You’ve heard of wood carving, and you’ve heard of ice carving, but chances are, you’ve never heard of the creamiest, yummiest type of carving yet: cheese carving.
Food carving, albeit eccentric, actually dates back to the 13th century and began with fruits and vegetables. In the scheme of things, cheese is a newer (and slightly easier!) medium than most. Unlike butter, another current popular choice, cheese doesn’t need to be carved in a temperature-controlled space. This is one reason why cheese carver Sarah Nep appreciates it so much.
Nep has always had an affinity for sculpting but didn’t start dabbling in dairy until 1986. Since then, she’s created many works of art using giant cheese blocks or wheels that can weigh up to 40 pounds. She’s carved everything from the three little pigs to the bust of former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. We spoke with her about her not-so-common artwork and how it all comes together.
Alexandra Heston Photography
Q&A with Sarah Nep
How do you go about carving a block of cheese?
First, you have to imagine what you are going to carve and consider if it will fit in the block or the wheel you have. I usually do some researching and sketching after a discussion with the client. Once I commit to the design, I start going deeper [into the block or wheel] and possibly take off big chunks if it’s 3D. The secret is to go slow enough that you don’t make any major mistakes. Once it’s done, I wrap it up and refrigerate it until it is time to get it to my client.
How is carving cheese different than carving other media like, say, clay?
Cheese can feel a little like clay—except that you can’t put it back on once you take it off. It is purely reductive. There are many subtle differences [with each piece of cheese]: texture, moisture content, type of cheese, temperature and age can make a difference. You just have to explore a little. The best perk, however, is the delicious cheese that is left over. It’s already shredded and ready for tacos, nachos, or mac and cheese. You can’t do that with marble!
How long does a carving take you to create?
It depends on the complexity of the piece. Typically, it takes 8-10 hours for one block of cheddar. Creating a bust of a person takes longer—about 20 hours. Even a simple logo can take a few hours to create.
Which types of cheese are the best to carve?
Any semi-firm cheese: cheddar, Monterey Jack, gouda, or a firm cheese like Parmesan works well. Blue cheeses and super soft cheeses like a gooey, ripe brie [don’t work well]. They’re delicious to eat, but they would be a challenge to carve.
Which of your cheesy creations has made you the proudest?
I recently did a complex piece for the California Milk Advisory Board, highlighting the beautiful connection between wine and cheese in California. Incorporating more than one block of cheese is challenging. I used two 40-pound blocks, and I stacked the state of California on top of a wine barrel with [the board’s] Real California Milk logo, and it came out great. I love creating something unique that is both artistic and tells a story.