616 cheeses, 22 judges and 2 days
We came to judge cheese.
We expected a lot of cheese. Last year, the competition of the American Cheese Society attracted more than 400 entries. On our arrival at the Golden Gateway Holiday Inn for this year’s contest, we were led to a secret location in the basement, where we were surrounded by truckles, pyramids, tubs, logs, slabs and pucks. Over in the corner awaited luggage racks laden with 40-pound blocks.
This year, there were 616 cheeses, 22 of us and two days to taste them all.
When we emerged 48 hours later, we were trench-mates. We had plans to name our children after each other. We would take bullets for one another. And we were of a mind: When American cheeses are good, they are very very good, and when they are bad, they are like smoke from a tire fire.
This was the 20th meeting of the society but, until recently, American cheese held all the cachet of, say, English wine. Then a surge of interest in farmhouse cheese making -- spawned by the appearance of superb American cheeses such as Vermont Shepherd -- suddenly made it the event that can make a cheese maker, vaulting his cheese into nationwide distribution.
Traditionally, the judging is done secretly. The cheeses are divided into categories -- feta, Cheddar and so on. Then the grading is done in pairs. The group was divided between 11 judging stations. Each pair consisted of one aesthetic and one technical judge. The aesthetic types were people like me -- journalists, authors, cheesemongers, devotees of farmhouse cheese, foodies who don’t blink at paying (or charging) $10 to $20 a pound for cheese. The technical judges were almost all dairy scientists from California, Delaware and New York, people who have devoted their lives to filling supermarket coolers with nutritious, safe cheeses costing more like $4 a pound. My partner was Nana Farkye, a technologist from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
We were to subdue our personal preferences and take each cheese on its own merits, instructed John Greeley, the head judge and a cheese importer from Massachusetts. We weren’t supposed to demand to know what the jalapeno was doing in the Cheddar, but to decide whether we could still taste the cheese. Cheese making may have come to America from Europe, but we were to leave European influences at the door and congratulate American ingenuity. We would not each taste 616 cheeses. Rather, we would each score categories of 40 to 60 cheeses, then come together to choose the best of show.
Finally it’s time to start. Strapping youths, volunteers from Whole Foods wearing “I Work for Cheese” T-shirts, delivered towering trays of cheese to the judges. Ahead of us, a Berkeley cheesemonger (aesthetic) and a University of Wisconsin dairy scientist (technical) got farmhouse goat’s milk cheese. Behind us, a Chicago cheese importer and a Delaware dairy goat authority got farmhouse Cheddar. Meanwhile, Nana and I drew Category J: “Low-Fat / Low-Salt Cheeses.”
‘Worst of show!’
Another term for this category would be: My Idea of Sheer Hell. But we began looking, smelling, tasting, marking. Surprisingly for both Nana and I, as we read our notes and scores out to each other, our observations were almost identical. I, the supposedly airy-fairy aesthete, and he, the finicky technologist, were almost unfailingly within one or two points of each other.
These scores were generally not high. One effect of extracting so much fat from the milk for cheese making is that the cheese becomes chalky and hard, like compact milk protein powder or some kind of astronaut ration. The second problem is that much of the flavor is drained off with the fat. The remaining proteins produce a strong metallic, sour taste often with a burnt rubber finish. Nana offered a sample of a no-salt, low-fat Swiss-style cheese to a passing judge to see what would happen.
“We’ve found worst of show!” he cried.
After the inedible, the sublime. Our second category, “Mixed Milk Cheeses,” very nearly produced the best of show: a Morbier-style cheese, half goat’s milk, half sheep’s milk, separated by a line of ash. The milk flavor was sweet and fresh, the finish clean, the style utterly original. Nana and I both believed we might have a winner. So do visiting judges. Word carries across the room and almost every technical judge in the place visits our table to taste.
“It’s very exciting,” said Nana. “I’m very pleased.”
A day and a half in, every cheese had been scored by at least one pair of judges. But even winning a category does not make a cheese a contender for best of show.
The final pool is taken from the 50 top scoring cheeses. By 3 p.m. the second day, these were spread out on a fresh banquet table, next to a new supply of palate-cleansing grapes and bread. The plan: All the judges would taste these 50, and select six.
There were ultra fresh queso frescos, farmhouse butter, what tasted like aged gouda, an unctuous mold-ripened cheese, and one interloper, placed on the table by mistake. “It smells like raw sewage!” cried Moshe Rosenberg, a distinguished dairy scientist from UC Davis.
As the judges tasted the cheeses, we were no longer required to assess each by its own measure, but by what we thought about it. Even the technologists started showing a preference for farmhouse cheeses. I have rarely been this exhausted. We lounged in chairs, groaned and joked. We ate more grapes, drank more water. Again we tasted and scored.
Two hours later, the scene repeated itself, but with only six finalists left: Nana’s and my goat-sheep mix, a gorgeous drum of tangy aged Cheddar, a wheel of dry Jack, a small drum of aged sheep’s milk cheese, a crumbling blue that came wrapped in maple leaves and a disc of mild, golden, runny Epoisse-style cheese.
We got our second wind. Suddenly we all realized it was exciting. There wasn’t a bad cheese on the table. We tasted. We scored. Organizers tabulated. We waited.
And the winner is ...
As Greeley read out the results, a kind of wonder spread over the room. Without plan, we had selected six finalists from all across the country: From New England came a Vermont aged sheep’s milk cheese. From the Midwest were two cheeses from a goat and sheep dairy in Wisconsin. But half of the cheeses came from California: the aged dry Jack, the bandaged Cheddar and the deliciously runny Epoisse-style cheese.
When the winner was announced, a gasp went up. It was Red Hawk, a triple-cream, Epoisse-style made in Marin County by the Cowgirl Creamery. The cheese maker was Sue Conley, a conference organizer.
Tongues will wag. But as one of 22 judges, I can say this was not Bush winning in Florida. There were no hanging chads. The cheese won for exceptional aroma, the richness of its milk, the mildness of the red mold on the skin, for sheer deliciousness.
As I sat down to write this, Greeley, the head judge, told me that printing the names of the other finalists is just not done, that tradition dictates I should give the 20 category winners instead. I explained in turn that I made no such deal. I would no more give someone the name of the best low-fat cheese than give them a bread machine.
He took my point.
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