What's New Now
Every time I judge at the annual American Cheese Society competition, there are more cheeses, more entries from a wider variety of producers, and better cheese than the year before.
This year did not disappoint; we saw a record 1,771 entries from 254 cheese companies. Seeing what shows up gives perspective on where the American cheese scene is headed. Those of us who served as cheese judges and participated in the conference noticed three unique trends in 2012.
Quality in Quantity
What really struck me about this year’s cheeses was how very good they were. There was more depth in every category, more competition for first place, and much less spitting and gagging on cheese you wished you had never put in your mouth. Encouragingly, this was most noticeable in many of the categories that American cheese- mongers often buy from Europe, where quality has historically been higher.
Carlos Souffront, competition judge and cheese buyer for Andronico’s Markets in California, says, “American artisan cheeses [are] growing more mature and sophisticated. I tasted a lot of tricky-to-make soft and semisoft cheese styles that were impressively good and well made.”
I would add the washed-rind category to that statement as well. Any cheesemonger in the world would be proud to carry cheese from Prairie Fruits Farm, Spring Brook Farm, Baetje Farms, and long time winners such as Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery.
The Southern cheeses were a wake-up call. In the same way that the ACS competition in Seattle revealed to the cheese world that the Pacific Northwest cheeses were a force to be reckoned with, this conference put us on notice about cheeses from the Southern states; we ignore them at our peril. Tim Gaddis, judge and cheesemonger at Star Provisions in Atlanta, agrees, saying, “I noticed more Southern makers than usual, both entering and winning.”
On my Best of Show ballot, I found myself voting for Sequatchie Cove Dancing Fern, a raw-milk Reblochon-style farmstead cheese from Tennessee. But the more I tasted, the more I was won over by the competence of many cheesemakers from this part of the country. There are too many to list, but Goat Lady Dairy, Flat Creek Lodge, Prodigal Farm, Nature’s Harmony, and Sweet Grass Dairy.
Fresh as Can Be
The 2012 winners in many of the fresh-cheese categories blew me away with their milky awesomeness. One trait I have observed working the counter over the last two decades is that many cheese lovers, trying to separate themselves from “easy cheese,” extol the virtues of only the strongest and smelliest. But so many really good fresh offerings—my favorites come from all over the continent—show a growing appreciation for simpler cheese, done well with great milk. At the competition Quality Cheese (buffalo milk), Bellwether Farms (ricotta), Liuzzi Angeloni (Italian styles), and Labne from Karoun Dairies were especially notable.
Just as American cheesemakers grow more mature in their ability to make difficult cheese, the fresh cheeses, by their very existence, show an increased interest in choices that are not necessarily the sharpest or stinkiest.Written by Gordon Edgar Photography by Allen McEachern