Perhaps the best way to get a hold of cheese expert Laura Werlin is first checking her Twitter and Facebook accounts to find out which city or country she’s in. Werlin is a one-woman show in cheese and spends her time speaking, researching, cooking, writing, and teaching. You may have seen her talking about cheese in a down to earth, knowledgeable yet fun style on CNN, QVC, the Martha Stewart Show, the CBS Early Show or CHOW.com; her written work pops up nationally in Food & Wine, Fine Cooking, Saveur, and Cooking Light magazines.
Werlin’s forays to industry conferences keep her up to date on the latest and greatest in cheese. She has written five cheese-centric books and nabbed a James Beard award for The All American Cheese and Wine Book. Her sixth book Mac & Cheese, Please! will be released at the end of the year. Werlin is an instructor at The Cheese School of San Francisco, and will be teaching an American cheese class there on October 9th.
Ever since I signed up for cooking school in San Francisco in 2000, I’ve seen how Werlin’s professional work is often brought up in discussions about cheese. I was curious to know how exactly she got into working full-time with cheese. (Doesn’t it sound like a fun job?) We first worked together indirectly when I supplied her with volunteers for a cooking demo when I was an Event Manager for SF Chefs in 2010. Last year, I did paid content work for her website. For this Bay Area Bites piece, I interviewed Werlin via telephone and email. Her comments have been edited for clarity and length.
Bay Area Bites: You’ve been a cheese expert since 2000, but what got you into cheese?
Werlin: I studied Mass Communications at Cal with the dream of being on TV news. I worked at KRON news and bounced around in the news. Then I got a job in the field in Bakersfield. Later at KPIX I was the assignment manager and would figure out what to assign to reporters. I ended my time at KGO as a field producer for women in business, where I went out and interviewed people. TV news was my love and I did my best to do stories on food and wine people because that was also my love. After many years in the TV news business, I decided I was tired of it so I struck out to be a food writer. I ended up getting a couple of general food articles published that had nothing to do with cheese.
I feel like cheese found me. I wasn’t looking for a subject, and cheese found me. The first story was my book, where I got inspired to write about cheese. I knew instantly that my subject would be cheese. I’ve been lucky and had a charmed life as an author. I found an agent who found a publisher who liked the idea of a book on American cheese by an unknown author. That’s when my first book came out The New American Cheese.
The way you become an expert is to write a book about it. I didn’t come to cheese because I knew about it. It was something I was very passionate about but I knew nothing about it. In the course of writing it, that was when I started really learning about it. And the learning never stopped.
Bay Area Bites: Where do you get your information about cheese? What’s on your nightstand reading pile?
Werlin: I get a lot of info at the cheese counter. It almost doesn’t matter where that is: a cheese shop, a Whole Foods…. If something looks intriguing, I buy it.
There’s one book that I think is great called Mastering Cheese by Max McMalman who is Maître Fromager in New York. Also I go to conferences and get information there.
I took a trip to Holland to learn about Dutch cheese. I go to farms as much as possible but ironically with my travel schedule being what it is, I do that less and less.
Often I will call a cheese maker. There isn’t one way -- you just learn about it. I like a book called Growing a Farmer and it’s the story of how Kurt Timmermeister came to be a cheese maker. He was an unlikely person from Vashon Island for that to happen.
Bay Area Bites: Earlier this month, you were at the Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival. Events and travel make up much of your work. What’s that like?
Werlin: I do travel for cheese, that’s for sure. This is the second year for me at the LA Food & Wine Fest. That’s indicative of a lot of what I do. For the Food & Wine Classic at Aspen, this is my 7th year. I do the South Beach Wine and Food Festival and The Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, which is in its 21st year.
In between I always wonder what I do each day. I’m never doing anything fun or frivolous. I consider myself an educator basically making cheese fun and psychologically accessible. People are wary and they buy the same cheese. They feel like there’s a right and wrong and they get hung up on that.
Bay Area Bites: Do you think pronunciation has something to do with people’s fear... similar to not ordering wine because you’re not sure how to say it to the waiter?
Werlin: I think it’s a foreign word and I do the same thing with imported wine. With cheese, it’s more being afraid that it’s foreign and they’re not going to like it. I wouldn’t call us Americans a courageous lot. There has to be some familiarity or someone close by who can vouch for it. When you have cheeses that are like the gym socks that you haven’t washed -- it’s counterintuitive. Never mind that it can be transcendent to eat that gym sock cheese.
Bay Area Bites: Who are your mentors?
Werlin: I can’t say that I have any mentors. What I would say is the thing that has motivated me all along are the cheese makers themselves. When I used to go to the old farmers' market before it came the ferry building, I made a beeline to the cheese makers. I loved talking to them and I loved what they do and I still feel that way. They’re my inspiration.
They are not mentors but people I was inspired early on by are Julia Child and Jacques Pépin because I met them at McEvoy Olive oil and I was at their table. I was familiar but I thought they were a God and Goddess and I just wanted to be like them. [Laughs.] Hasn’t happened but it’s an inspiration.
What impressed me was they were really accessible as people and they were so quietly confident. They knew their stuff. Particularly in this day and age, anyone can call themselves a cook. It mattered to them. Don't get me wrong I think food TV is great -- and PBS is a pioneer. Like anything that gets popular, it gets dumbed down and it’s hard to ferret out who’s good at what they do and who’s good at being on television.
Bay Area Bites: What are your thoughts on the state of cheese in the Bay Area? Where are we with cheese knowledge and cheese appreciation?
Werlin: We're more sophisticated than the rest of the country. No matter what neighborhood you live in, it's near a cheese shop or a Whole Foods. Also, we're just down the road from Pt. Reyes and see the cheese made at Cowgirl Creamery. We have access to the cheese makers. That’s helpful in breaking down the intimidation factor and helps increase our desire to include cheese in our every day lives.
We have a lot of farmers’ markets and that’s a great leveling opportunity. It’s a chance to taste cheese from the cheese maker.
Bay Area Bites: What cheeses are good for September -- at home and for picnics?
Werlin: Cheese ages at different rates. Sometimes a cheese made in last September is coming ripe in this September. You have a year-old cheese that could be great fun. I like a cheese called Pleasant Ridge Reserve anywhere in the 12-14 month range. Sometimes, you need to be looking back a year. Ask the cheese monger, “What was made last year, what’s good now?”
Also you’ve had the entire spring and summer where there are cheeses like a fresh chevre. Or try a sheep milk ricotta from Bellwether Farms that is awesome.
Or cheese from June and July are coming to perfection. It’s a little bit of looking back and using your cheese monger as help.
If it’s hot, I tend to go for a lighter cheese like Humboldt Fog which is creamy and delicious. Maybe don't go for a bandage wrapped cheddar. During the day that wouldn’t be my go-to cheese. In the end what you want to surround yourself with is a variety of maybe three cheeses from different milks.
Specifically for September, go for sheep and goats milk that are less changed. They start drying up later in the fall. If you want something fresh and seasonal, our cows here have opposite seasons. The grasses out in February then dry up in summertime. It’s okay because there’s still grass. Cows milk cheese made in February or March may be particularly delicious from California.
Bay Area Bites: Do you have any foods that are a guilty pleasure?
Werlin: It’s not really a guilty pleasure but I’m totally in love with beef jerky. I can’t tell you why. There’s the texture and the flavor and it’s often like ingesting leather.
I’m a big peanut butter fan and will eat a Reese’s anytime.
I’ve never met a potato chip I don't like. I’m more of a salty girl than a sweet one, although I try to be sweet!