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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Imagine for a moment that you walked into Willie Wonkas Factory, only in this world the chocolate has been replaced by cheese.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: 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.


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 
     Rind: None, wrapped in foil
     Paste: Smooth, slightly creamy paste; off white in color, deeply pocketed with evergreen/blue veining
     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.

american cheese society, certified cheese professional exam

From Maine to Madison

I really never thought cheese would be my life. When I went to culinary school, nearly a decade ago, I thought I would end up working in a kitchen or, at the very least, baking full time.  I was a fairly quick study and was pretty successful in my classes. When I left, because my partner at the time was in medical school and we couldn’t afford two tuitions, I didn’t give up. At least not on the journey I had started. The relationship, well, it lasted another few months before I met my Missus, ended things with my ex and moved to Maine.

It was here that I got my first job in a kitchen, which lasted several months, and then I moved on to the kitchen at The Whole Grocer. There, essentially, things changed. As part of my daily tasks, I began to assist the Grocery manager with cutting, wrapping and tagging cheese for their small refrigerated section. It was during this time that my rudimentary knowledge on cheese began to grow and my genuine curiosity was piqued. Before that time Buffalo mozzarella and Manchego were the fanciest cheeses I had known, which were leaps and bounds beyond what I had been exposed to growing up (Land O’ Lakes White American cheese was a staple in our household and a cryovaced block of cheddar only introduced itself on occassion).

At The Whole Grocer, I was introduced to cheeses like Fromage D’affonois, The Drunken Goat and local fresh chevres from York Hill and Sunset Acres. I would bring home little wedges when I had the extra money and would even stop in to K. Hortons to try things we didn’t carry.  Then, The Whole Grocer became Whole Foods and I didn’t follow my budding interest in cheese to the new store. Instead, while working in another department at the time, I would allot myself no more than $20 a paycheck to spend on new cheeses. It was around then, about six years ago, that I also started keeping a cheese journal so that I could keep track of all of the various cheeses, which ones I liked or didn’t.  It only took about a year to get over 100 entries in the book. Now, I have more entries than that just in ‘aged cheese’ section.

Eventually, I did find my rightful home behind the cheese counter and, to date, I’ve spent nearly 10,000 hours of my life standing there, helping customers plan dinner parties or finding the cheese that they had in Italy when they were there on holiday. I’ve taught several classes both in and out of the store and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of the best cheesemakers in America today. I’ve also moved up, going from general Specialty Team Member, to taking on the responsibilities of purchasing the local (New England) products for the department, to Lead Buyer. Cheese has become my life, not only how I pay my bills, but a huge part of my ‘food personality.’  I figure that, when people on the street recognize you and say, “Look, it’s our cheese lady!” that I’ve stumbled on to a pretty rewarding path.

But, why am I going on about this? Well, cheese is taking me on another, unexpected journey.  In just under four and a half months, I’ll be sitting in the Hilton Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, taking the “Certified Cheese Professional” exam that the American Cheese Society debuted last year. The Missus best described as the cheesemonger’s equivalent to the sommelier certification, though to not such an intense degree (at least, not yet). But, until July 31st, I will be delving into a whole different level of cheese obsession–getting into the science of cheese, studying affinage, marketing, etc–more so than I already have.

And, I’m going to take you on this journey with me. We’ll call it “From Maine to Madison,” and you can bet, without a doubt, that I’m going to use this blog to share many of the things that I’m learning along the way. Those books in the picture above? Those are about half of the ones I’ll be studying from, along with the hundreds of pages I’ve already printed out from Power Point presentations that Whole Foods created for the team members to study. Oh, and the FDA HAACP Principles and Application Guidelines. Fun, huh? I won’t bore–or, rather, scare–you with things like food borne pathogens, but I will be highlighting a cheese and/or style every week.

I will try to remember to come up for air every once in a while, but my posting my be sparse until the test is done and my brain–which is surely going to be leaking out of my brain from all of the information I’m going to cram in it–re-solidifies into a functioning mass.

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Celebrating with a (Mostly) Local Cheese Plate

It was like the Birthday Gods were smiling on us. All within the week of our birthday, I was gifted a bag of cheese from Spring Day Creamery, in Durham, ME (a ‘Thank You’ for helping her out a bit at the Brunswick Farmers Market when she found herself a smidge in the weeds) and a sizable chunk of Spring Brook Farm Tarentaise, which was given to me by the owner, Jim, after talking to him for a bit about his cheeses and their “Farms for City Kids” program.

I took this as a sign that I needed to make a cheese plate for The Missus and I for our special day (though, in reality, it was a day late when we finally had room in our bellies to enjoy it). So, I gathered up some other sundries, like the German Landjaeger sausage from Rosemont Market, some Marcona Almonds from Whole Foods and a small jar of Blueberry Blossom Honey from Urban Farm Fermentory. Served with toasted homemade crostini, using a baguette purchased from Zu Bakery, it all made for a lovely, mostly local, plate.

The Candide is Sarah Spring’s peppered brie.  The wheel she was selling at the market was perfectly gooey and ripe.  The flavor, only a hint of pepper came through from the rind, was of butter and mushroom. It was nice to have a Maine produced brie that didn’t fall victim to over salting or too thick of a rind, which can lead to a bitter finish at the end.

Most of the Tarentaise that I’ve had is aged around a year, but this slice came from a wheel aged somewhere between 5-7 months. It lacked the intense raw milk bite that I’m accustomed to with this cheese, but it’s subtlety made it more representative of other Alpine styled cheeses like Le Gruyere and Comte. It was smooth, slightly nutty with a breath of swissiness at its finish. It also made for a fantastic melting cheese the following night as I grated some over a shaved steak and mushroom sandwich.

Washed rinds are a finicky lot and, because of this, you won’t find too many Maine cheese makers venturing out and attempting this style of cheese. Some of my favorite cheeses are washed rinds, like Winnimere and Epoisses, so it excites me when I come across a washed rind that’s produced closer to home.  The La Vie En Rose is a subtle one, you probably won’t have your refrigerator stinking up with its presence ( The Missus has questioned many a smell in our refrigerator because of my cheese choices), but it does have that wonderful, sweet paste that I adore in washed rinds. It’s pliable texture puts it closer to Saint-Nectaire than any other French style washed rind. But, honestly, I’d take the La Vie En Rose any day.

Ah, the jewel in the crown of Spring Day Creamery cheeses: Spring Day Blues.  Last year, Spring Day placed 2nd to Rogue River Blue at the American Cheese Society Awards, which is no small fete for a cheese maker working with such limited space. In fact, to me, this is a coup. When I had the cheese three years ago, I recalled it tasting slightly earthy and mushroomy, like Blue D’Auvergne. After three years, its easy to see that Sarah has honed her blue making skills. The blue now lies somewhere between a Gorgonzola Dolce and St. Agur. The texture was spreadable and the paste was sweet and creamy, with a back note of pepper. This was, paired with a touch of the UFF honey, my favorite on the plate.

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Guanciale: Phase 1

I love the women of Dandelion Spring Farm, pure and simple. Not only are they extremely friendly and grow some of the most beautiful produce, they have also bestowed upon me my first whole pig jowl.


The deeply blushed red and porcelin white lobe is sitting in the refrigerator now, coated with salt, sugar, pepper and thyme.

It will live there for nearly a week before its wrapped in cheesecloth, strung up and hung in the Missus’ office. The cooler temperatures will ease it into a cured state and turn the jowl into the Italian bacon, Guanciale.

When it’s ready, in about 3 to 4 weeks, it will be cut down, sliced and paired with my new cheese obsession: Harbison from The Cellars at Jasper Hill.

The newest addition to the Jasper Hill family of cheeses, this is one of the most complex cheeses I’ve had in a very long time. It starts out smokey, akin to a young Winnimere, then a wash of butter and cream hits, ending with a distinct mustard finish. French’s Yellow Mustard to be exact.

That beginning and end makes it a perfect pairing for cured meats. The worst part about the whole thing is the month long wait I’ll have to endure before I can savor these two together. I’ll let you know how it all goes down when the time comes.

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Maine Wins At This Years ACS Awards

Just a few hours ago, the American Cheese Society convened in Montreal and handed out awards to some of the best cheese makers in the US and Canada. Because of the wonders of interwebs, I was able to find the list of winners within hours of being announced. This is how I spend my Friday nights. One thing of note was that this was the first ACS award won by Spring Day Creamery in Durham, ME. I had the pleasure of visiting the farm for Open Creamery Day back in 2009 and spent a lot of time talking with Sarah, her family, and tasting many of the cheeses she had on hand. The cheese that won for her, I would easily compare to Bleu D’Auvergne. It’s also exceptional that she came in 2nd to this years ‘Best in Show’ eventual winner, Rogue Creamery’s Rogue River Bluewhich is easily the best blue cheese being made in the US. I hope the Maine contingency, whether they won today or not, is out enjoying and celebrating in the streets of Montreal.

DC: Open Category made from cow’s milk

1st Eagle Mountain Farmhouse Cheese Co., TX
Birdville Reserve

2nd Monforte Dairy, ON

3rd Hahn’s End, ME
Petit Poulet

FK: Blue-veined made from cow’s milk with a rind or external coating

1st Rogue Creamery, OR
Rogue River Blue

2nd Spring Day Creamery, ME
Spring Day Blues

3rd Glengarry Fine Cheese div of Glengarry Cheesemaking Inc., ON
Celtic Blue

QE: Yogurts, Plain – made from sheep’s milk with NO additional ingredients

1st Best Baa Dairy, ON
Sheepmilk Yogourt

2nd La Moutonniere, QC

3rd Appleton Creamery, ME

3rd Valley Shepherd Creamery, NJ

Taupinière, Rinded Log and Pyramid Types, etc.

Open Category

1st LaClare Farms Specialties LLC, WI

2nd Chèvrerie du Buckland, QC
Tomme du Maréchal

3rd Appleton Creamery, ME
Chevre Wrapped in Brandied Grape Leaf

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Maine Cheeses at 2010 American Cheese Society Awards

While it wasn’t as fancy as the Emmy’s, though I’m sure the food and drinks were better, the American Cheese Society held it’s awards this past weekend in Seattle, WA. Because I’m obsessive turophile that I am, I’ve been waiting for the past 24 hours for the results to be posted.
The big winners this year were from Wisconsin and Vermont in the ‘Best in Show’ Category (Uplands Cheese Company’s ‘Pleasant Ridge Reserve’ placed 1st; ‘Bonne Bouche’ from Vermont Butter and Cheese Company 2nd; and Farm for City Kids Springbrook Farm’s Tarentaise’took 3rd), Maine did have a small representation.
Winners from the state were:

  • Appleton Creamery’s ‘Camella’ took first place, while besting Cypress Grove Creamery’s ‘Truffle Tremor’ in the “Soft Ripened, flavor added” Goat’s Cheese category.
  • Appleton also topped the “Feta from Sheep or Mixed Milk” category for their ‘Sophia’ Feta.
  • Pineland Farms Feta won 3rd in the “Feta from Cow’s Milk” category.
  • Pineland also garnered 3rd for their Salsa Jack in the “Flavor Added–Monterey Jack” category.
  • Pineland’s Salsa Jack, this time in spreadable form, placed second in the interestingly titled “Cold Pack Cheese Food and Cheese Spreads With Flavor Added.”

Both are repeat winners from last year but Maine still hasn’t repeated the showing it had back in 2007, when 17 Maine cheeses took home awards. But, as it goes with award ceremonies, there’s always next year.