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Backstory: Cheese whizzes

At the 'Olympics' of cheese, judges sniff, poke, and chew to determine the world's best variety.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 11, 2006



MADISON, WIS.

The task for Mark Johnson and Jean-Fran├žois Chamba this morning is simple: sample 23 different kinds of soft goat's-milk cheese. Not some havartis, some Swiss, some cheddar. Just soft goat's milk. Twenty-three kinds.

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The two men are judges in what is billed as the "Olympics" of cheesemaking at a convention center here in the heart of Wisconsin. Donning white hats and smocks, they sit at a small table, with clipboards and laconic looks. The men sniff, pinch, flex, poke, chew, and then - important - spit out each sample. They examine the cheese for everything from flavor to texture to the amount of liquid in the packaging - an obvious defect.

"You have to have good sensory memory," says Dr. Johnson, a dairy scientist at the University of Wisconsin here.

It doesn't hurt to remember to discard each sample, too. At his first cheese-judging contest, Johnson swallowed every piece. By noon, he couldn't take another bite.

The competition along Lake Monona will last three days. During that time, the judges will jot notes, exchange nods, and mumble comments to their partners about cheese that comes in blocks the size of ottomans. In all, they will anoint 47 types of cheese, two types of butter, and "retail packaging" as best in the world in their class. One cheese will be decreed "best of show."

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This is the largest cheese competition in the world. It has attracted 1,792 entries from 19 countries, including the usual cast of European and American suspects, plus Japan, South Africa, and New Zealand. It's an increase of 480 entries over 2004. In 1980, there were just 212 competitors.

For all the importance of the event, however, you'd never know it when you first arrive at Madison's lakeside convention center. No sample-hungry crowds cluster around tables groaning under the weight of havartis, Camemberts, or wheels of Swiss as big as tractor tires. No flags hang to identify homelands of valiant cheese Olympians.

Instead, a lone receptionist in a foyer politely points down a wide hall to a lobby. A sign on a tripod and nine judging booths reassure you that your Palm Pilot had the location right. It's a no-frills, technical competition in a no-nonsense part of America, where, with apologies to Garrison Keillor, all the Limburgers are strong, all the Gorgonzolas are good-looking, and all the cheddars are above average - most of them, anyway.

If the contest lacks visibility and hype, it's because this is a "serious event," according to John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, which sponsors the biennial competition. "It's not run by a chamber of commerce," he says.

Indeed, no Velveeta or Kraft slices here. Entrants do include large farm cooperatives and companies that can churn out thousands of pounds of cheese a day. But they also include cheesemakers from single farms who focus on handcrafted artisanal (pronounced "ar-TEEsanal") cheeses and may produce only 100 pounds a week. Contestants prize the judges' critiques nearly as much as the awards themselves.

"The judging sheets are mandatory reading," says Jed Davis, marketing director of Cabot Creamery Cooperative, a Vermont cheesemaker. Under the guidance of cheese meister Fred Hart, the cooperative took top honors in the "Cheddar, Sharp" category this year. Its salted butter captured second place in its category. Judging took place last month; the awards will be issued at a ceremony in Madison on April 27.

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