The popularity of artisan cheese has been steadily growing, and we’re fortunate to have one purveyor in Champaign. If you haven’t yet had Prairie Fruits Farm cheese, I implore you to try it. PFF makes goat cheese (and a few cow milk cheeses); even if you have not enjoyed goat cheese before, I’m willing to bet PFF’s cheese will change your mind. Seriously.

PFF has been putting on a variety of workshops and classes for some time, and last week I went to a class about cheese tasting, called Cheese Demystified. The class was $20, and promised to offer plenty of cheese to taste and some wine to drink, and conversation about how to talk about cheese in two hours. The class was small — about nine people — and the intimacy of a small group allowed for an informality that put everyone at ease. 

Leslie Cooperband, co-owener of PFF, led the class. Leslie is friendly and approachable; her enthusiasm for cheese and cheese making was infectious. As an instructor, she was incredibly well organized, and provided handouts that outlined vocabulary, styles of cheese, and a worksheet for our tasting exercise. Her knowledge of the history of cheese and cheese making was really impressive, and she delivered the information in ways that were interesting, relevant, and accessible to the non-cheese nerd.

After spending the first forty-five minutes or so talking about cheese styles, where they come from, and their signatures characteristics, we moved into tasting the large spread of cheeses that were coming up to room temperature. Before we even started, Leslie gently reminded us to take time to taste the cheese, and not just “gobble it up.” That part was a little challenging.

There were about fourteen different cheeses of different styles. We sampled just about all of PFF’s cheeses, as well as some from Ludwig Farmstead Creamery in Fithian and Marcoot Jersey Creamery in Greenville. There were other cheeses from the Midwest, and one from Italy.

We started with fresh cheese, then moved on to the bloomy rinds like PFF’s Little Bloom on the Prairie, then semi-hard and hard cheeses, and finished off with a sample of PFF’s feta. Using our Cheese Evaluation Sheet, we made notes about the textures and the flavors, and went around the table talking about what we noted. There were no wrong answers — everyone’s palate is unique — and it was fun to hear what other people thought about and how they described each cheese.

We cleansed our palates with wine and bread, and though most of the conversation was related to the cheese before us, it felt like catching up with old friends. The dimly lit barn space, dressed up for the Real Stand store, was warm and inviting. The folks in the class were enthusiastic and open minded about trying things and I think everyone was surprised by at least one thing they sampled. We were all impressed by Milton Creamery's Prairie Breeze, a cheddar-style block of damned deliciousness. (From Iowa; you can find it at Common Ground Food Co-op.) 

As a group we chatted about our favorite places to buy cheese in town, and which spots seems to have the best selections and most helpful cheese mongers. Though some in the group were initially more confident in buying cheese than others, I’m certain that everyone in the class will have no problem talking or asking about cheese at her store of choice. Likewise, I think we all now have a handful of go-to cheese board cheeses. The next step is to figure out how to pair items with these delicious cheeses, and Prairie Fruits Farm is offering a class on November 30th for just that purpose. You can register for Pairing cheese with wine, beer, jams, nuts and more here ($20 per person). 

Cheese can seem inaccessible if you aren’t already in the know. The same can be said of beer, wine, and spirits, and sometimes bread. These things are among the oldest expressions of humanity and culture. They all live in the center of the Venn diagram: they require a balance between craft and science. As a community, we’re fortunate enough to have businesses in town that are engaged in educating and enriching the community with knowledge about their artisan goods. If you have an opportunity to spend a couple of hours eating, drinking, chatting, and making new friends at a Prairie Fruits Farm workshop, I highly recommend that you take advantage of it.

(See the difference between the gooey edge and the pasty center? That's what's up. That's some tasty cheese right there.)

Some photos of the Real Stand are below.

For more information about Prairie Fruits Farm’s workshops, check out its website or Facebook page.

All photos by Jessica Hammie.