O, queso! Delectable slices of Spain and Portugal

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“Don't. Eat. The. Cheese.”

I kept telling myself this as I stared down at my plate during the Cheeses of Spain and Portugal Class at the Cheese School on May 23. Nine slices of sweating, salty, pungent wonderfulness looked back at me, taunting. Thankfully, there were endless glasses of delicious white wine to drink before the class started.

Juliana Uruburu (imagine this name pronounced with a beautiful Spanish accent) was our teacher for the evening, guiding us through the diverse and tremendous flavors of Spanish cheese. “Cheese chose me,” exclaimed Uruburu, who has been working in cheese for decades and is an obvious fanatic from the way she talks about it. How can you not be a fanatic when you spend your days doting over wheels of cheese like majon -- a sheep cheese with cajones! -- and visiting Paris every year for the Salon du Fromage, the equivalent of the World's Fair of cheeses.

Eventually we were able to eat the cheese... but first we had to smell it first, then break it in half, before tasting the creamy subtle center and slowly sampling outwards to the funky rind. Uruburu explained that Spain is one of the most innovative and exciting places when it comes to food. This year at the Salon in Paris, Spain presented over 50 new varieties of cheese. Así que mucha innovación! So much innovation!

Uruburu taught us a bunch of geeky tidbits about cheese-making and tasting. For example, those little crunchy crystals in some cheeses like Manchego aren't made from salt, but a protein called tyrosine that develops in certain curds. Another fact for gluten-conscious eaters: blue cheese may contain wheat gluten because the culture is often made with moldy bread. Who knew? After devouring a large plate of cheese (and several glasses of wine), there was one queso that stood out the most to me. Cadi urgelia. Soft but stinky.

Four couples in the room had trips planned to Spain, thinking it would be a fun idea to get a little cheese primer first. For me, I was able to satisfy some of my travel lust through this class by letting my palate transport me back to Spain, with their countless tapas bars, colorful flamenco music, and beautiful mid-day siestas.

The Cheese School hosts a variety of fun cheese classes and events, including cheese-making classes with the SF Milk Maid.