For cheese professionals and lovers, the four-day American Cheese Society Judging & Competition a few weeks ago at Sacramentos convention center had it all smelly, holey, rindy, melty, fruity, salty, nutty, creamy, runny, veiny. To win first, second or third out of 1,685 products wasnt easy.
I think the judges were very impressed by the blue-ribbon winners, says ACS judge Janet Fletcher of Napa and author of The Cheese Course, Cheese and Wine and Cheese and Beer.
There were easily a half-dozen that were world-class cheeses. We are showing that we can rival these European classics.
Without those European classics, however, todays modern artisanal cheeses would have little to guide their techniques.
As progressive as it may seem for a small farmstead cheese to use local milks, or for cheese makers to raise their own cows, sheep and goats, each winning cheese had a European model. As Fletcher says, Most cheeses do.
In Europe, strict standards are in place to preserve cheese-making traditions. But in the United States, cheese makers can take a classic recipe or style and tinker all they want and still get a classic.
Taking first place was a Vermont cheese little known in California called Tarentaise Reserve. Its produced by Farms for City Kids Foundation at Spring Brook Farm. The name comes from the French Alps region where the Tarentaise style was known to the conquering Romans. The process borrows so much from the old world that the Vermont facility uses French alpine equipment, including copper vats.
A wheel of Tarentaise is a large disc with traditional concave sides, like a cinched waist.
As Spring Brook Farm Tarentaise ages, its turned and washed at least 60 times. Instead of the usual 10 months of aging, the entered cheese had been aged for two years.
In the blind judging, Fletcher found Vermonts Tarentaise firm yet with a silky texture. She loved its aroma of browned butter and toasted nuts. But what nailed the win was a highly desirable crunch not from salt, but from protein crystals.
They really jump out at you, says Fletcher. Its very silky, and then you get that crunch.
Second place went to Point Reyes Bay Blue from Californias Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. Its European inspiration is Englands Stilton. The Stilton legacy dates to the 1700s. Only six dairies in the world are licensed to make it because Stilton is a protected name. True Stilton is made only in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire counties.
To make blue cheese, milk is inoculated with penicillium roqueforti. After aging, the cheese is pierced with needles to create air channels. The mold blooms in the air pockets, creating the blue veins.
I thought there were several amazing blues, Fletcher says, but what stood out was the balance of the flavor and the butteriness of the texture of the Bay Blue. She says its also less piquant (peppery) that many blue cheeses. Its not a scary blue cheese.
Andrew Hillman, owner and cheesemonger of The Culture and The Cured in East Sacramento, carried Bay Blue before it won. Dont confuse it with Point Reyes Original Blue, which has won its share of awards, too. This [Bay Blue] is aged longer, theres more sharpness, Hillman says. Its a little drier but still plenty creamy. It has a fruitiness to it and big air pockets where the mold bloomed. Bay Blue comes in a cylinder about 10 inches high.
I tell customers it just won second-best cheese in the U.S., Hillman says. Some people buy it just because of that. It opens their mind to other cheese and other flavors.
Taking third place was another California cheese. Oakdale Cheese & Specialties Gouda from the foothills east of Manteca is closely modeled on the famed Gouda (pronounced How-da) from Holland that dates to the Middle Ages.
Cheese maker John Bulk is descended from Dutch Gouda-makers. His parents immigrated here from The Netherlands in the 1980s and began making cheese. Bulk took over as cheese maker in 2005.
We keep it as simple as possible and as true to the original process, Bulk says. To get true Gouda flavor, Bulk relies on a bacteria culture used at least the past 100 years by Dutch Gouda-makers.
In Holland, smaller dairies still use wooden vats, Bulk says. We just scaled up from that with a 1,000-gallon stainless steel vat. I cut and move the curds by hand. We pull blocks of cheese out of the vat and put them in molds by hand. Its a true artisan cheese factory.
Living about an hours drive from Sacramento made attending the ACS competition possible, but Bulk didnt come.
I couldnt believe it, he says of his Goudas win. I was like, man, I wish I was there to accept the award, but I was making cheese.
Elaine Corn is an award-winning cookbook author and former newspaper food editor.