I spent my first two days in Wisconsin in the judging room of the Monona Terrace Convention Center. It was a day and a half before I realized that I could open a door on the other side of the room and walk out into an adorable Frank Lloyd Wright lobby and an incredible panorama view of the lake. And I do mean incredible. Water skiers were performing stunts and jumps. The view was so big that you could almost see the curvature of the earth, Wow.
My home county in California actually has a Frank Lloyd Wright Civic Center so this felt oddly home-like. I was told later that the Madison building was actually delayed for years due to haters, but that was a blessing in disguise since they were able to omit some Wright features like the unplanned, rain-caused fountains that destroyed part of the library and have cause numerous problems over the years back home.
I have written this before but I will say it again, the things I like the most about judging is the purity of it. Just me, my teammate technical judge, our triers, and our mouths. No packaging, no stories, no sales pitches, no loyalty and no having to assess whether a cheese will sell. Just pure cheese appreciation and love.
My partner this year was Russell Smith, an Australian cheese dude who spends much of his time teaching other food professionals how to taste and assess cheese (and other foods.) He is also involved with a deer milk cheese project in New Zealand which was supposed to be a secret, but isn’t anymore.
Yes, I did write “deer milk.”
We tasted a lot of cheese. About 100 cheeses in the evaluation round and then all category winners (81 this year) to determine Best of Show. This year set another record with nearly 1800 cheeses entered into the competition.
Every judge gets their share of flavored categories and we got ours: Flavored Butter and Open Cow Milk Cheese with Flavor Added. We also did Open Soft-Ripened Cow, Open* Molded Goat 0-30 days aged, Sheep (or mixed) Milk Blue. The thing that was most impressive this year was how consistently good most cheese was. In the goat category we had, for example, probably 19 of 21 entries were good cheeses that anyone would enjoy. Even the two that were notably not on par with the others didn’t need much work. In the past I almost found a lot more peaks and valleys in most of my categories, but not this year. In fact, I did not spit out even one cheese because I thought it might kill me! That has never happened before.
My take away is that American cheese is getting better and better.
A new thing this year was that the judges were not told who the winners were. Usually we all got to know at the end of the second day of judging. This was great except when we would run in to people we knew had won. Awkward! I still remember Cary and David from Rogue sitting next to me at a conference lunch the year they won Best in Show. They probably thought I was being a huge jerk as I ignored them the whole time and talked to strangers. I was so worried about letting something slip by accident that I didn’t even want to make conversation. It was a big relief this year to not know until everyone else did. There was even an envelope and dramatic pause just like the Academy Awards and everything.
But, that will have to wait for my entry on the Awards Ceremony…
Thanks to all my fellow judges and all the volunteers but especially the folks who did the major organizing: David, Todd, Stephanie, John G., Tom, Michelle, Rachel, and John A.
You can see previous judging entries here (this post will be on top but you can scroll down to see more if you are interested)
*As Mervyn’s used to say, “Open, open, open…”