gordonzola: (Default)
Just so you can get a sense of the feeding frenzy that 1208 cheeses cause, here's about a quarter of the room at the Festival of cheese.
Festival of Cheese 13

And here's the room mid-festival:
Festival of Cheese 7

Crazy! It was so crowded that [livejournal.com profile] nunofthat had to flee after being hit on by the grandson of an award-winning cheesemaker.

(P.S. Happy birthday [livejournal.com profile] chitinous, one day late.)
gordonzola: (Default)
I should mention that with 1208 cheeses in the room, I have to concentrate professionally on the ones I don't know. These are the best cheeses I tasted this year at the American Cheese Society Festival of Cheese, but you will notice only one California cheese on this list. Duh, I know all of them! I had to save my pallet.

I mean, look at all that cheese! This is just one tiny section, not even 1/100th of the total.
Festival of Cheese 11

ok, here we go:

1. Leelanau Aged Raclette, Michigan. Won best in Show and I voted for it. Pungent, rich, earthy, and fruity. The flavor jumped out at me despite (because of?) the fact that I'd tasted 200 cheeses in the previous 36 hours. Someday I hope to actually be able to buy this cheese but from what I've heard, this cheese is so small production that it's difficult to get even in Michigan. They also make a younger Raclette which is very good, but this aged one is transcendent.

2. Beecher's Flagship Reserve, Washington. Won second place in the competition. Unlike the regular Flagship cheddar, which is wonderful in its own right, this is a traditionally made, bandage-wrapped cheddar aged about 18 months. Most cheddars are made in a massive 560 lb. square, subdivided into 40 lb. blocks and aged in plastic. Some great cheddars are made this way, but cheese made in cheesecloth and rotated in an aging room ages faster, and tends to be much earthier, full flavored and distinctive. This is a great addition to the few US versions of this cheese, Joining the Fiscalini 18 and 30 month, Bravo Silver Mountain, and the Cabot/Jasper Hill cheese that won the ACS competition last year. The Fiscalini 30 month, in particular, challenges the best Neal's Yard imported cheddars in terms of flavor and quality.

3. Estrella Family Creamery, Washington. These folks are quietly making some of the best cheese in the country. The Caldwell Crik Chevrette is a stinky washed-rind goat/cow blend that many customers simply refuse to believe isn't high-quality French cheese. Dominoes is a Tomme De Savoie-type cow's milk cheese, earthy, milky, and with flavor that you keep think is about to end but doesn't. It's named after one of their favorite cows, Domino. Domino's daughter, Darla, is the namesake of the Red Darla, a washed-rind Dominoes that is super pungent, rich and amazing. I can't tell you why none of these cheeses medalled but the one cheese of theirs that I judged took first place in it's category.

4. Pholia Farm, Oregon. Milk from Nigerian dwarf goats. Solar-powered and off-the-grid. I tried the Elk Mountain at a regional tasting and thought it was the best aged goat cheese I had at the conference. This stuff is also almost impossible to find but everything they make is amazing. If you see anything under their name, buy it.

5. Dante, Wisconsin. Aged sheep milk cheese from the Wisconsin sheep farmer co-op. Nutty, sweet, and smooth. There aren't many sheep cheeses like this made in the US. It's seasonal, so grab it when you see it.

6. Beehive Barely Buzzed Cheddar, Utah. Ok, you know how I feel about the "cheese with stuff in it" category. But I really like this cheese. The rind is rubbed with coffee and lavender and that bitter, flowery bite works really well with what is now a nicely aged cheddar. When I tasted an early version of this cheese a year ago, the cheese was too mild to stand up to the rind but it's an almost perfect combination now. Like all flavored products it's not for everyone, but I saw a lot of judges surprised how much they liked this seemingly novelty cheese.

7. Le Chevre Noir, Quebec. Basically this is a goat cheddar. But it's not some we'll-make-it-out-of-goat-milk-and-people-will-be-so-desperate-for-it-they-won't-care-what-it-tastes-like goat cheddar. This is the real thing, perfectly aged, sweet and sharp with a goaty tang. This cheese has been underrated for way too long. Since we're talking Quebec, there are many other French Canadian cheeses that will never make it to the Bay Area for various reasons,. Le Rebelle was my favorite this year, a pungent washed-rind oozy thing that I'll have to wait until next year's ACS to taste again. Sigh.

8. Truffle Tremor, California. This wasn't in the competition because it is only just now being sold commercially. It's from Humboldt County, made by Cypress Grove and it's basically their well-known Humboldt Fog, but instead of ash, it's truffled. It's a slightly smaller wheel too, probably to keep the per-piece price reasonable. If you've had the fog, this cheese will be just what you expect: tangy, earthy, mushroomy, and covered by a delicate brie-style rind.

9. Hope Farm Tomme de Brebis, Vermont. Seasonal and rare, we carried this for about five minutes last year. Semi-soft, earthy, nutty and rich I can't wait to get more. I wish there were ten times as many sheep dairies in the US and that they were all as good as Hope Farm, Bellwether, Vermont Shepherd, and the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Co-op.

10. Cabot Butter (salted), Vermont. So perfect that I considered for best in show. It's funny, because I love the Sierra Nevada organic vat-cultured butter (Sierra Nevada still makes the best cream cheese in the country), and the Vermont Butter and Cheese butter, but this was really perfect.

I will end with a picture that sums up the polished showmanship and pageantry that is the annual ACS awards ceremony. Why it isn't televised live on the Food Channel I'll never know.
The pageantry of the ACS awards ceremony
gordonzola: (Default)
One of the most striking things about the cheese conference takes place in the bathrooms. I think I commented on this last year, but hand washing is epidemic. There were longer lines for the sinks than the toilets. It was noticeably different than the average men's room. It made me proud. These are my fellow food professionals and they take food safety seriously. Unlike many other Americans.

I think I will somehow incorporate hand washing into my next cheese tattoo.
gordonzola: (Default)
This year's ACS conference may have been the best ever. Pretty much every workshop was focused and covered the material as promised. Things went off on time. The organized tastings and events were well-conceived and organized. The judging, and care for the cheese being judged, has been honed to perfection.

Which is why the one dud workshop I went to was so disappointing.

The "Affinage: A Trip Through Environmental Requirements"* workshop was half good. But one of the panelists basically answered every question about retail/distributor affinage with a variation of "We put the cheese in the cooler caaaaaaav that we bought for that kind of cheese."

Now truthfully, he seemed like a nice guy. It was also mentioned that he was new to his job so maybe he just got thrown out there with little time to prep. Who knows? All I know is that I left fairly annoyed at the waste of my time. Unfortunately, that also means I missed a cheese friend ask him in the Q&A, "So, do you have any advice for all the people here who aren't able to spend a few million on coolers?"**

The answer, after some hemming and hawing, was "no".

Now, I went to that workshop hoping to learn some tricks. Most of us who don't have cheese museums have one or two coolers at our disposal. At our store, by chance and not design, have a dry and a wet one. Sometimes cheese doesn't come in in perfect condition. Construction of improvised containers for certain types of cheese is what I wanted. Not advice to buy more coolers that we can't afford to put in the available space that doesn't exist.

Here's a trick for consumers. As a rule, if a U.S. cheese seller calls themselves an "affineur"*** or talks about their "cheese caaaav", they are probably an asshole. Retailers don't do affinage, we do harm reduction.

What I mean by that is that cheese should be in good condition when we buy it. If we get young cheese, or overly wet/sticky cheese, we should have methods for dealing with them. But nothing replaces proper aging on the production side. We try and make the best of what we have. Sometimes there are happy accidents. Sometimes there's cheese in the dumpster.

I help out with the Sonoma Cheese Conference every year, and the ACS is a great place to brainstorm new ideas for workshops. This year I am going to propose "Practical Harm Reduction Methods for Cheese Retailers." It's an industry conference. We can share our sneaky little methods.

The workshop I'm really excited about and wanting to do for two years: will be "Let's Stop Lying: Creating certified definitions for "farmstead", "hand-made/artisan", "pasture-fed",**** "cheese cave", "small production" and "cheesemonger".

*affinage = intentional cheese aging
**not exact quote, I had left remember.
***if they are certified in France that's another matter. There are exceptions to this. but most "caaaavs" are walk in coolers
****This is the next big one. Bigger entry on this soon.
gordonzola: (Default)
Another of my favorite dairy scientists spoke at a different panel. At my first out-of the Bay Area ACS conference in 2001 Catherine Donnelly spoke about having taken on a study in relation to the FDA considering the banning all raw milk cheese (not just the ones aged less than 60 days as it’s the current law.). She described herself as going in like a typical food science person, looking to minimize health risk and assuming their was some kind of reason behind the proposed tightening of the laws.

What she found was very little evidence that aged raw milk cheese posed much of a health threat at all. She reviewed cases of food borne-illness over the past 30 years or so and very little evidence of aged raw milk cheese-related illness or death. She started questioning the basic concepts of raw milk cheese and safety held by the regulatory agencies of the US.

Thus she became a hero to the U.S, citizens who care about amazing traditonally-made cheeses. In a 2001 issue of "Discover Magazine" she was quoted in a paragraph that has become a hard-to-argue-against mantra of the pro-raw milk cheese folks
Ironically, the cheeses that have caused illnesses have often been made from pasteurized milk and then contaminated during processing. "Pasteurization may actually create a more dangerous situation, in that you knock out the competitive flora," Donnelly says. The good bugs that help keep the bad bugs in check in a raw-milk cheese are destroyed by pasteurization.

That post-production contamination in pasteurized cheese cause more illness than raw milk cheese is not debated (there is also not much raw milk cheese eaten, statistically speaking, in the US either). But this gets to the heart of the issue. Large scale factory production has unintended risks. To destroy traditional cheesemaking in the name of safety is an idea born of false comfort.

She gave a report on current issues relating to the legal status of raw milk cheese. Oddly, this lead to a discussion of "food irradiation."* The FDA has been trying to change the definition of "pasteurized" to include food irradiation for quite some time.. Seems like it's getting much closer. The law has not yet changed to allow food radiation to be called "pasteurized", but (and this is still murky) it will allow petitioners seek approval for this is they can to prove that "any safe process that is at least as protective as pasteurization and is reasonably certain to kill the most resistant pathogens likely to occur in the food."**

Now, any right thinking person realizes that this is a fucking disaster. Clearly this is an attempt by big money to sneak a process that consumers don't want into their food supply. The effect on standards will potentially be huge. I mean geez, if we're gonna irradiate it anyway, who cares how many cancerous sores are on that carcass that will be your next hamburger?** *

Donnelly announced that she (working with cheese friendly groups) intends to have the first petition in front of this new group when it forms. Not for irradiation of course, but for thermalized and raw milk cheese that she feels she can prove are just as safe as pasteurized ones.

Wow, that's something I feel really mixed about. I'm totally behind what she is doing for cheese but I can just see a committee like that using a decision that cheese lovers and slow food folks would support as a way to legitimize a committee that was really organized for something completely different.

Who knows, maybe this will be one of those odd twists of history where something done in the name of greed and centralization of the food supply actually ends up having unintended benefits for small production, traditional products. We can hope… right?

*"often called 'cold pasteurization'" my ass. Reading government documents really can make you mad.
**I could only find a draft and am not sure if that is the exact wording. But this quote is substantially similar if not identical.
***I am not a vegetarian. I do believe meat is made of carcass though.
gordonzola: (Default)
Journey of a Cheese Head

One of the most striking things at this year's Festival of Cheese were the cheese sculptures. Mock away, but they were totally awesome. They were done by a cheese artist who calls herself, as do many other women in cheese, The Cheese Lady.

We were welcomed with the American Cheese Society logo carved out of cheese
I love cheese sculpture

The Cheese Lady even did the conference art out of many different types of cheese. Here's [livejournal.com profile] nunofthat posing with it.
J proving she was actually at the festival

Too many pics to not cut this. Clicky clicky for the journey of a cheese head. You won't be sorry. And if you were wondering what was up with that picture I posted the other day with the photoshopped cheese head on my body, and shockingly few of you seemed to be, you will see where that cheese head came from. )
gordonzola: (Default)
Forgive me. I seem to have lost the notes I took for the ACS Keynote address. Oh well, it's not like you guys are paying me for these entries. I'll wing it.

Paul Kindstedt, dairy scientist and author of the best don't-have-to-be-a-scientist-to-enjoy-it technical cheesemaking book American Farmstead Cheese opened up the 24th annual American Cheese Society Conference with a keynote address entitled, "American Artisan Cheese: Is the Sun Setting or Rising."* He's one of my favorite dairy scientists.

Unsurprisingly, given the huge increase in conference attendance and entries in the cheese competition over the last few years, he pretty much found it to be rising.

His basic message, and noteless, I am sure I am not doing it justice, is that as demand for small, handmade cheese goes up, that producers need to keep doing the things that set themselves off from big dairy. Kindstedt is no enemy of big dairy, in fact, he mentioned many ways that both types of cheesemakers need each other, but he pointed out that the huge growth in the market for small-production, hand made cheese is because it's different. He urged hand-made cheese makers to resist the business-dogma of getting bigger at all costs, warning that it could be the downfall of the cheese renaissance in this country.

He is still a dairy scientist, of course, and though I love dairy scientists, most of them love their technology a little more than I do. I don't know if it his message was tailored for a cheesemaking audience, but while he advised artisan cheesemakers to not use rBGH, he advised it because the public doesn't want it. He also warned folks not to align with activists using "bad science".

The back of Bovine Growth Hormone has pretty much been broken now anyways. When large-ish producers such as Tillamook, Belgioso, and Rothkase, and milk suppliers like the California Co-op going rBGH-free, there is less and less of a market for it every day. But I found it a little maddening that "activists" and "bad science" were never explained. Who is he talking about? Greenpeace? Consumers Union? The Cornucopia Institue? It's not like rBGH hasn't been rejected by scientists in every other major milk producing country in the world.

I was a member of a certain environmental organization but don't feel I can support them anymore since their ill-conceived boycott of Horizon organic dairy. I support it in theory, of course. Borne of a study about lack of access to pasture, especially among some Horizon organic mega-dairies, it was done in the name of enforcing the "access to pasture" clause in USDA organic certification. That clause is ill-defined, unenforced and, basically, a joke. Actually, the industry joke goes, "access to pasture? Sure. We walk 'em through the pasture on the way to the slaughterhouse"

But the boycott has no demand that I can figure out except for maybe, "Horizon go out of business". The only thing close to a demand is for "transparent and strict organic standards" but the problem is with the USDA standards themselves. Demands could have been "mandate that farmers you buy milk from keep cows on pasture* for 180 days a year", "put (specific amount of) money behind lobbying to change the overly-vague USDA standard". Boycotts without demands are just not boycotts. I can understand avoiding activist groups like that.

While there is certainly room to criticize environmental groups at times for fear-mongering, it's not like government regulatory agencies don't have a track record of approving dubious products when big money is sponsoring them. (see my next dairy scientist entry on "cold pasteurization")

Still Kindstedt is one of the most passionate resources to small cheesemakers in the country and he was putting these issues to dairy farmers in a way that they could appreciate it. Truthfully, I had a similar conversation the night before in the hotel bar with a dairy farmer from one of the biggest handmade cheese factories in the country. He tried to convey to me how hard it is to take a stand around rBGH. Some family farms that his company has been buying milk from for generations, otherwise clean milk with high protein levels and low somatic cell counts, have used rBGH because with the encroachment on dairy land, they couldn't just go out and buy more cows. Severing a business relationship with a neighbor that goes back 50 or 100 years is not an easy thing to do. I eventually got to the same argument Kindstedt would the next day in the keynote, that customers don't want it and they are asking about it specifically.

If seeing rBGH being eliminated by many dairies is good news, something new is coming right along. Milk from clones is the next big issue. It's already technically legal though not in the production stream yet. One of us will be getting those "Will you refuse to use milk from cloned ruminants and require any suppliers to certify that their milk supply is clone-free?" out to cheesemakers by the end of the year.

*pasture would also be need to be defined so it doesn't end up being concrete slabs.
**[livejournal.com profile] oneroom you should know that your uncle's memory lives on at this conference. He is invoked at every opening and closing event.
gordonzola: (Default)
I got asked to judge in the American Cheese Society Competition for the first time this year. It was an honor. Even though I've been cheese buying for 13-some years, I was one of the least experienced cheese people in the room.

Here is that room, moments before the judging started )

There was a staggering amount of cheese to taste. There were 1208 entries this year broken up into 91 categories** making this year's competition the biggest ever in the US. There were 30 judges working in teams of two. I was an Aesthetic Judge which meant I got to be a positive, touchy-feely, point-awarding, good cop. I was teamed with a technical judge who got to be the mean, callous, point-deducting, bad cop. We scored on separate sheets of paper but our points were totaled for each cheese within its category.

See, look what an aesthetic good cheese cop I am:
aesthetic 1

If you've ever noticed (and honestly it's unlikely you have, but it's my job to read labels so I'm speaking from experience here.) and incredibly bland or boring cheese boasting something like "Winner of the Somecountryorasscoiation's Cheese Championship 2002" and said to yourself, "If this cheese was voted the best, that company must sponsor the contest," here's the explanation. Most contests are judged by the technical folks: dairy scientists or very experienced large-scale cheesemakers. Technical proficiency is was is being judged, not necessarily outstanding flavor.

For example, excessive sweetness or bitterness in a cheddar is considered a defect. As a consumer though, that might be what you love about the cheese. Not only is taste subjective on some level, but it is often regional. My technical partner made fun of me, as a Californian, for preferring sweet-tending cheeses more than bitter-tending ones.

The idea of teaming up the technical and aesthetic judges is to get the best of both worlds. Rewarding cheeses that stand out flavor-wise but that are technically well-made enough to be consistent. The technical judges seemed to mostly know one another, often calling each other over to look at some strange mold, or odd cheese formation. They use a non-retail language for cheese that isn't useful for my every day cheese life, but that I find fascinating. So many great words for cheese… close, corky, marred by whey taint…

Here's a typically intense conversation about a cheese oddity amongst the (mostly technical) judges )

My partner and I judged 7 categories. As advertised he was efficient, quick and professional. He'd jab the tryer into the cheese, sniff it right away, replug the cheese with the end bit, then take the remaining sample, bend it to test the texture, and put a piece in his mouth. He had his score sheet filled out in seconds. My Technical Judge didn't spit much, but some in the room didn't seem to swallow a single piece.

Me? I sniffed. I tasted. I pondered. Oh, and if you were wondering, I swallow.

Of the 100-120 cheeses I tasted over the two days of category judging, a number were exceptional (a later post will talk about my cheese favorites from the conference). Only 2 or 3 were horrible. Because I'm me, and because I had to be the good cop in the evaluations, let's talk about the bad first.

While out drinking in downtown Burlington, I made a faux pas with one of my favorite cheesemakers. I love the Pure Luck Goat Cheeses but I don't carry 'em because they pretty much sell their whole supply in their local area. Thus, I didn't realize, while describing a cheese I had to spit out because it was so bitter, rancid, and nasty, that she had a cheese entered in that very category. Of course, I had no idea at that moment, since the entries are anonymous, if her cheese had won the category or was the nasty one. Awkwardness ensued.(It wasn't her cheese. In fact, she won a ribbon in that category. Whew!)

As a retailer, I will say that I could recognize a fair number of the cheeses I tasted, certainly more than most of the technical judges or distributors probably could. It certainly didn't affect my ratings though since only one cheese that I sell won its category among the cheeses I was judging. The cheese that I voted for Best of Show I hadn't even heard of before this competition.

The most tragic cheese wasn't in my category and I still don't know who's cheese it was. I didn't taste it, so I can't speak to that, but it was a ripened goat log that had lost it's bottom. Somehow three sides looked beautiful, but the bottom detached itself so much that you could actually spin the cheese all the way around inside it's moldy casing. I don't know that any of us had seen that before. Judges gathered from all over the room. One said, "it looks like goat cheese in a coffin". I, being a positive aesthetic judge, said, "We could market this. It's like those mini cereal boxes that you cut open and add milk." Another aesthetic judge said, "We'll call it Chevre on the Go!"

Oh, cheese humor…

We weren't judging on packaging, indeed, I gave a perfect score to a cheese that came in a wrinkled and taped paper bag, I gave a very good, if not ribbon-worthy, score to a cheese that came in ugly, tight plastic and, I swear, looked like a freezer-burnt dog turd. I can't imagine anyone buying it with that packaging, but it was a good cheese.

And really, though it was a fun thing to do and I learned a lot form being around the technical folks, I wonder how much good contests are for the cheesmakers. We give feedback on the cheeses, but it could be that the producer sells out every piece of their cheese even if the judges say it's too bitter, too pasty or the texture is wrong. The cheeses that were really bad needed a lot more help than could be conveyed on a judging sheet.

Look, I have a white coat too! )

After tasting our assigned 100-120 cheeses over a day and a half, we weren't done. The first place winners in each category were brought out and we all had to go around the room and try another 80*** dairy products in order to vote on a Best of Show.

I was embarrassed to see that the cheese my partner and I clearly thought was the best in its category had severe rind rot that we couldn't see when using the cheese iron to take the core sample for judging. Still, it tasted damn good.

Given the amount of cheese we were tasting, it seems unlikely that a mild cheese would ever win the competition. A fresh chevre could be absolutely perfect, a cream cheese could be the best you ever tasted, a colby could be executed to perfection, but the aged and assertive cheeses will leave an impression in that setting.

I voted for two of the top three winners, including the Best of Show Leelanau Aged Raclette as my top choice. I used my third vote for a dairy product ( a few cultured milk and butter categories are included in the competition) I knew wouldn't win but that I just couldn't ignore because it was so perfect. Later that night, a technical judge at the bar told me he thought it was technically the best thing there but didn't vote for it because it wasn't a cheese. Fair enough.

What is a little concerning though is that in the past three years, cheeses of fairly similar flavor profiles have won the competition. All are great cheeses, don't get me wrong. But, since the Red Hawk won 4 years ago, it's been all aged, cow's milk cheeses with a tendency towards sweetness. Pleasant Ridge Reserve is more onion-y and gruyere-like, the Cabot bandage-wrapped cheddar is sharper, and the Leelanau the sweetest and most stinky, but they are definitely the types of cheese that I would sell to the same customer. Still, I think we made the right choice among the cheeses we had to choose from. The was the obvious choice for me though there were another 4-5 that I could have used my 2nd and 3rd choices for.

The ACS is starting to try and brand their awards ceremony, selling shelf signs and stickers to retailers so we can tell people that certain cheeses we sell are "ACS award winners", but awards only measure what a small number of people think about something on a certain day. I have had great cheeses at the Festival of Cheese, only to find them totally inconsistent or young when we tried to sell them in our store. I think all the Best of Show winners in my cheese years have been fabulous and worthy of the award, but one should take every award with a grain of sea salt. Still, I would judge again in a second if asked. It was an awesome experience.

By the way, another judge, Sasha Davies has an account of her judging experiences at her fabulous website Cheese By Hand

*The beautiful thing about me writing about the cheese conference a week later is that you won't have to hear me whine about my getting-there travel nightmare. Even I'm bored with that story. This first footnote represents the original, but now deleted, opening paragraphs of this entry.
**If you want to ask, "91 categories! That can't be right. Are you exagerrating again, Gordon?" Then go here and download the pdf.
*** Not ever category had a first place winner. Cumulative points needed to exceed a certain amount to get a blue ribbon.
gordonzola: (Default)
I know I haven't written much about cheese lately. I think I'm gearing up. The Cheese Conference is in the first week of August and we'll be non-stop cheese for a week or two when I get back. Because my Gordonzola, cheese-specific blog isn't up yet, I have created a new LJ to mirror the cheese entries here.

Go friend [livejournal.com profile] gordonzolanet if you hate my non-cheese writing, but again, all those entries will be here too.

I'm leaving Monday because I'm a judge this year. They sent me a glossary of acceptable judging terminology which I am really excited about. None of those bullshit wine terms like "petulant", "arrogant", or "sassy". Nah, we get 30 direct words like "barny", "mealy", and "gassy".

I have a secret hope that I get paired with one dairy scientist because I'm a big fan. Yes, that's right, you can have your Harry Potter fandom, I have favorite dairy scientists.


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