Hero Image

College of Marin leading the whey in cheese education

Rob Rogers,  Marin IJ link to article

Until now, Marin residents hoping to learn the secrets of making artisan cheese had few options available.
"A lot of creameries here have had a hard time finding cheesemakers," said Maureen Cunnie, production manager at Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station. "Most of the time, we have to train them ourselves - and then they don't have the proper education, the science and technology background."
Beginning next week, however, at least 40 fromagers-to-be will be taking part in the first certificate program in artisan cheesemaking at the College of Marin's Indian Valley Campus.
The sold-out class is the next step toward helping Marin County - already the home of the Marin French Cheese Co., Cowgirl Creamery, the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. and others - take its place among the great cheese-making regions of the world, said Ellie Rilla, a former director of the University of California Cooperative Extension's Marin office.
"In the U.S., we are second only to Vermont in having the largest concentration of cheesemakers in an area," said Rilla, who is conducting a series of interviews with the county's cheesemakers for an industry report. "A couple of years ago we had two or three. Now we have seven commercial cheesemakers. In terms of animal agriculture, we're the hot spot for the North Coast."
The class, which begins Sept. 13, will introduce students to the basics of cheesemaking. Taught by Cheese School of San Francisco instructor Daphne Zepos, who chaired the American Cheese Society's artisanal cheese competition from 1999 to 2002, the course will include working with milk, creating starter cultures, and pairing cheeses with wine and beer.
A second course, taught by longtime cheese crafter Dave Potter, will take on more advanced topics, from aging and ripening various styles of cheese to building a cheese plant.
Like a well-aged Parmesan, the program developed slowly as the result of a conversation between Cowgirl Creamery co-founder Sue Conley and Frances White, the former president of the College of Marin.
"Fran White had a roundtable in which she asked local figures in the community what they thought should be done with the Indian Valley campus," Cunnie recalled. "She was thinking about heading in the direction of a culinary program, but the chefs she invited said not to do that - there was already a school in Santa Rosa, and many schools in San Francisco. Instead, they suggested she start a cheese school."
The college has modeled its two-stage program after the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, a school-within-a-school at the University of Vermont. College officials felt the cheese classes were a natural fit for the Indian Valley Campus, which attracted the attention of local farmers and foodies with the introduction of its organic agriculture program in 2009.
"This is one of those programs that just wants to happen," said Janice Austin, director of community education at the College of Marin. "It just struck a chord. The first two courses were so popular that we're offering them again for the winter quarter."
Both college officials and cheesemakers say they were surprised at the outpouring of enthusiasm for the introductory course, which has a waiting list of about 20 students. Cheesemaking has been associated with the county since the founding of the Marin French Cheese Co. - the nation's oldest continually operating cheese manufacturer - in 1865, thanks to the county's long history of dairy agriculture, the quality of its pastures, and its population of Irish and Italian Swiss immigrants, Rilla said.
Yet Cowgirl's Cunnie believes there's another reason cheesemaking is on the rise in Marin County.

"We're a community in which all the cheesemakers in the guild help each other a lot," Cunnie said. "What kind of vats should you buy for your aging rooms? What kind of floors did you get? For a first-time cheesemaker, these are expensive decisions to make. In Marin County, we really help each other with all of these decisions."