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From Maine To Madison–Epilogue

Imagine for a moment that you walked into Willie Wonkas Factory, only in this world the chocolate has been replaced by cheese. Every corner you turned, every room you entered, was filled with glorious cheese.

That’s essentially what it’s like to attend the American Cheese Society Conference.

There were cheese t-shirts, cheese posters, cheese bags, cheese making kits, cheese and chocolate pairing classes, lectures on running a cheese business, beer and cheese pairings, classes on ‘squeaky’ cheese, cheesemakers, cheesemongers and cheese distributors.  You could rub elbows with cheese royalty, like Laura Werlin and Mike Gingrich

Or cheese rock stars like the crew from Jasper Hill

 (from the Cellars of Jasper Hill Facebook)

You couldn’t throw a stone in Madison and NOT hit someone that was somehow connected to cheese. Nor could you go more than an hour without finding someone who wanted to feed you cheese. It was like I was living in a mid-west utopia.

We would have to venture outside of our cheese bubble every few hours to snag up some real food–which doesn’t count the endless baskets of Deep Fried Cheese Curd with sides of Ranch Dressing that we ate (my favorite proved to be the ones from The Great Dane pub).

The Great Dane was actually the place of a few meals during the week, including my first, a plate of fish and chips which I had just an hour after I landed with my coworkers from Boston. 

Post exam drinks at The Tipsy Cow (along with some more cheese curd and fried alligator)

Last day brunch at Marigold Kitchen, which included an omelet with artichokes, tomatoes and asiago, and a few bites of my friends Duck Confit Hash (WHY IS NO ONE MAKING THIS IN PORTLAND?!).

There was also a coma inducing footlong Maple Bacon Donut from the Farmers Market

But, my most important stop every day came from Alterra Coffee (now Colectivo as they’ve been bought out by Nestle but they get to keep the Madison location independent from the others).

If I stayed in Madison, it would have been for this.  I love my local roasters, but Alterra bakes all of their bagels, muffins and pastries in house, including this killer biscuit that was stuffed with eggs, cheese and bacon.

But, I’m sure you want to hear more about the Conference..maybe how the exam was?

Well, truthfully, the exam was a good deal harder than many of us anticipated.  Of the 98 of us that represented Whole Foods, I’d guess that one walked out of that room without any doubts or worry, but he was also the guy that played Final Fantasy during our review session the day before the exam so I knew he felt very confident in his knowledge.  The other 190+ people in the room, probably felt good, but through the conversations I had, had some issues with some of the questions that were on the exam, particularly the way that they were worded.  As we’re only the second group to take the exam, there are are still a lot of kinks to be worked out. The true downside is that we won’t find out until sometime in September. But, honestly, I waited five months to take the exam, so waiting another few weeks is a breeze.

And, it’s funny how there was such emotionally and mental lead up to the exam, but as the week passed by it seemed like such a small blip on the map compared to everything else I did there.

One of my favorite classes that I attended was a Chocolate and Cheese pairing class that featured Gail Ambrousius, from Wisconsin. To get our appetites going and our palets honed, she led us  through a brief tasting of different single origin chocolates. My favorite, by far, was an 85% chocolate from Ecuador.

The card says 65%, but it was a misprint.  This was probably the smoothest dark chocolate I’ve ever encountered and lacked any bitterness that you would associate with a percentage so close to unsweetened.

The overall pairings for the class were:

It’s a toss up between the Marieke Gouda and Almond toffee pairing and the Espresso BellaVitano with a Dark Sea Salt Caramel as far as my favorite.  The last tasted like a rich caramel latte, the first was a balance of sweet/salty and creamy/crunchy.

The Friday before the conference ended, the ACS gave out it’s awards for the best American cheeses.  It was essentially the Oscar for cheese, but with more flannel than sequence. Maine represented nicely, with York Hill, Silvery Moon, Pineland Farms and Crooked Face Creamery all taking home awards. But, the ceremony really comes down to the last few minutes of the show, where the top three–or in this case, four–were announced.  Bleu Mont Dairy tied with itself for 3rd overall, with their Reserve Bandaged Cheddar and Big Sky Grana.  I was lucky enough to pick up a piece of the Reserve Cheddar the next morning at the Farmers Market and shared it with co-workers back in Maine.

It had all of the markings of a superb English Cheddar: creamy paste, saliva inducing sharpness and a note of horseradish at the finish.

2nd place went to Grafton Village for their Bear Hill, a sheeps milk cheese with a pretty limited production, so we haven’t seen it around these parts yet (and I missed tasting it at the Festival of Cheese on Saturday).

And, I really should have put money on my call for Best in Show.  I was offered a bet with a vendor, but probably make no where near the money they do… But, man, if I had I would have won with my dark horse pick of Winnimere from Jasper Hill Farms.

How much of a shock was it to the crew at Jasper Hill?  Well, they only sent three wheels to be judged, so when they did eventually win, they had to hike several cases from Greensboro, VT to Madison, WI in less than 24 hours. By car.

As you can see in the picture above, the wheels were perfect and having some Winnimere in August felt like a horrible, naughty treat, as it’s usually not available for several months. It was bliss on a spoon and I could not be more happy for everyone at Jasper Hill for their blue ribbon showing (Harbison, Willoughby, Landaff and Cabot Clothbound Cheddar also took home ribbons this year for the Cellars).

There were so many other great cheeses, in the sea of 1,800 entrants this year, that I’m going to simply sum it up with a few photos of some of my other favorites.

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From Maine to Madison–Final Journey

Today I fly out of Portland for my second–and final–trip to Madison, WI, of the summer. The first trip was a training for work, a week long intensive study at the Center for Dairy Research housed at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. During the week we visited Chalet Cheese Cooperative, home of Limburger production in the US.

It was on that visit that I gained true respect for Limburger cheese, usually referred to as the “stinky old man” cheese by many (myself included). To see the workers hand washing the bricks in the humid rooms and then later taste the finished product was something I rarely get to do in my job.


 

But, much like Maine and its cheesemakers, the humbleness and love of their craft is what connected to me the most to places like Chalet, Emmi Roth Kase and Crave Brothers Dairy. These are smaller operations, Chalet being the smallest of the three, that have worked through decades to perfect their cheese and focus on smaller batch, quality product.

Visiting Crave Brothers, I was reminded of my trips to Pineland Farms, with the sprawling scenery, but Crave, easily, has several hundred more cows than Pineland tends to.

Their main products are pasta filata style cheeses like various sized and shaped mozzarella, as well as some of the sweetest mascarpone cheese I’ve tasted. Our trip to Crave ended up to be a bittersweet one, as just a month later, they were linked to a listeria outbreak with one of their cheeses–a washed rind. It’s one of those heart breaking stories that can make or break a creamery, like it did with Sally Jackson’s cheeses three years ago. What Crave is doing environmentally, in regards to turning manure into power and then putting it back on the grid and powering around 300 local homes, makes them an industry leader and I truly hope that they can bounce back from this incident.

But, it wasn’t all about petting adorable cows and visiting picturesque creameries, most of our days were spent in lecture halls learning the science of cheese (veal rennet is the most traditional of the rennets used in cheesemaking)
and eating more cheese than our bodies were ever meant to (there were over 100 cheeses eaten in just 4 days).

We were even lucky enough to get elbow deep in curd and make our own cheese for several hours. The humidity in the room was nearly intolerable and I felt for the people in the rooms at Crave, Chalet and Emmi Roth for dealing with it for hours on end, day after day.

Overall, the week was exhausting and invaluable to my studying for the Certified Cheese Professional Exam that I take this Wednesday.  This trip marks the end of five months of studying and preparation for the first test I’ve taken in about a decade. (Ok, maybe four months of studying–I will admit to taking a month off after returning from the CDR because my brain was at utter capacity).

My summer, essentially, has been consumed by cheese. Reading all three of Max McCalman‘s books, weekly lecture calls at work with some of the most prominent people in the industry (teaching us about everything from pairings, to sensory to proper storage and handling), lugging around one 25+ pound binder (and one smaller 15 pound one) with all of my notes, readings and power point presentations from our lectures, going over and over the ACS ‘Body of Knowledge‘ for the exam to make sure I don’t miss any key areas and writing up 311 flashcards to study (on top of the 700+ shared by friends who are either already taken the exam or are taking it this year with me). There hasn’t been much summer, really–and there sure as hell hasn’t been much blogging, even though I had all of the best intentions to use this as a studying outlet so I didn’t go stir crazy reading about the fat/protein ratios in cows during their lactic cycle.

But, Wednesday–after 4pm our time (3pm in Madison)–I will finally be able to exhale. Until then..May the cheese be with you.

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Appreciating the Greats: Pont l’Eveque

I knew that The Missus would say something about the smell, she tends to. The cheese sat, quietly in its box, for a week in our vegetable crisper before it began to waft through the refrigerator.  The smell was strong enough to touch your nose, even when you opened the door to the freezer. But, being accustomed to comments being made when I’ve hidden a washed rind in the refrigerator, I preempted her and said, “It’s my cheese,” when she opened the door.

Pont l’Eveque is said to have existed, though known by another name, since the 12th century. It is produced by only 6 makers in the Normandy region of France, which is also home to Camembert, and they share the same wild mushroom aroma and velvety texture. Aside from the smell, the bright orange rind, which is created through the process of washing, brushing and turning which encourages the growth of Brevibacterium linens–known as B. linens in the cheese world. 

Though around for over eight centuries, it did not gain AOC recognition until 1976. Today, that distinction requires the following in production:

  • The milk must come from a controlled area around the village of Pont-l’Évêque, extending to the départments of Calvados, Eure, Manche, Mayenne, Orne and Sein-Maritime. 
  • The curd must be successively divided, kneaded and then drained.
  • During affinage the cheeses must be washed, brushed and turned.
  • The resulting cheese must be one of three sizes:
    • Petit – 8.5-9.5 cm square, and a minimum of 85g of dry matter.
    • Demi – 10.5-11.5 cm by 5.2-5.7 cm, with a minimum of 70g of dry matter.
    • Grand – 19–21 cm square, with a minimum of 650g of dry matter.

 Because she was so vocal about this cheese, I invited The Missus to join me in my tasting.

Tasting Notes
Milk: Pasteurized Cow
Brand: L. Graindorge
Appearance:
     Rind: White, powdery-flour like rind with light orange hue underneath.
     Paste: Stark white, small eyes; young in age.
Smell:

     Rind: Mushrooms*, feet*, raw broccoli*
     Paste: Mushroom, hay
   
Mouthfeel: Creamy, but not runny, slightly firm at core
Flavor:  
     Paste: Slightly sour, peppery*, onion, hard boiled egg white. 
     Rind: Salty, nutty

*Notes from The Missus

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Appreciating the Greats: Comte

Comte is another French cheese, like Roquefort, to hold AOC protection and has done so since 1958. Those two cheeses however, are vastly different in make, composition and flavor profile.

Comte is made from raw cow’s milk and made in the Jura region of France, quite some distance from Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, and nestles itself closely to Switzerland.  So, it makes sense, that they would produce one of the most famous alpine, or ‘mountain’, style cheeses in the world and have done so for over 800 years. Though it is said to be the most popular and consumed cheese in France, it seems that Gruyere gets more love stateside, especially when being mentioned in recipes.

Because of its AOC protection, Comte carries the following requirements in its production:

  1. Only milk from Montbeliarde Cattle or French simmental (or cross breeds of the two) are permitted, and each must have at least a hectare of grazing.
  2. Fertilization is limited, and cows may only be fed fresh, natural feed, with no silage.
  3. The milk must be transported to the site of production immediately after milking.
  4. Renneting must be carried out within a stipulated time after milking, according to the storage temperature of the cheese.
  5. Only one heating of the milk may occur, and that must be during renneting. It may be heated to no more than 40˚C.
  6. Salt may only be applied directly to the surface of the cheese.
  7. A casein label containing the date of production must be attached to the side of the cheese, and maturing must continue for at least four months.
  8. No grated cheese may be sold under the Comté name.

Tasting Notes
Milk: Raw Cow
Brand: Les 3 Comtoi
Appearance: 
     Rind: Tannish, labled with blue and white ‘Comte’ label and AOC branding
     Paste:Golden in color; paste looks full and rich; no fissures, eyes or imperfections
Smell:

     Rind: Musty, moldy
     Paste: Toast, toffee
   
Mouthfeel: Smooth, pliable with no graininess
Flavor: Brown butter at the center; moving up–closer to the rind–more meatiness. Rind produces huge mushroom finish and lingers, similar to white button or grilled portabella.

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Appreciating the Greats: Tasting Roquefort

Getting to know cheese requires at least four of the five senses: looking, touching, smelling and tasting. If you’re a cheese maker or affineur, then you would also bring in hearing to evaluate a full wheel of cheese by knocking on it.  Simply put, it takes a lot more than throwing a cube of cheese in your mouth to appreciate it. If you want to know it more intimately, then you study and evaluate it. Its color, aroma from paste to rind, texture on your fingers and your tongue. So much of this will help you go beyond having a passive appreciation of cheese.  

In the movie, “How to Cook Your Life,” Edward Espe Brown (author of the famed Tassajara Bread Book) is at the sink cleaning rice. He says something simple, “When you wash the rice, wash the rice; when you cut the carrots, cut the carrots; when you stir the soup, stir the soup.”  Which is to say, be in the moment of the task at hand.  When you taste cheese, close your eyes and focus on every sensation that’s going on. Take multiple bites of the same cheese until you feel you have a good sense of it. Pay attention because your first bite and your fourth bite will not taste the same. Your tongue and nose will pick up different notes as it moves around on your palate and opens up. 

As I take study breaks from preparing for the Certified Cheese Professional exam, I’m reintroducing myself to some of the greats of the cheese world that I have, I will admit, taken for granted and pushed aside for some newer, flashier wheels. I’m taking the time to get to know them again, like old friends, and first up is Roquefort.

History:

Roquefort has a written history dating back to at least 79 AD, though it is said that Ceaser’s centurians encountered it in the 1st century BC. It was also the first French cheese to be ‘protected’ by the French Parliment in the 15th century, then the modern AOC (Appelation d’origine Controlee, which has now been replaced by the European AOP) in 1925. The secret to Roquefort is the caves that dot Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, which are now owned by only seven cheesemaking companies in France.

Under the requirements for AOC, Roquefort must be: 

  1. All milk used must be delivered at least 20 days after lambing has taken place.
  2. The sheep must be on pasture, whenever possible, in an area including most of Aveyron and parts of neighboring départements. At least 3/4 of any grain or fodder fed must come from the area.
  3. The milk must be whole, raw (not heated above 34 °C; 93.2 °F), and unfiltered except to remove macroscopic particles.
  4. The addition of rennet must occur within 48 hours of milking.
  5. The Penicillium Roqueforti used in the production must be produced in France from the natural caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon
  6. The salting process must be performed using dry salt.
  7. The whole process of maturation, cutting, packaging and refrigeration of the cheese must take place in the commune of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.

Tasting Notes: 
Milk: Raw Sheep
Brand: Coulet 
Appearance: 
     Rind: None, wrapped in foil
     Paste: Smooth, slightly creamy paste; off white in color, deeply pocketed with evergreen/blue veining
Smell: 
     Paste: Woodsy, mushroomy, fruity
Mouthfeel: Dense, like Mascarpone. Slightly granular texture with the molding.
Flavor: Upfront spiciness; slight sweetness, warming profile, like cinnamon or chile. Faint notes of liquorice or tarragon.
    

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