Backstory: Cheese whizzes

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The task for Mark Johnson and Jean-François 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.

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.

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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.

Some entries are produced with the contest in mind. Others are pulled from a cheesemaker's typical production run. Either way, entries can get kid-glove treatment. One Swiss entrant spent $15,000 to ship its cheese alone, Mr. Umhoefer says. Over three days, the crew handled 38,000 pounds of cheese.

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Judging is both an art and a science. As they sit in the room testing goat's-milk cheeses, Johnson and Dr. Chamba, who heads a research center at the Institut Technique Français de Fromage in La Roch sur Foron, France, are focusing on flavor and texture. With some cheeses, looks are crucial. Not with soft goat's milk.

A perfect score is 100, which no one ever gets. "They get mad at us for that," says Johnson.Many defects are so slight that most consumers would never detect them. Others, such as moisture on the cheese when it's opened, are more conspicuous and erode points quickly.

To contestants, the judging can seem precise and a bit mystifying. Jeff Wideman, master cheesemaker with Maple Leaf Cheese in Monroe, Wis., stops by to chat with Chambra and mentions that during the 1980s, before he won several awards, he got bumped from third to fourth place a few times by only two- or three-hundredths of a point.

***

To help unravel some of the mysteries of cheese for the novice, Regi Hise is cohosting a cheese-tasting class for novices in a room near where Johnson is sniffing and spitting. (Note to self: Stop eating cheese with crackers: You can't truly taste the cheese for the cracker flavor. And don't eat it cold: You can't truly taste cold cheese.) Mr. Hise, a food-marketing consultant, tells the audience that demand in the culinary world is increasing for foods with "umami," what he terms the fifth flavor after sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. And cheese has it.

Indeed one of the forces driving what dairy consultant Daniel Carter calls a revolution in cheesemaking in the US is demand from "white tablecloth" chefs. "They want more complex, interesting cheeses," says Mr. Carter, founder and chairman of the Dairy Business Innovation Center in Delavan, Wis. This has boosted demand for artisanal cheeses - demand traditional cheese-producers such as Wisconsin and Vermont hope to capitalize on as huge dairies in California, Texas, Idaho, and New Mexico tighten their grip on the high-volume market for cheese on processed foods.

Cheesemakers are experimenting with different blends of milk from cows, sheep, and goats. In addition, interest is growing in Old World techniques, such as aging cheese in caves. There, cheeses don't need refrigeration, moisture levels are right for bacterial growth, and the cheese can interact with natural molds that give it an edge on the table. One of the state's leading cheese- makers held a seminar, whimsically dubbed the cave meeting, one night to gauge interest in the technique. "We expected five people," Carter says. "We got 45."

By 12:30 p.m., the stage is set for the best-of-show judging. Hise has swapped his white chef's outfit for a blazer and provides play-by-play commentary for a webcast. As the judges sample a top-scoring Edam cheese, Hise recounts a story traced to a Vermont newspaper in 1841 describing how the Uruguayan Navy ran out of cannon balls as it tried to repel Argentine invaders. So the admiral used over-aged, hardened spheres of Edam cheese instead. His forces reportedly won.

After two hours of sampling the best of each class, the judges are ready. Not since 1988 has a US cheesemaker won. The first prize this year goes to ... a Swiss cheesemaker.

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