Tag Archives: american cheese society

Some great cheeses from Des Moines (ACS 2016)

 

We tasted a lot of great cheese in the judging room.  I’m sure there were dozens of cheeses in categories I didn’t get to try or that finished a close second in their categories.  Here are a few cheeses that I judged that I gave serious consideration to voting for as “Best of Show.” For info about the judging process, see my previous post “ACS Cheese Judging” and the post by Janee, “The Mobile Monger,”  “Judging and Competition.”

Little Mountain, Roelli Cheese Company, Best of Show

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Check out the paparazzi!

You all know I like the Roellis. Heck, I devoted most of a chapter in Cheddar to their story because it exemplified the realities of cheddar-making so well: a family factory making commodity cheddar just can’t stay in business anymore unless they find other cheeses to make. Little Mountain is an Alpine-style cheese, originally modeled after Appenzeller, but modified to work with the local environment of Shullsburg, Wisconsin. (Jeanne Carpenter did a great write up of this here that you should read.)  This cheese was made to honor the Roelli’s family cheesemaking heritage and we all know Chris Roelli has been struggling to make this cheese perfect for a long time. Looks like he finally did it! Not a dry eye in the house when Chris and Kris walked up to accept their Best of Show ribbons, especially theirs.

Buff Blue, Bleating Heart Cheese, tie 2nd place

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What can I say, I love these cheeses and Seana Doughty does California proud with every cheese she makes. My personal fave is the drought-friendly Double Down, a sheep/cow blend but this buffalo milk blue is really special: rich and meaty in an uncommon way and not afraid of being moldy. Heartwarming too because Bleating Heart was on the ropes not too long ago. On a personal level, I hope that this win puts Seana’s cheese in counters all over the country. She deserves it.

St Malachi Reserve, The Farm at Doe Run, tie 2nd place

Artisan cheese is still regional to some extent, and I so hadn’t heard of this cheese before this conference. I have carried some soft Farm at Doe Run cheeses, so when this was announced I didn’t even realize it was in my own top tier of cheeses while judging. I was sitting in the airport at Denver, waiting for my connecting flight, when I was all, “OMG this is that amazing aged gouda!” Caramel, toasty, meaty, and salty/sweet/sharp. I would say that this is the best gouda made in the USA if not for my love for….

Jeffs’ Select Gouda, Caves of Faibault, tied for 3rd

This is a seasonal, grass fed cheese that I have loved for a long time. The apostrophe is not in the wrong place, it’s the project of two Jeffs: Jeff Jirik and Jeff Wideman. Again, sweet and earthy and caramel and sharp. Glad to see this cheese get some recognition after all these years.

Greensward, Murray’s Cheese/Jasper Hill, tied for 3rd

This is basically a small format Winnimere, made for Murray’s cheese and it’s every bit as awesome as you’d expect. One of the most complex soft cheeses you will ever try and I have written about it a few times over the years. This is the kind of cheese that just wasn’t made in this country 20 years ago. That’s why I keep talking about the cheese renaissance!

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Harbison, Jasper Hill

The complexity of flavor and incredible balance of this cheese makes it just an incredible accomplishment. Just another one of America’s best cheeses.  I have loved this cheese for a long time now and, honestly, I thought it was the best Jasper Hill cheese in the competition, though it was a very close call.

Providence, Goat Lady Dairy

I had no idea what this cheese was until, like the St Malachi Reserve, I figured it out in the Denver airport. I don’t know much about this cheese, but based on the sweetness, I would guess it’s based on a goat gouda recipe. This is just an excellent aged goat, very complex with great depth of flavor, and wonderful texture.

Bella Vita, Firefly Farms

This is an aged goat milk cheese with the delicate complexity of a great Sardinian Pecorino (Yes, I know that comparison switched milk types). A little more subtle than some of the winners, but a cheese with an aftertaste that may have been the best aftertaste of the show.

Labne, Karoun Dairies

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OK, it’s unlikely a fresh cheese will ever win Best of Show at ACS because it’s hard to compare the complexity of an alpine or washed-rind cheese to a “simple” one, but man, this is the best Labne I know of in the USA. I just want to let you know, Labne, I see you. I see you. I eat this at work almost every day with honey and fresh fruit. (This is an old picture. I think it costs $2.39/ea now.)

Red Hawk, Cowgirl Creamery

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In the Bay Area, sometimes people forget how damn good this cheese is. Tasting it again amongst the best of categories, I was reminded how good and grassy and rich and slightly pungently balanced this cheese is. We are lucky to have it as a local standard.

Prufrock, The Grey Barn

I have literally never heard of this cheese before. If you are near Massachusetts, I would seek it out. Incredibly well-balanced washed rind cheese: a touch pungent, fatty, and nuttier than one would expect for the style. I didn’t think about it much but when I tasted it, I assumed it was Canadian. Cheese people know, that is a huge compliment.

 

There were lots of other great cheese but these were the cheeses that spoke to me in that room. Remember that cheeses in competition are the best of that day, and so results may vary – both directions — at stores. Overall though, every year I judge there are more serious contenders for Best of Show and higher scores overall through every one of my categories.  Amazing job everyone!

 

 

ACS Cheese Judging

Judging was great, like usual. I am in awe of the way that every year has more entries and yet the process gets smoother and smother. Think of the logistics of receiving, organizing, logging, and tempering 1843 cheeses… it’s really pretty amazing. I’m indebted to all these folks for doing the behind-the-scenes work.*

Every year, people ask me for details about the judging so this post is hopefully going to answer those questions. There were 21 teams of judges this year, the most ever. Each team consisted of a technical judge and an aesthetic one. Technical judges are almost all dairy scientists with a few other well-recognized experts thrown in for good measure. Aesthetic judges are recognized as the prettiest people working in cheese so I was really happy to be chosen again. I still have it at 48 I guess… I credit all the butterfat.

See, here’s my most recent picture. It was taken yesterday (unlike my author photo!)

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Seriously though, the aesthetic judges are people who have worked in cheese for a while, shown some degree of expertise, and usually have more retail/distributor experience than scientific training.* The American Cheese Society judging system pairs these two types of judges in order to recognize the importance of technical rigor to cheesemaking, but also acknowledge that imperfect cheeses and unexpected flavors can create amazing cheese as well. The technical judge is the bad cop, starting at 50 and taking away points for defects. The aesthetic judge is the good cop, starting at zero and awarding up to 50 points. The scores are combined for a possible, but unlikely, total of 100.

We taste about 40-50 cheeses on day one and another 40-50 at the beginning of day two in order to get through all the categories. Later in that second day, we reconvene to taste the winners from every category and decide on our individual favorites. We rank those 1-3 and they receive weighted points which are then added up to decide the Best of Show. It’s gruelingly awesome! It’s an endurance of amazement! It teaches lactose tolerance!

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A score of 100 is unlikely but this year we had a first in the history of ACS… a four way tie for 1st place in the “Open – soft-ripened cheeses – Made from cow’s milk” category. Since I got to try all four during the Best of Show process, I can attest that they were all amazing cheeses and it would have been hard to deduct or not award full points. Mountian Ash by Sweet Rowen Creamery, Ashley by MouCo Cheese, and Harbison and Moses Sleeper by Jasper Hill got the blue ribbon(s) and these are some of the best soft-ripened cheeses made in this country for sure. Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to conceive of these being made in the USA. It’s amazing how far we’ve come in this cheese renaissance.

Other judges have their own methods, but when I am deciding on BoS I have a system.  First I go through the room tasting all 100-or-so cheeses taking notes on my favorites.  This usually eliminates all but about 20 cheeses.  Then I go through and taste all of those again deciding on the cheeses that I would feel good about voting for in my three BoS votes. This number varies from year-to-year.  Sometimes I have an obvious top three. Sometimes I consider about a dozen very seriously.  This year I settled in on a top seven or eight, any of which I would have been happy to see win the big title.

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(photo by Rachel Perez)

Mostly, I don’t know until the awards guide is released after the Awards Ceremony who I voted for. It’s a blind judging. However, as a monger, I regularly handle some cheeses that are very distinctive so a few times every judging I have to remind myself to judge the cheese, not the sometimes long history I have had with a cheese. I feel like I do that with integrity partly. I am so honored to be asked to judge this competition, I would do nothing less. All five cheeses** that placed in Best of Show were in my top tier so I felt pretty on par with most of the other judges, based on the result.

I love the purity of those two days before the conference starts. I know I have said this before, but the cheeses have to speak for themselves for likely the only time in their lives in that judging room. No sales pitches, no heart-warming origin stories, no brokers, no prices, no labels. I feel like it re-calibrates my cheese senses, especially being in a quiet room instead of a store and sitting next to a technical judge instead of a sales rep. Thanks ACS!

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*I was going to link to the letter from John Antonelli, Judging Chair, but it’s not online yet.  I will link to this when it’s up because I don’t want to forget anyone or not acknowledge folks who were so far behind the scenes that I didn’t see them.

**Someone asked me so I looked it up, I was asked to judge at ACS for the first time after working 13 years in cheese.

***I will talk about them, and others, in my awards ceremony post.

Des Moines CheeseCon!

Whew! Another CheeseCon in the books. Des Moines turned out to be a nice little big town and it was great to see all the cheese folks again.  Thanks to everyone who came by my book signing.  We sold out of Cheesemonger in about 5 minutes and almost sold out of Cheddar!

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One of the many reasons I like to be a judge for the cheese competition is that I get to get to the conference town early. Within 15 minutes of arriving I was doing a judge’s training. However, less than 3 hours after getting off the airplane I was eating a loose meat sandwich and drinking an Iowa beer.

Des Moines was interesting. To someone who lives in a dense urban environment like San Francisco, downtown Des Moines just seemed abandoned most of the time. Yet, there is construction everywhere.* I hear it’s a growing city so I guess they are planning for an urban loft-living future but man, I couldn’t even find a corner store. How are you supposed to drink on the streets of a city without a corner store?

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Don’t get me wrong, the river is beautiful and I loved the old buildings and all the public art. It will be interesting to come back in a few years and see how it’s changed. All the Iowans seemed super nice though and my cheddar class** – filled with locals (with a few notable exceptions) – was awesome and engaged. The Cheese Shop of Des Moines had the feel of a place where you just want to spend some time. C.J. and everyone there are doing a great job.

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The good feeling from the city carried over to the conference for me. This ACS really exemplified all the good things in the world of cheese, especially one of the things that historically makes our world special: cooperation.  From the French alps, to the refusal of Jesse Williams to patent his cheddar-making methods and factory, to the very founding of ACS forty-some years ago, this is one of our best traditions. I mean yeah, I work in a co-op so I look for cooperation, but writer Simran Sethi, who has attended numerous food trade events, brought this up with me at lunch, a little surprised at how much information is free at ACS and that people really share their knowledge, not just their contact information so you could hire them later.

So thanks to all the other attendees, and planners, and organizers for making our conference so special! I really do think most of us come back from this week as better cheese workers and better people.

 

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*I heard that our conference hotel was originally supposed to be that hole in the ground next to the convention center, but construction is behind schedule.

**You can’t make this up… master cheesemaker Willi Lehner called the Cheese Shop of Des Moines while I was speaking. In fact, if he had called ten minutes later, I would have been talking about his Bleu Mont Cheddar and he could have heard about himself on speakerphone. The cheese world is very small!

 

ACS 2015

I almost didn’t go to the American Cheese Society conference this year. I often skip the East coast years of the rotation due to time and expense. Plus, this year my awesome co-worker Megan had won a trip to Vermont and would be there officially repping the store.

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But then I realized two things. One, I have a book coming out in October so it would probably be a good idea to remind people I’m alive, especially since I went blog-absent for about a year and limited my social media while I finished working on it. The second reason was less tangible and more personal: I just miss the conference so much the times I don’t go.

So I worked it out. I flew across county to be there for two days. Unlike years past I have no reports from the judging room, no farm trip stories, and very few pictures. But I am still glad I went. It’s just totally rejuvenating to see so many great people all in one place, in a cheese-rich environment.

Meet the Cheesemakers is a particularly cheese-rich environment. Here’s a beauty from Plymouth Artisan Cheese to whet your appetite:
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It’s also amazing to see so many people putting in so much work to make it happen. I worry about trying to list people because, when you do, you always leave people out. Since this was my first year in a long time that I was just an attendee, I was reminded as an “outsider” how much effort it takes to put on the event that can look seamless if you aren’t in the conference rooms before and after an event. Thanks to everyone involved.

As for the conference, I went to a great panel on “The Science of Artisan Cheese.”* It was so encouraging to see the linkages being created between traditional cheesemakers in different countries and the microbial science community. Most of the actual facts relayed were depressing: the FDA using ridiculously outdated testing, non-pathogenic bacteria being treated as an indicator of pathogenic bacteria, one-size (and that size is BIG)-fits-all rules. But the amount of people in the room, and the quality of knowledge of the presenters AND the audience… we have to acknowledge that we have come a long way in a very short time. Some folks left discouraged, but I left energized.

Let’s talk about non-pathogenic bacteria. (Thanks Michael Kalish for writing this)

Cheese-wise, I didn’t even get a shot at tasting the Best in Show (first time ever!). But I loved the LaClare Cave-Aged Chandoka (aged by Standard Market) which was runner-up and I have raved about the 3rd place Harbison by Jasper Hill Farm many times before.

I had a few other favorite new-to-me cheeses as well. I’ll post about them in the upcoming days.

See you all in Des Moines in 2016.

*In just one of the amazing ways in which the cheese society has grown, I used to feel obligated to sum up all my panels for cheese people and interested folks who couldn’t attend. Back in 2002 or whatever, resources were fewer. Now they are all re-capped on the ACS website. Just awesome.

People care about cheese wood, FDA issues new statement

Wow. Talk about a groundswell. This is the kind of issue that scares the cheese world because, while crucial to us, the surface a cheese is aged on might be seen as too esoteric or boring to draw public attention. Clearly this has not been the case here.

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I feel like it may be important here to rehash the chronology since, suddenly, my blog is being read outside the insular world of the cheese-obsessed. First, who uses wood to age cheese? The answer is more cheesemakers than you probably think.

According the the American Cheese Society, almost 75% of cheese producers in the three largest American producer states age at least some of their cheese on wood. Wisconsin alone ages almost 30 million pounds of cheese on wood. Over 60% of cheese makers surveyed use wood boards for aging. In Europe, 1 billion lbs. of cheese a year are aged on wood boards including some of the most popular in the US like Parmigiano Reggiano and Comte.*

So, why did this become an issue? Recently the FDA cited three New York cheesemakers for using wooden boards to age cheese. Since the advent of the FSMA,** the FDA has been more active in regulatory activities relating to food production. The NY State Department of Agriculture asked the FDA for clarification since they approve of the use of wood under the right circumstances– like all other states I know of that produce large amounts of cheese. (see Gianaclis Caldwell’s great piece on this here)

An official at the FDA replied that since “Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized” their use for cheese ripening or aging is considered an unsanitary practice by FDA, and a violation of FDA’s current Current Good Manufacturing Practice regulations. Furthermore they consider this an existing policy, not a new one that would need public comment and review. (See this article by Greg McNeal for an opinion on whether this should be considered a change of policy)

Let us pause for a second and ask, how many food borne pathogen issues have there been where the culprit was wooden aging boards? The answer: none. Indeed, food safety-wise, especially when one excludes cheese that would never be aged on wood, cheese has a very good track record for food safety.

The opposition to the prohibition of wooden boards does not mean that cheesemakers are against Good Manufacturing Practices or regulation. Indeed, as evidence of the seriousness with which it is taken, I am including the entire ACS press release below. ***

Due to the hard work of affected cheesemakers and the American Cheese Society, the FDA released a new statement today:

“
The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, nor is there any FSMA requirement in effect that addresses this issue. Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves.
In the interest of public health, the FDA’s current regulations state that utensils and other surfaces that contact food must be “adequately cleanable” and properly maintained. Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings. FDA is always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese.


The FDA will engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving.”

We’ll see where it goes from here. Stay tuned everyone; the Comte babies like these are depending on you:
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*according to “Wooden Tools: Biodiversity Reservoirs in Cheesemaking” (a chapter in Microbes and Cheese edited by Catherine Donnelly of the University of Vermont) 500,000 tons = 1 billion lbs, right?
** Here is a good background piece on the FSMA, which, btw, came out of Bush administration anti-terrorism policies.

***AMERICAN CHEESE SOCIETY
 POSITION STATEMENT ON THE SAFETY OF AGING CHEESE ON WOOD Issued in Response to the Recent Food & Drug Administration (FDA) Statement on the Use of Wooden Shelves for Cheese Aging
Released June 10, 2014

For centuries, cheesemakers have been creating delicious, nutritious, unique cheeses aged on wood. Today’s cheesemakers—large and small, domestic and international—continue to use this material for production due to its inherent safety, unique contribution to the aging and flavor-development process, and track record of safety as part of overall plant hygiene and good manufacturing practices. No foodborne illness outbreak has been found to be caused by the use of wood as an aging surface.

The American Cheese Society (ACS) strongly encourages FDA to revise its interpretation of the Code of Federal Regulation (21 CFR 110.40(a)) to continue to permit properly maintained, cleaned, and sanitized wood as an aging surface in cheesemaking as has been, and is currently, enforced by state and federal regulators and inspectors.

It is ACS’s position that:
• Safety is paramount in cheesemaking.
• Cheeses aged on wood have a long track record of safety, and have long been produced meeting FDA standards.
• Wood can be safely used for cheese aging when construction is sound and in good condition, and all surfaces are properly cleaned and maintained using sanitation steps that assure the destruction of pathogens, including but not limited to:
o All surfaces are free of defects;
o Any wood preservatives used are safe and acceptable for direct food contact; o Inspection and cleaning procedures are followed that specify:
•Frequency of inspection and testing
•Frequency of cleaning and sanitizing
•Methods used that adequately clean boards which might include:
• Kiln-drying
• Air-drying
• Heat-treating
• Sanitizing with acceptable products
• Inoculation to create and maintain positive biofilm
• Raising the core temperature of the wood above pasteurization 
temperatures
• Ongoing monitoring and verification of the effectiveness of all procedures per the 
Hazard Analysis and Risk-based Preventive Controls (HARPC) provision of the 
Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)
• Corrective actions to address any issues
• Discarding of wood that is deteriorated and/or in poor repair 
Furthermore, ACS believes:
• Traditional methods of cheesemaking can and do meet food safety standards.
• U.S. consumers should have access to a wide variety of domestic and imported cheeses, including those safely aged on wood.
• State and federal regulators and inspectors must work collaboratively with cheesemakers to understand how traditional methods and materials can comply with current food safety standards.
• Many of the finest and most renowned cheeses from around the world are at risk of disappearing from the U.S. market if regulatory and enforcement changes under FSMA eliminate traditional materials and methods.
• FDA should provide timely notification, hold proper listening sessions and comment periods, review all available scientific data, and include consideration of industry stakeholders before modifying long- standing interpretation or implementation of its regulations which impact American businesses. 
####

ACS 2013: Some of my favorites

In addition to the cheeses previously mentioned in my Best of Show entry – all of which I loved – These are the other cheeses that caught my tongue at this year’s conference:

During the judging, I tasted this one and was blown away even though I had no idea who made it (and I assumed it was a Oaxaca). Braided Caciocavera from Loveras Market in Oklahoma? Ok, I see why I didn’t already know it. To make it even more special, I keep reading it as “Lovers Market” which seems extra sweet.
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Next, a cheese we already carry and think is awesome, Boonter’s Blue from Pennyroyal Farmstead in Boonville, CA. A mix of sheep and goat milk (though not always) this is the kind of blue I think of as “Basque Style” even though I don’t know if it’s really true. Fudgy, medium-strength blue and you can taste the tang of the goat and nuttiness of the sheep milk.
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Ten years ago, everyone would have been raving about the Florry’s Truckle from the Milton Creamery in Iowa. Now – with Jasper Hill, Fiscalini, Beecher’s, Avonlea, etc. – we expect North Americans to make amazing traditional style Cheddars. Still this is an awesome cheese from the folks who brought us Prairie Breeze.
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Speaking of Jasper Hill, the Willoughby (this is a correction from the original post) right now…. Amazing. Rich, pungent, buttery, yeasty. Definitely in the running for Best of Show by my count.
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And, made by Landaff Creamery and aged in the Cellars at Jasper Hill, the Kinsman Ridge is also pretty darn good. As you can see by how little is left.
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And, last year I told you how awesome the Arabella from Jacobs and Brichford was. This year, their Overton blew me away. I don’t think I’ve ever had a US cheese that tasted so much like a well-aged Comte. I guess it blew me away so much that I forgot to get a picture so here’s the Arabella again.
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Also, pretty much everything from Baetje Farms is can’t-miss. I do not think they can make a bad cheese.
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That’s it for now. I am still going through my notes, but these are the cheeses that stuck with me, post-conference.By the way, this tag will let you see the cheeses I have written about as my favorites over the years: American Cheese Society Favorites.

ACS 2013: Festival of Cheese

The Jasper Hill folks only sent three wheels in for judging so, in what will surely become an ACS legend, when they won Best of Show Vince Razionale hopped in a car, bought back the only other currently existing Winnimeres from their distributor and then drove straight from Vermont to Wisconsin to deliver the last remaining wheels just in time for the Festival of Cheese. This was not a quick trip:
(Corrected map below. Vince thought it was prudent to avoid crossing the Canadian border at 2 AM with a case of raw milk cheese)

Thanks Vince! We appreciated it.
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The Festival of Cheese is all about abundance and the beauty of cheese. Here are some pictures of the nearly 1800 cheeses on display.

Tables of deliciousness:
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A bounty of blue:
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Championship Cheddars:
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Boulders of Bismark!
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Big stacks of Brie:
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Some displays seemed like warnings:
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And the evening winds down:
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