Tag Archives: acs 2010

Cheese – a -Topia favorites (part 2)

After all the subcategories are decided, the judges walk around the room tasting everything that took a first place ribbon. We then vote for our top three choices and the weighted votes are then compiled to figure out the Best in Show and the two runners up. While I can’t imagine a non-cheese would ever win the Best in Show in the American Cheese Society Competition,* a few years ago when I judged the ACS Competition, I thought seriously about voting for a butter. One cultured product this year also made me think about putting it in my top 3.

Bellwether Crème Fraiche
creme fraiche

Now, I’ve eaten Bellwether Crème Fraiche many times, but usually with stuff, you know? Tasting it straight really kind of blew me away. It was that perfect blend of rich, tart, fruity, milky flavors. Amazing delicate texture. I have raved about their yogurt and ricottas before, but I will now add this to the list of my NorCal favorites.

Me and Liam eating at a way-too-expensive restaurant
me and liam

*Giving credit where it’s due, the awesome Kate Arding pointed me towards this anonymous bowl in the judging room. Right as always, Kate.

Cheese – a – Topia favorites

I realized that I have a lot of favorites from the ACS this year so I better start posting them now. First off, let’s do the non-cheeses. Remember, I’m only going to be posting about dairy products that I haven’t written about before. (You can find previous year’s favorites by following these links: 2009, 2008, and 2007)

Three Happy Cows Organic Acai Blueberry Drinkable Yogurt

I know nothing about this company. Do they only have three cows? That seems unlikely. Are only three of their cows happy? How many total cows do they have? Wouldn’t the percentage of their cows that are happy be a more meaningful statistic?

A little digging shows that they are owned by an Indian (South Asian) food company in Texas called Kaurina’s. Well, I’m a Californian, I don’t really know anything about them either. I can’t give you any inside scoop so, I’ll just say that I judged this category (Flavor Added Yorgurt/All Milks) and I loved this yogurt drink. I had seconds even though I was tasting all 39 flavored yogurts. It’s organic and the bottle is really nice looking too.

Cheese-a-Topia: Empanelled

Thursday was my busiest day at CheeseCon. I had a book signing (with Tami Parr and Max McCalman) first thing in the morning, then I was going to do a panel discussion twice in the afternoon. Since my free room (in exchange for judging) at the Sheraton was up, I had moved to Capitol Hill the night before. The B&B owner seemed shocked that I was up and out so early. The other cheese guests were still sleeping!

I had an awesome 25 minute walk downtown to the conference hotel. Awesome because the nasty heat wave had broken and the weather felt like San Francisco. I was even able to wear my yearly cheese conference uniform. You may have seen it:
cover pic
I didn’t carry the knife or the cheese though.

It was also awesome because I just love walking through the streets of Seattle. I have visited often enough that I have good associations and memories almost everywhere I go. It feels like home because I can walk around with an attitude saying “You know, Hamburger Mary’s/The Green Cat/aFLN/that weird combo leather-new age café used to be right there.” I also got to walk city streets flying my colors: Cheese and The 415
(Thanks again for the buttons Emi!)

Anyways, conference-wise, I was really touched at the signing. A lot of folks – some I’d known for years, some strangers – came up to tell me how much they liked the book. I was really touched. Usually signings are a very humbling event – people walk by trying not to make eye contact, I sit there trying not to cry – but this one really made me feel good. Thanks cheese community!

Last year, I – publicly and in a personal letter – criticized the ACS for the conference panels and workshops being too big, too infomercial. When Sasha Davies — one of the main 2010 organizers – called and asked me to be on a retailer panel, and that the panel would do the same talk twice so that it could be broken down into smaller groups, well, I kinda had to say yes, even if I felt a little overwhelmed with responsibility this year.

I’m really glad I did. “Last Stop: Cheese Shop” consisted of Nathan Aldridge (Murray’s Cheese),Megan Mullaney (Sickles Market), Carlos Souffrant (Zingerman’s),
Tom Van Voorhees (Rogue Creamery) and me. Earlier in the day, five teams of cheesemongers had competed in the 2nd annual Merchandising competition which tested their knowledge, wrapping skills, and display abilities. They each made displays out of the same cheeses, of which my very bad picture is here:

As a panel, we (twice) broke our 80 person seminar into five small groups and spent a few minutes on each display, critiquing, praising and trying to draw out discussion of what worked and what didn’t. It was actually really fun even when someone told me, “I disagree with everything you just said.” (and no, it wasn’t her display). We then did a big Q&A where we discussed many things, my favorite from a distributor annoyed (I later assumed) at having to give so much free labor to a large chain who routinely demands it in exchange for slotting. They asked us if we required (or wanted) distributors to help re-set our cases.

We mocked the very concept. It comes down to simple cheese pride. We all do cheese really differently than each other – I represented the only all pre-cut store, Carlos the all cut-to-order and the other folks somewhere in the middle — but there is one thing we all agree on: no one touches our cheese but us.

Cheese-a-Topia: Reading

I had no other options, but it was kinda crazy to schedule a reading after a day of judging cheese. I imagine that in any forum where one needs to use their voice, one is never given the advice to taste cheese for 8 hours beforehand. It does not exactly limber up the larynx.

But Tuesday night before the cheese conference was really the only time I could do a book event and not be in competition with the officially sanctioned parties. Though I would miss a lot of the conference goers, I figured it would be a good event mixed with Seattle-locals and cheese travelers. And I love The Calf and Kid. Sheri runs a really fabulous shop. (Plus she gave me a CD of her hubby’s punk band!)

One thing I hadn’t realized was how loud it was going to be there. I had only been there once before and not all the businesses had opened yet. My addled, cheese-soaked voice had to compete with the restaurant next door. I decided I could only read short pieces. I could barely hear myself. I made everyone gather in close too.

calf kid set up
(Sheana Davis, the mastermind behind Delice de la Vallee and the Epicurean Connection organized all the cheese for the event. Pt. Reyes Toma, Nicasio Valley Cheese, Valley Ford Cheese, and Carr Valley Cheese amused the attendees when I cut my reading short-ish.)

It’s always great to do a reading with a lot of cheese folks because they really get into it. When I talk about oozy, nasty Taleggio, they’ve lived it themselves. Many came up to trade stories afterwards, and many are worse than the ones I tell. It was also handy because other folks jumped in to answer questions.

Despite my voice woes, it was a wonderful event. I can’t list everyone who was there but it was awesome to have cheese mentors like Judy and Charlie Creighton in the same room with some of my favorite cheese-friends, old friends, the cheese-curious, and even my agent!

Thanks everyone!

*Along with all my old friends and cheese friends, I also got to meet Kurt Reighley whose book United States of Americana: Backyard Chickens, Burlesque Beauties, and Handmade Bitters: A Field Guide to the New American Roots Movement comes out this week! I haven’t had a chance to crack it yet – too much cheese! – but I promise a review when I do.

**There is also an account of the reading in Jeanne Carpenter’s Cheese Underground Blog

Cheese-a-topia: Judging

I am not a good traveler. It kind of hurts me to admit it, but it’s true. If it’s not anxiety, it’s ailments. I knew it was risky getting on the plane to Seattle with a head full of allergy congestion, but wow… I was in serious pain by the time I landed even though it was only a 1.5 hour flight. My ears weren’t just stuffed — I had about 25% of normal hearing in my left ear, 50% in the right – but they were painful. Like someone was jabbing them with icepicks. I felt like a cheesemonger Trotsky… but then I guess I do sometimes.

When I got to the Seattle Sheraton – home of the 2010 American Cheese Society Conference – I ignored my cheesy friends, loading up on antihistamines, ordered terrible, overpriced room service, and went to bed. I had 1400-some cheeses to judge the next day.

Of course, as most of you know by now, I didn’t have to judge that many cheeses myself. I was part of 15 teams of two dairy professionals – one aesthetic judge (me and other retailers, distributors, and/or writers) and one technical judge (usually a dairy scientist). We each taste and judge a few subcategories — about 50-60 cheeses a day. Then, we taste all the winners of each subcategory to decide on a winner for Best of Show. This year, that was about 100 more cheeses.

Dr. Nana Farkye (of Cal Poly) and me were a judging team. Chutarat from the Cheese Board Collective and Bonnie from a cold storage company (that I didn’t catch the name of) were the folks who kept the cheeses coming.

I can’t count how many times I was asked, “How do you taste that many cheeses and not die?”

Dr. Farkye and I holding some tools of the trade, not threatening anyone with our big knives.

I actually don’t find it that hard, at least until the Best of Show voting. We fill out forms and comments for every cheese we taste, then have to get a new cheese and core or cut into it before we start on the next one, so it’s about 5 minutes between every cheese, even if you are working fast. Plus there are plenty of plain crackers, fruit and tea to cleanse one’s palette with. There are also spit buckets. It should be noted that spit buckets for cheese are even more gross than spit buckets for wine. Just saying.

What is actually very hard is the 100-cheeses to taste in an hour whirlwind of the final round, when all the Best of Category cheeses are set up for the final vote. I will admit, that after two days of tasting I had to really spit out a lot of cheese, and concentrate on remembering to cleanse my palette often, and not just eat all the awesome cheese.

My categories this year: Cultured products/flavor added (39 entries!!), Soft-ripened sheep and mixed milk, Marinated/flavor added, Hispanic and Portuguese fresh cheese, American Originals/Brick Muenster, Soft-ripened/flavor added (all milks), American made/European style/Emmenthal, and Mature Cheddar/over 48 months.

I will write about the winners and my favorites later in the week, but it is a stunning thing to be surrounded by so many good cheeses. While not every one of the 1400-some cheeses is amazing, the sheer volume of cheeses is something to behold. I also think that the amount of very good cheeses is up every year, even when individual categories may go up and down.

The judging, for me, is the purest part of the whole conference. No hype, no relationships, no looking for non-tangible selling points. Just us and the anonymous cheese.

The judging room. I didn’t see that Steve Jones was on his cell until I test posted this entry. I’m sure he was NOT breaking confidentiality.