If your cheesemonger has a little broader smile these days, it could be because he or she has just passed the CCP exam. Like a bar exam for the cheese industry, the CCP (Certified Cheese Professional) quiz is a rigorous test of knowledge. Modeled loosely on programs like Master of Wine and Master Sommelier, the three-year-old credential encourages professionalism among the people who market and sell specialty cheese.
Alison Martin (at right), an associate team leader for Whole Foods in Palo Alto, was one of several dozen company employees to sit for the grueling exam this summer. To learn more about her study regimen and how the experience has affected her work, I spoke to Alison by phone shortly after she learned that she had passed.
What was your studying strategy?
I got Max McCalman’s books—I already had your books [smart girl!]—and started reading everything I could. I would highlight passages and take notes. I repeated a lot of the knowledge to my family and friends, and the more I said it out loud, the more I got it.
Like milk composition. The different compartments of a cow’s stomach and what they do. The average yield of milk per day from a cow versus a goat. I made a lot of flash cards.
Whole Foods put together weekly classes and webinars for us. They paid my application fee, test fee and traveling expenses. (Bravo, Whole Foods. The test fee is $500—prohibitive for the typical cheese-counter employee.) They also paid for me to go to Wisconsin and work at the Center for Dairy Research. I got to visit creameries there and a dairy farm. It was cool to see cheese making from start to finish.
What areas were the hardest for you?
Definitely the Old World cheeses that I haven’t been as exposed to. Remembering names of molds and enzymes. On our fridge at home, we have a picture of a cow cut in half so you can see the different stomach compartments. And on my desk at work, there’s a picture of the top breeds of dairy sheep, goats and cows, and a graph of the pH level in different cheeses.
What was the test like?
Really difficult. I went into it thinking that I knew everything. But some of the answers depended on your perspective. One question was what to do if you find mold on a cheese, and the choices were to give it a brine bath; cut the mold off and eat the rest; or throw the cheese away. That question haunted me because I didn’t know whether I was supposed to be the retailer, the consumer, the distributor or the cheese maker.
For another question, you had to put the cheeses in order from softest to hardest, but there was a cheese I had never heard of. When I left, I was pretty sure that I hadn’t passed, and I wasn’t sure what I would say to Whole Foods to let me take it again.
Are you a better cheesemonger for having done this?
I’m 100 percent more confident talking about cheese to customers. It has helped me with organizing our cheese case and even with organizing our walk-in, because I know more about how different parts of a refrigerator affect cheeses. Now we don’t put blue cheeses so close to the fan.
So what’s your ideal cheese platter? If you could take home any four cheeses from your case tonight, what would they be?
I always grab Piave. It’s been one of my personal favorites forever. It goes with beer and wine, red or white. I love Délice de Bourgogne. I tell customers if Brie and butter made a baby, this would be it. For a blue, I would choose Stilton or Bay Blue, and for a goat cheese I like Garrotxa because it’s not too gamy.
Any tips for shoppers on how to negotiate a cheese counter?
Don’t be intimidated by price. We can always cut cheese to a size that fits your budget.
Black Cherry Preserves with Sheep Cheese
Visit the Basque region of France and you’ll notice restaurants serving the local sheep cheese with black cherry preserves. It’s the French equivalent of Manchego with membrillo, salty with sweet. Those hard Basque sheep cheeses---like Ossau-Iraty, Abbaye de Belloc and Ardi Gasna—are among my favorites, and now I have the perfect condiment for them: Black Cherry Jam (Confiture de Cerises Noires) made in the Basque region and imported by Oakland’s K. L. Keller.
This wine-dark confiture is semi-fluid, not stiff, with whole pitted cherries in a syrup that’s perfectly balanced between sweet and tart. Look for it at Say Cheese in San Francisco; Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco and Point Reyes Station; Pasta Shop in Oakland and Berkeley; Sapphire Laguna in Laguna Beach; Valley Cheese & Wine in Henderson, NV; and Market Hall Foods. (8.8 oz, about $12.75)