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Transcending Apathetic Purgatory

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Cheeses from left to right: Cabretou, Patacabra, Ferndale Farmstead Asiago Pressa, Tomme de la Chataignaraie, Quadrello di Bufala, Challerhocker, Ferrus, Epoisses, and Roquefort. Cheeses from left to right: Cabretou, Patacabra, Ferndale Farmstead Asiago Pressa, Tomme de la Chataignaraie, Quadrello di Bufala, Challerhocker, Ferrus, Epoisses, and Roquefort.

By Rachael Lucas

If you ask those who love me and have known me for a long time, they will tell you that I have excelled at underachievement. 

I hear it runs in the family, so I suppose I am exculpated.  Before I started working with cheese, I was personally and professionally aimless.  I stood by and watched time pass, botched brain cells, and fixated on ultimately unimportant things.  The very day I started working with cheese, an unfamiliar spark ignited.  I became inspired.  I had reason to get up in the morning.  I developed a passion.  It has been over six years since I ambled into the cheese profession, and I have blossomed so much that it begs the question, “What was I even doing before cheese?”   As soon as I passed the American Cheese Society’s C.C.P. (Certified Cheese Professional) exam in 2016, I vowed my next cheese challenge would be palatal development.  Two years later, A.C.S. came out with a new exam, one that would test our palates, challenge us organoleptically, and lay a foundation that not only entails sensory evaluation, but also a deeper understanding of the chemistry behind cheese.  This past July, I was among the second group to sit for the A.C.S. T.A.S.T.E. test.

Screebshot Rachael L goofy face and cheeseRachael biting into Cherry Valley Dairy's Meadowbloom. It  won 2nd place in its category at the ACS annual cheese competition about a week later.

The T.A.S.T.E. test stands for the Technical Aesthetic Tasting Sensory Evaluation Test.  It’s a sensuous venture.  The exam involves utilizing all the faculties in order to evaluate cheese and other dairy products.  It enables one to have a deeper understanding of what is quality, what is atypical, and what is defective.  It also offers an inclination as to why these particulars occur (although when dealing with chemistry and microbiology, in trying to understand cheese, most of us are using gross generalizations).  This certification is the closest thing to Sommelier licensure that we currently have in the cheese profession. 

The American Cheese Society offers study guidelines with things like recommended literature, the A.C.S. Lexicon, by which terminology for cheese evaluation is used, archived articles and cheese sensory data, as well as recommendations for how to study for this unique exam.  It was suggested to find a study buddy, but as there were only twenty-something people from across the country in the exam room, it wasn’t so easy to find a tasting partner.  I did everything else that A.C.S. recommended, and then some.  I allotted three months of arduous preparation.  The first month, I studied for an hour every day.  The second month, I studied for two hours every day.  The third month I studied for three hours each day, and this included a daily tasting.  I took copious notes from all the suggested and available on-site literature.  I acquired a profoundly deeper understanding of the subject.  I learned much can be assessed by merely rubbing a piece of cheese between the fingers.  I now know how to determine levels of acidity.  I discovered saliva chemically reacts with food by way of wateriness and/or viscosity.  The more I learned, the more questions there were. I had to know what causes the qualities presented in the ACS Lexicon.  I needed to delve deep.

Thus, I read two life-altering artisan cheesemaking books.  First, I read Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking, by Gianaclis Caldwell.  I treated it like a textbook.  I highlighted, transcribed, dissected, sniffed, chewed, and gulped it down.  The author provides insight into possible defective outcomes in various types of cheese and the things that a cheesemaker (or an affineur) can do to remedy the atypicality.  The tweak could be something as minor as lowering the temperature during time of pressing by two degrees. Cheesemaking is THAT persnickety. This book made it so much easier to be able to say, “This cheese has yeast slits.  It may have been in too warm of an aging room during the onset of affinage.”  Or “I see some late gas blowing in this wheel, likely from Clostridium because of raw milk.”  The second book, The Art of Natural Cheesemaking, by David Asher, aside from clarifying preventative measures for potential defects, opened my eyes to some of the challenges facing the cheese industry in the United States.  This book showed me how easy it could be to make artisan cheese naturally with practically zero added ingredients--certainly no calcium chloride or industrial made starter cultures.  Asher reinforced my conviction that raw milk is the way to go. 

Aside from tasting every cheese that I cut at work, I also brought home a whole swath of cheese from work and other cheese departments.  Furthermore, a colleague (my personal and highly trusted cheesemonger), Rosie, from Delaurenti at Pike Place Market, put together semi-weekly tasting packages.  She included high quality, atypical, off, meh, dead, and every other kind of cheese imaginable.  I don’t know if I would have been nearly as prepared if I didn’t have my Rosie. I tasted the same cheese from different batches, and I choked down expired, ammoniated, oxidized cheese, and more.  I stuck my finger into rind rot and smelled it (guess what it smelled like).  I ate soap for reference.  I posted up at bulk spice racks, ate flowers, huffed buttermilk, whiffed garbage, and tinkered with my salivary glands.  The grand finale was my avowed Thirty-one tastings in thirty-one days (July 31 was test day).  To hold myself accountable, I posted my daily tastings on Instagram (lukaas.rachael).  I consumed, on average, a pound of cheese at each sitting.  It wasn’t until five days before the test when my mentor and friend, Alison Leber, C.C.P, C.C.S.E., suggested that I spit, like they do with wine.  Game changer.  I could smell and taste much more towards the end of my tastings.  See, when the body starts to get full, our senses shut down as a means of compelling ourselves to discontinue ingestion.  Once I learned to spit, I was ready for the test.

T.A.S.T.E. took place in Richmond, Virginia where the annual American Cheese Society conference was held.  On exam day, I was incredibly nervous; besides having an innately healthy fear of failure, I just don’t see how anxiety can be avoided in this instance.  In fact, during the actual test, I had to be escorted to the bathroom three times.  And I am certain that people were noting my visible armpit sweat.

The test consisted of two parts: aromatics and cheese analysis. The aromatics was a blast.  We were given ten solutions in milk, and we had to identify the aroma present.  Some of the aromas included yeast, oxidation, ammonia, horseradish, citrus, and onion.  I pride myself in my sniffer, so I wished that there were fifty aromas to identify.  The other part involved organoleptically evaluating cheese.  We assessed them visually, without being able to touch them, and then we were given a wedge that we took to our seats and determined its qualities while utilizing our senses in their entirety. It was quite fun.  Oh, and they provided spit buckets!  Meanwhile, there was a select group of rigorously trained norming judges on the other side of the wall taking the same exam.  Since palates divaricate, it is crucial to have several people experiencing the same gradation in order to find an actual norm.

Test results would not be available for a month.  The rush I had from seeing the email in my inbox to the time I read it was like a drug.  I felt as if I was out of my skin or that my heart was somewhere near my butt. I will never tire of the word congratulations.  There are now forty-six C.C.S.E.’s (Certified Cheese Sensory Evaluators).

My insecure self said that, even if I did not pass, the newfound knowledge and heightened motivation to learn would suffice.  But inside, I wanted this more than anything.  My utter tenacity towards succeeding in this feat proves to me that I am no longer in the family slacker category.  All that I needed was a subject of unyielding interest.  I am Rachael Lucas, A.C.S. C.C.P., C.C.S.E., and I have a nimble and adept palate.  I am proof that some of us need more than monetary compensation to motivate us.  We require passion.  My suggestion to anyone who consider themselves to be in apathetic purgatory is to find your passion; run with it; and never look back.

Rachael Lucas with cheese wheels MUG

 

Editor’s note:   Rachael Lucas is an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (CCP).  You can most often find her cheesemongering in the Seattle area.  When she's not working with cheese, she's eating it, talking about it, reading about it, writing about it, and dreaming about it.  She can be reached with inquiries about fromage and food excitement in the Seattle area at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  

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