How a Tarentaise cheese swept the show

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Over the course of two steamy days last month, 22 pairs of judges descended on Denver, Colorado to sample the record 2,024 products entered into the American Cheese Society’s annual competition. The event is a celebration of butters, yogurts, spreads, smoothies and cheese made from cow, goat, sheep and buffalo milk. In forms ranging from fresh to smoked, they reveal the best versions of what writer Clifton Fadiman describes as “milk’s leap toward immortality.” But the contest also exemplifies a creative approach to judging that celebrates creativity and technical prowess.

Anyone who has ever participated in a food contest knows judges are typically overloaded — it’s a case of too many foods to taste in too little time — and what is intended to be a scientific survey of food can remain so technical it detracts from the mastery of the creation or can be wholly eclipsed by subjectivity. The latter isn’t surprising. Our experience of flavor is a reflection of physiology, culture and the environments where we consume food. It is dynamic and open to interpretation. “I think there are good reasons for folks to be cynical about ‘award-winning’ foods, but this competition is legit,” says Gordon Edgar, veteran cheese buyer and author of “Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge” and “Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese.” Edgar has served as judge in eight competitions here, beginning in 2007.

The vast array of competition cheeses. Photo by Marisa Chioini
Some of the cheeses in the running at this year’s American Cheese Society competition. (Photo by Marisa Chioini)(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Here’s how he and the other judges approach the cheese: for each blind tasting, the society pairs a technical judge with an aesthetic judge. When it comes to technical judging, points are subtracted from 50, based on imperfections in a cheese’s appearance, aroma, flavor, body and texture,” according to Stephanie Clark, the competition chair who teaches food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University. For aesthetic judging, each cheese can be awarded up to 50 points. “Sometimes the technical judge may grade down for something I award points for,” says Edgar. “For example, a milky sweetness may be technically a defect for a given style, but I can say that it has appeal to some cheese eaters.”

The goal is to achieve a balance in the technical and aesthetic categories, says judge Lisbeth Goddik, a professor of food science and technology at Oregon State University. “High scores from the aesthetic judge don’t necessarily align with high scores from the technical judge since we’re looking for different factors. But when the scores align, we know that we have a superb cheese which has great sensory quality along with good marketing appeal.” Take, for example, Swiss cheese, Goddik says. “I would expect certain-sized eyes that are evenly distributed. The aesthetic judge probably wouldn’t deduct points if the eyes are not evenly distributed.”

Judge Gordon Edgar assesses the aesthetics of cheese. Photo by Allin Tallmadge
Judge Gordon Edgar assesses the aesthetics of cheese. (Photo by Allin Tallmadge) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

A technical judge would also be tougher on a cheese that doesn’t align with the ideals of a particular cheese, whereas an aesthetic judge would be more open. “A straight technical judging can reward cheese that may be technically perfect but unexciting to the average cheese customer,” Edgar says. “This competition rewards cheeses with interesting retail appeal but always keeps us cheese obsessives from getting too far out-of-hand.” Judges are encouraged to explain their responses to all the participants. “It’s an assessment of a moment in time,” says Clark. “We are judging the cheeses in their current form, asking, ‘How did it perform today?’”

After picking the winners in 123 different categories of cheese, the cream of the crop is judged once more to determine who will walk away with the most coveted “Best of Show” designation. This year, the award went to a Tarentaise Reserve — a yellow, semi-hard washed rind cheese named after the Tarentaise Valley in France — that was produced by Farms for City Kids Foundation and Spring Brook Farm. The Vermont non-profit offers children from urban areas the chance to use Spring Brook Farm as an outdoor classroom. “There’s a sense of community from a microbial level on up with the kids we work with and with other farms,” says the farm cheese program director, Jeremy Stephenson.

Roughly 45,000 of the farm’s 220,000 pounds of cheese are Tarentaise. The cheese is made from the milk of 42 Jersey cows that graze at Spring Brook, plus additional milk from two neighboring farms. “We looked for the Tarentaise that was most ripe and appropriately aged. This one’s got these nice floral notes but we also want to celebrate that every batch will be different,” says Stephenson.

The award-winning Tarentaise Reserve, painted by Mike Geno.
The award-winning Tarentaise Reserve. (Painting by Mike Geno.)(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The American Cheese Society defines specialty cheese as “cheese of limited production, with particular attention paid to natural flavor and texture profiles.” This is in contrast to processed cheese, which the organization describes as “cheese by-products made from a combination of natural cheese and added ingredients, such as stabilizers, emulsifiers and flavor enhancers that are used to create a consistent and shelf-stable product aimed at mass market consumption.” So while a Kraft single is designed to be the same, slice after slice, specialty cheese is heralded for its difference. Scale enables such cheeses to be sold for a lot less money, but compromises the diversity of flavors that a wedge from a smaller batch can offer. The lower-priced cheeses also don’t account for the labor that goes into specialty cheesemaking. “I wish people would realize that the high cost of these cheeses is not because the artisans are earning a lot of money,” Goddik says. “[It’s because] these companies commonly produce so little cheese that they need to charge over $20 per pound to cover expenses.”

Stephenson says making specialty cheese is a hands-on process that’s been done the same way for thousands of years. It is truly a labor of love. “You have to be aware and open and alive in your mind. If you want to make this cheese, well, you have to fall in love with it.”

Cristi Menard and Jeremy Stephenson, of Farms for City Kids Foundation and Spring Brook Farm, accept the competition's top award for 'Best of Show' for their cheese. Photo by Marisa Chionini
Cristi Menard and Jeremy Stephenson, of Farms for City Kids Foundation and Spring Brook Farm, accept the competition’s top award for ‘Best of Show’ for their cheese. (Photo by Marisa Chionini)(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)