We sip champagne and scan the 10 morsels of cheese that circle our plates.
While many visitors to San Francisco trek north to the Napa and Sonoma wine regions, my husband and I sign up for a crash course in cheese.
"What we're really going to do is make you cheese detectives," pledges Kiri Fisher, owner of the Cheese School of San Francisco, who on this evening is teaching Cheese 101.
We are among 18 people – mostly women – taking the school's first class at its new location, an outdoor courtyard tucked between two buildings with a small indoor dining area, which was previously home to high-end restaurant Saison.
Fisher is a former magazine publisher who felt so burned out after the 2008 global-economic meltdown, she ran away to the farm. She turned her appetite for cheese into an expertise and eventually bought the school.
"This felt much more of the real world to me," she says. "I would want to talk about it and eat it all the time."
We are told "cheese snobbery" is alive and well, but after this course we will feel confident in front of any cheese monger.
Our taste buds are dazzled with bites from the main cheese-producing animals – goat, sheep and cow – and travel the cheese-making world – France, Italy and the United States. We learn to examine the texture, rind, milk type and flavour by look, smell, touch and taste.
A glaring omission – at least to my palate – are samples from Canada. I proudly share the tale of the Quebec cheese maker who dunked thousands of dollars' worth of cheese into the Saguenay River in an attempt to enhance the aging – an anecdote that caused jaws to drop in the class.
But we begin by diving into a sweet, soft, fresh goat's cheese from Burgundy, France, called Picandou Frais. We move onto a salty, almost goat-flavoured Bonne Bouche from Vermont, which Fisher describes as "the perfect appetizer cheese." We learn that a super-hard piave vecchio is a good substitute for parmesan atop pasta and pizza. We test a traditional brie, and learn that, like champagne, the soft cheese really only earns that name if sourced from a certain region in France. We also discover that cheddar is actually white or pale yellow, not colour-added orange. Room temperature is the ideal way to serve cheese, and, as soon as you cut into a brick, the cheese has peaked.
The final sample is a roquefort made by famed affineur Rodolphe le Meunier. This stinky, strong blue is generally considered "the king of French cheeses," Fisher says.
It tastes like fireplace ashes. My husband washes away the nibble he forced down with wine, water, baguette, pear slices, almonds and more wine. Fisher says she loves it and, as the only cheese-school veteran in the room, gobbles her sample as if it's her last meal, proclaiming: "This is my favourite cheese on the planet."
I return to the Picandou Frais and pledge to never again buy those vacuum-packed, cranberry drenched tubes of goat cheese.
IF YOU GO
The Cheese School of San Francisco is clearly not for the lactose-intolerant, but it is a place where anyone can sample some of most expensive cheese in the world (at a fraction of the price) and glean enough cheese monger trivia to impress almost any foodie. Classes include: Cheese and wine pairing 101; Introduction to basic cheese making; Cheese making for the extreme home hobbyist; Cheese and cider' and Cheese + beer 101. Prices start at $35 (U.S.) a class, and head up to $1,200 for a three-day intensive program. 2124 Folsom St., San Francisco, 415-346-7530; cheeseschoolsf.com.