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Voyage de Fromage: Destinations for Cheese-Lovers

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Multiple CheesesIn the movie French Kiss, Meg Ryan said it for cheese-o-philes everywhere: “Did you know there are 452 official kinds of cheese in this country? Isn’t that amazing? To find 452 ways to classify what is essentially a bacterial process? Don’t you think that’s amazing?” Yes, we do!

France has some of the best-known cheeses in the world, but it also has many varieties you’ve never heard of because the U.S. Department of Agriculture won’t allow unpasturized cheeses to be imported.

Pasteurization may make cheese safe, but the heating process also kills the microbes that bring you the flavor.

So, if the cheese won’t come to you, you must go to the cheese.

Dutch Cheese Market C’est Cheese Tours offers a French wine and cheese tour from Paris through Burgundy from May 11-17, 2008.

The tour is limited to eight people and will take you to some of the finest cheese and wine regions in France, where you will meet expert fromagers and affineurs (cheese makers and agers). Wine pairings are one of the main focuses of the journey, and you’ll be visiting the top cellars of the Cote d’Or.

The price includes your full-time guide who speaks English and French, visits with local residents and experts, tastings, entrance fees, accommodations and meals. www.cheesetours.com/

Cheese fact: Don’t be afraid of slightly moldy cheese in France—the bluish film is a sign that the cheese is made with raw milk and has been ripened properly.

For a real hands-on experience, you can try out employment as a cheese maker at Beecher’s Cheese in Seattle, Washington. Learn to make a variety of award-winning cheeses, and stroll through nearby Pike Place Market for fresh seafood, produce and flowers.

Cheese Basil BreadKurt Dammeier, the owner of Beecher’s Cheese, was not born a cheese maker—he started with a passion for cheese, and that passion has become part of his everyday life. The rest of the staff is equally enthusiastic and will instruct you in the craft of making hard and soft cheeses, such as Flagship, a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese, Jack cheese in a variety of flavors, and Blank Slate, a soft mild cow’s milk cheese that is ideal for your own experimentations with flavorings.

You’ll do everything from heating the milk, adding cultures, pasteurizing, draining the whey, and salting the curd, to the final stages of coring aging cheeses and tasting them!

Included in this vacation is a day of one-on-one mentorship, a journal to document your experience, and even the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment, so you can find out if you were truly meant to be a cheese professional. Rates are $549 per person. (866) 888-6329 www.vocationvacations.com.

Cheese Fact: Beware of plastic-wrapped cheese; cheese needs to breathe to maintain its lively character.

The Cheese School of San Francisco has basic cheese making and cheese tasting classes, along with more unusual offerings, such as Silly About Sheep, where students learn why sheep cheese is much more appetizing than it sounds, or Cheeses of Spain, where you can discover the secrets of the “lecheros” (not “lecherous”) dairy farmers. Classes on French, Italian American, Californian and British cheeses are also available, as well as more specific classes on organic cheeses and wine pairings. Classes are two hours long, for $60 per person. (415) 346-7530 www.cheeseschoolsf.com.

Cheese PlatterIn Elm Mott Texas, The Homestead Heritage School of Homesteading offers classes to teach you the skills and crafts from the pioneering days, including cheese making (because no matter how rough the conditions, cheese is necessary). From February to June, you can learn how to make dairy products, such as butter, cultured buttermilk, sour cream, cream cheese, cottage cheese, herbed cheese logs, mascarpone, feta, ricotta, yogurt, labaneh, and 30-minute mozzarella.

You can also learn to make hard cheese from April to June for $130 per person. The classes are limited to 10 people, and in case your travel buddy isn’t as cheese crazy as you are, she or he can take a class in a variety of other subjects, including bread making, herb growing, orchards and vineyards, and raising poultry, or a three-day homesteading course. Prices ranging from $75 to $245 for the three-day course. For more: www.homesteadheritage-homesteading.com.

Cheese Fact: In Coopers Hill, England, there is a spring festival that culminates in a race to catch a giant Double Gloucester cheese wheel that is rolled down a steep hill. The winner gets the cheese.

Despite the staggering amount of well-known British cheeses, such as Cheddar, Wensleydale, and Stilton, it is difficult to locate cheese tours in England. Cheesemakers abound, but most are not prepared for visitors.

Cows pasture“We don’t have a cheese map or trail. Really, there are cheese makers every few miles, so it’s kind of less of a tourist attraction and more of a way of life!” said Chris Dee, tourism manager of the Cotswolds, England.

However, any list of cheese destinations would be woefully incomplete without our beloved British cheese, so here are some suggestions for finding your favorite cheeses…

Celia Brooks Brown, author and professional chef seen on British television, offers gastrotours, in which she takes groups of up to 12 people around the markets and cheese shops of London.

“Cheese is featured with passion in my gastrotours, especially Borough Market–cheese lover’s paradise. Throughout the day we taste Welsh Rarebit at Roast, three French cheeses with wine at Bedale’s, the world’s greatest (and rare) Parmesan, specially selected Comte, a selection of Cheshire cheeses presented by the maker himself, and an array of others, including Scottish, Welsh, more French and Italian cheeses.”

Other excursions include a visit to Neal’s Yard Dairy, “which is a whole experience of British cheeses in itself.” On a Marylebone tour, you’ll taste buffalo and goat’s cheeses in the farmer’s market, and have a tutored tasting of seasonal cheeses at La Fromagerie, the most comprehensive and deluxe cheese emporium in London.

The Borough Market tour is on most Fridays from 10 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. and costs about $125 per person. The Marylebone tour is on most Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and costs about $170 per person. (011-44) 208-376-2847, www.celiabrooksbrown.com/gastrotours.php.

Cheese Fact: In medieval times, hard-pressed cheese was a staple in people’s daily diets because it matures over many months and can be stored for more than a year. Cheese-makers sold their best cheeses at markets and cheese fairs, and cream cheeses were regarded as a luxury for the wealthy.

Oak Smoked WensleydaleIf you fancy a trip through the countryside of Yorkshire country, then head for the Wensleydale Creamery in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. They are one of the few cheese makers who welcome visitors and have a museum, viewing gallery, specialist cheese shop and restaurant.

There is a surprising amount of variety to Wensleydale cheeses, from mild White Wensleydale to the robust blue Wensleydale. The Wensleydale creamery has five varieties–Mature, Extra Mature, Oak Smoked, Blue, and Sheep’s milk–and also offers blends, such as Wensleydale with cranberries, apricots, ginger, onions and chives, pesto, and blueberries.

Don’t forget to buy a Wallace and Gromit Wensleydale cheese round. The “Cheese Experience” tour runs every 30-90 minutes, but aim for a time between 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for the best cheese-making action. They don’t make cheese every day, so call first for availability. (011-44) 196-966-7664, www.wensleydale.co.uk.

Cheese Fact: To store unwrapped cheese, fully cover the cheese in new wrapping and refrigerate to prevent it from drying out. Before serving, allow the cheese to reach room temperature so the full flavor can develop.

When you want to bring back your favorite cheeses, look for stores that are willing to ship to the U.S. Not all of them will, so you’ll have to ask. For French cheeses, you can import unpasteurized cheeses, if they have been aged over 60 days. That eliminates the young Bries, Camembert and Epoisses, which are usually aged just 30 days.

Fromageries in Paris may ship reasonable quantities of cheese, such as Barthélémy, Marie-Anne Cantin, Androuët or Quatre-hommes, but it might be easier to order from the French company Fromages.com, which offers a great selection, ships fast, and the cheeses arrive in beautiful shape.

By Lauren Van Mullem for PeterGreenberg.com.

There are plenty of “foodie” adventures around the world. Check them out in our Culinary Travel section.

If you like cheese, you’ll love Wisconsin. Don’t miss Peter’s conversation with Gov. Jim Doyle on the Wonders of Wisconsin.

Previously By Lauren Van Mullem:

Gourmet Traveling: North American Style.

Off the Brochure: Istanbul.

Photography Tours: Hit Me With Your Best Shot.

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