Sheri Allen loves all kinds of good food, but she really loves cheese.
In fact, she loves it so much she’s been able to make a career out of it.
Allen is a certified cheese professional through the American Cheese Society, a title which takes thousands of hours of work and a deep understanding of the science behind cheese to earn.
On one July afternoon, Allen worked at the cheese island in a Harmon’s grocery store cutting and wrapping creamy wedges of award-winning Black Pepper BellaVitano Sartori cheese and offering tastes to customers.
“Food is my passion and cheese is a great part of that,” she said.
Allen is one of 19 certified cheese professionals in Utah but as a child, her cheese consumption was rather ordinary — her father used to buy a block of colby jack and grate it. But with the rise of cooking shows and gourmet recipes readily available online, Allen sees a lot of curious cheese-lovers wanting to branch out.
The important thing, Allen said, is to get the right kind of cheese to meet your needs and ask your grocery store’s cheesemonger or cheese counter worker for advice — or a taste.
“There’s a cheese for everyone,” she said.
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Jane Bauer, the education and outreach manager for the ACS, said taking the exam requires 4,000 hours of study. The questions the cheese lovers must answer touch on everything from sanitation to food processing and FDA regulations to the science of cheesemaking, raw versus pasteurized milk, and more.
The test is offered once a year and every year the questions are different.
“We take our clients and members very seriously,” Bauer said “We all want to raise the tide, increase knowledge in the industry and in consumers so they purchase more cheese and understand it.”
Allen travels throughout Utah working at grocery store cheese islands, consulting with cheese makers and sometimes judging in cheese competitions. She got her start about 20 years ago running a restaurant and then working as a food broker with wineries, bakeries and delis.
“I just kind of got hooked on specialty cheese,” Allen said. “I’ve always played with food pairings it was just a natural fit.”
Allen sees her role as a cheese educator and has even taught cheese classes at the University of Utah. She said many consumers don’t realize the high-end blocks of smoky gouda or wedges of sharp cheddar they take home from the store require tender love and care.
“Cheese is a living item,” she said. “They’re taking care of hundreds of different babies with hundreds of different needs.”
Harmon’s Cheese Merchandiser Mariah Christensen oversees cheese purchasing at all 17 Utah locations but first, she learned the ropes from one of their stores’ cheesemongers.
“We had a 70 pound wheel of aged gruyère and I was like ‘Why would anyone need this cheese? Why is it so big?’” she said, laughing.
Gruyère, in fact, is a dense cheese named after a town in Switzerland that’s good for cheese plates, fondue or melting in hearty dishes.
Christensen said it’s important to ease cheese newcomers into more exotic kinds, but their stores have cheese from more than 24 countries so there are a lot of options available. Brie, asiago and fontina, oh my!
One of Christensen’s personal favorites and recommendations is an aged goat gouda called Midnight Moon.
“It’s like dessert, so it’s pretty easy to try,” she said.
Allen also likes goat cheeses but said people tend to shy away from them. Different animal milks create different qualities in the cheese and Allen can sometimes even taste the difference in the time of year the milk was produced.
“There are raw milk cheeses and I love them,” she said. “They get a bad rap but all it means is that cheesemaker and farmer have to be extra diligent in animal husbandry and cleanliness.”
Christensen’s fridge is always full of jams, mustards, salamis and pickles — the things she needs to eat with the numerous varieties of cheese she has. Allen’s description of her own fridge was similar.
“I’d rather eat well and have a small quality than eat a lot and have it be mediocre,” she said.
A University of Michigan study found cheese is particularly addictive because of a protein found in all milk products called casein. During digestion, opiates are released and trigger dopamine receptors in the brain, causing a feeling of happiness.
“I get huge satisfaction out of peoples’ reaction to cheese,” Allen said.
Want to make your own cheese board at home? Check out these recommendations from cheese expert Sheri Allen.
“They start with their BellaVitano base and have different finishes. My favorite is their Balsamic BellaVitano. The Italian Balsamic it is bathed in brings out the sweetness of the Parmesan flavors in the BellaVitano. Their Black Pepper BellaVitano won Grand Champion at the U.S. Cheese Championship competition this year. Pretty impressive!”
“I adore Blue Cheese! Rogue Creamery in Central Point Oregon makes magic in their Rogue River Blue released on the Autumnal Equinox in September. This cheese is aged in organic Syrah grape leaves that have soaked in a pear brandy for a year! The buttery texture of the Blue has notes of chocolate and bacon in the finish. It is highly anticipated every year for the limited quantity release. When it is gone, there’s Caveman blue to enjoy along with their lineup of other blue cheeses and cheddars. This Creamery has a rich history dating back to 1954.”
“A local cheese that I feel is noteworthy is Beehive Cheese. I’ve made cheese there a couple of times. In the mouth of the Weber Canyon, Beehive Cheese began in 2005 with two brother in laws Pat Ford and Tim Welsh; leaving the corporate world to follow their cheese passion. Beehive Promontory is the base cheese they start with and finish with interesting rubs. The most well known is Barely Buzzed rubbed with a coffee and lavender blend.”
“I’m a fan of sheep’s milk cheeses. Sheep milk is higher in fat and protein so you get a rich cheese made from the milk. I have a couple of favorites from France that can be found in several retailer’s cases in the market. A very good domestic sheep cheese similar to the French versions comes from Central Coast Creamery called Ewenique!”
“I like to pair my sheep milk cheese with Frescatrano olives, cornichons and pâté. The combination is heaven!”
“I had the opportunity to tour their affinage (aging) caves this past fall in London. They export some of the best territorial aged English Cheddars and Stichelton Blue Cheese.”