Chances are you’ve heard of the Masters of Wine, in which sommeliers and their ilk sip, swirl, and blindly taste their way through one of the toughest tests in the food and drink world. But did you know that there’s also a test all about cheese? The Certified Cheese Professional exam, administered by the American Cheese Society, is the highest honor for folks who work in the world of Brie, blue, and burrata. It’s not all about sitting around and sampling wedges, though: The 150-question test drills takers on everything from the cheesemaking process to the chemistry of affinage (aging) to sanitation standards. To date, 740 people have passed the test.
Among them is Christine Clark, the assistant manager of education and events at NYC’s iconic shop Murray’s Cheese. Clark chatted with me about the test, what it’s like to work in the whey cool world of cheese, and the wedges she can’t live without.
Extra Crispy: When did you first decide you wanted to pursue cheese as a career?
Christine Clark: I was working in another field and doing some freelance food writing. I was trying to learn more about food when I found out that about the volunteer program at Murray’s, where you can come early and help set up for classes and clean up afterwards, and then you can take classes for free. After I’d done hundreds of classes, I thought, “I guess I really like this.”
What do you love about working in cheese?
The stories. I was an English major in college, so I love hearing why people choose the lives that they choose. Cheese is all about the producers; our producers are for the most part small family farmers. They do this because they want to keep their communities alive. There’s a lot of passion in cheese that I find really inspiring.
So what was it like to become a Certified Cheese Professional?
The certification is still quite new in the US. At this point, it’s just a test. I’ve heard a range of pass rates, from 49 to 60 percent, so it’s challenging. It covers distribution and storage, animal breeds, protection laws, and more.
Do you have to sit around and sample a bunch of cheese to study for it?
[Laughs] No. In the study program, you learn about flavor compounds, whether it’s bananas or cauliflower—it’s more about the science of taste than actually tasting cheese.
Hold up. There’s a cheese that tastes like bananas?
Not exactly. The flavor compound is called isoamyl acetate. As the cheese is ripening, the protein in is breaking into compounds that create flavor and aroma. Some cheeses have the isoamyl acetate compound that makes them smell reminiscent of bananas.
So how long did you have to study for the test?
Murray’s has a very structured program to prepare its future CCPs. We had lectures once a week for six or eight months.
What were the most difficult parts of the test for you?
Since my job is mostly in cheese education, the distribution, transit, and storage areas were difficult. Also, milk chemistry is tricky. It has to do with the milk when it breaks down on a chemical level during the cheesemaking process. There’s so much to learn: That’s what the test reminds you. No matter how much you know about cheese, there’s always more to learn.
So be honest. Are there any bad things about working with cheese?
I know a lot of people at Murray’s and beyond that think buying is the coolest thing ever, but our buying department also has to taste a lot of really gross cheese. We taste everything that people send us. There’s a lot of awful cheese out there.
What are the most common mistakes people make when they’re putting together a cheese plate?
A lot of the issues that people have buying cheese can be prevented by going to a cheese shop with cheesemongers who will tell you what’s good that day, because it changes. When I make cheese plates, I’ll do three cheeses, some soft, some hard, and usually two crowd-pleasers and one that people haven’t tried before, because they always want to learn more. The cheeses I bring are the stories I want to tell.
If you were a cheese, what kind of cheese would you be?
Probably a clothbound cheddar. There’s one called Flory’s Truckle that isn’t a scary cheese, but just a little bit different.
OK, I’ve gotta ask: If you could only bring one cheese to a desert island...
I’d bring Comte San Antoine, which is a pressed and cooked cheese made in the Jura region of France. It’s a cousin to Gruyère but not made in the mountains. It’s very complex but it’s not aggressive—you get brown butter and hazelnuts and freshly steamed milk flavors. It’s so complex but so snackable.