certified expert) from the Monk's Kettle in San Francisco. The challenge will be to balance sweet, salty or sour qualities, "finding a cheese that creates more complexity" in the pairing with beers.
She can see a chocolaty beer coupled with a light and tangy goat cheese, for example.
In future, Casey wants to earn her certificate in cheese-making. Then she'll be geared up for what she hopes will be the next step at Hidden Villa, actually making some of the cheeses she talks about.
But, that would require more than the two milking goats, sheep and cows that live there. Casey would like to see a proper aging facility, with a small refrigerator with a filtering system to control the bacteria. She can envision a nice local Gouda or a younger English cheese, but "this takes time and money," she said. "I have no doubt it will happen. It's a matter of when."
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What: Unique Beers & Cheeses of California
When: Sunday, Feb. 27, 4 to 7 p.m.
Where: Duveneck House, Hidden Villa, 26870 Moody Road, Los Altos Hills
What: Informal cheese tastings
When: Two Sundays per month, 1 to 4 p.m. (call for exact dates)
Where: The Milk Pail, 2585 California St., Mountain View
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