Members of the Cheese Club of UCLA celebrated Thirsty Thursday by sipping white wine while gathered around a plate of Europe’s most flavorful cheeses.
Becca Quist unwrapped each European cheese and carefully placed the circular and triangular slices on a wooden board as members settled into plush earth-toned couches. They chatted, occasionally taking bites of cheese under the ambient light of the Gayley Avenue apartment.
Quist, a fourth-year political science student, discovered a fellow cheese enthusiast in her roommate, Clarissa Borges, and often indulged in cheese and wine with her on weeknights. After exploring new cheeses together, the roommates began to think of other students at UCLA who might share a similar passion for cheese.
“We were always going out to try new cheeses and wines, and after some time we figured that other students must enjoy cheese like we do,” Quist said. “So we thought, why not start our own cheese club?”
Members of the Cheese Club meet once a month in Borges and Quist’s apartment to discuss the dairy product, bringing their own cheese samples, wines and garnishes such as chocolate or crackers.
At Thursday’s “European Cheeses”-themed meeting, one student brought Fromager d’Affinois, a soft, French double-cream cheese that melts in the mouth. He suggested everyone spread it on a slice of baguette with fig jelly, topped with a nut. After a moment of silence and chewing, a series of satisfied murmurs followed.
“This is definitely the place to learn how to cheese right,” said Borges, a fourth-year history student.
Other students brought Truffle Gouda from the Netherlands, French Epoisses and Port Salut, Dubliner cheese and Spanish Idiazabal, an old traditional shepherds’ cheese from the Basque region. In preparation for the meeting, students scavenged for the cheeses at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods Market and The Cheese Box at Wally’s in Westwood.
“The taste is like a symphony in my mouth,” said one member about the Epoisses, a cheese with undertones of mushrooms, meat and garlic.
“Can I try that one again? I seem to have forgotten how it tasted,” joked another member.
The club highlights the culture, craft and curation of cheeses, Quist said. Members conduct their own research and share the geographical origin, history of production, cultural role and the production process for every cheese presented on each meeting’s cheese board.
Past meetings have had themes like “Fan Favorites” for which all members brought their favorite cheese, or “California Classic,” which featured cheeses produced only in California. The meetings are a chance for members to enjoy each other’s company over a shared connection – a love for cheese.
“Meetings feel like you’re going over to a friend’s house for an evening party, but really it’s just a cheese party,” Quist said. “People get dressed up, bring cheese over, chat and relax.”
The Cheese Club was founded in 2016 and has developed an endearing tradition among its 23 current members, Quist said. Members share personal cheese stories, explaining their background with cheese or what initially brought them to realize their passion for cheese.
“Cheese stories represent the core of the idea behind Cheese Club,” Borges said. “They are really telling of the more intimate aspects of people’s lives because they often tie back to childhoods, upbringings and often family.”
Quist’s cheese story starts at her great-grandparents’ dairy farmhouse, where she grew up with four siblings in the Central Valley of California. Drinking raw milk directly from cows, learning to drive a tractor and working in the fields alongside her brothers were integral pieces of Quist’s childhood.
Quist’s family also sold the milk from their dairy farm to the Hilmar Cheese Company, so cheese was ingrained in her upbringing, Quist said.
Cheese was also an essential part of Borges’ upbringing. Her great-grandfather emigrated from Switzerland to California, carrying over his knowledge about the production of Swiss cheeses like Gruyere and Tilsiter, and becoming an established cheese maker in Humboldt County.
Cheese continued to remain an important part of the Borges’ family – her father and uncles also worked in a cheese shop.
“As a kid I remember wishing I could trade in my cheese desserts for standard cake or ice cream.” Borges said. “But one time my uncle imported cheeses from Switzerland and Italy to taste, and they were so good that I remember thinking I could settle for cheese from then on.”
Catherine Achy, a UCLA alumna, begins her cheese story in a small Syrian village, where her father grew up. Each morning he would fetch fresh cow’s milk, so his mother could churn the milk to make yogurt for breakfast. His mother would then churn the leftovers into a thicker yogurt for lunch, and any leftovers from lunch would be turned into cheese for dinner.
The experience of Achy’s father contributed to her appreciation for the cycle of cheese making. She has eaten Labneh, a thick yogurt, for as long as she can remember and has visited Syria to witness the cheese-making process herself.
Cheese stories open up an avenue for real bonding experiences, more so than standard ice breakers, Quist said. She quickly connected with many members by learning personal details of their lives and building on a shared love for cheese.
Upcoming meeting themes include “Growing Old Gracefully,” featuring aged cheeses, “Same Cheese, Different Place,” such as Gouda from various regions of production and “The Cheese Courses,” which incorporates cheeses that pair with different courses in a meal.
The Cheese Club’s first annual spring field trip is also on the horizon. In May, members will embark on a journey throughout Northern California to tour cheese makers, including Oakdale Cheese & Specialities and Cowgirl Creamery in Marin County.
Back in Borges and Quist’s apartment, members finished off their last bites of Truffle Gouda. Borges then sliced into the platter’s last cheese sample, a sturdy, yellowish Dubliner.
“Look at how cheese has brought us all together and touched us in different ways,” Borges said. “I can’t wait for the next meeting.”