Monday, August 07, 2006

American Cheese Society Conference, Portland, OR

American Cheese Society Conference was a real eye-opening experience for me. I knew that the cheese world was populated by some nice folks. I've met some great people in the shop. I've visited a few cheesemakers and I have yet to meet anyone that's been unkind. There are more than a few "unique" individual, but like attracts like, y'know? At the conference, I observed a bunch of folks sharing ideas, building friendships, and trading experiences. It was a wonderful thing to see. There's a strong sense of community that is very supportive of each other, and I found it easy to meet folks that I wanted to meet. Like Mike Gingrich, of Uplands Cheese Company in Wisconsin, the maker of Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Sid Cook, owner of Carr Valley Creamery also from Wisconsin was great. David Gremmels and Cary Bryant were very warm and supportive to an eager, novice cheesemaker like me. I had a blast listening to Ig Vella, the owner of the Vella Cheese Company in Sonoma. His personal history is interwoven with California history and I just had to ask him a couple of questions to get him going. He's got a great family history, that reaches back several generations. Keep in mind he's in his 80's. I was entertained for an hour listening to his stories about going out with his dad, an Italian immigrant, and acting as occasional translator at the produce warehouses around San Francisco. His dad also sold their Dry Jack cheese as a substitute for Parmigiano Reggiano when it was unavailable during WW1 and WW2. They actually developed the Dry Jack in order to fulfill the demand for a hard grating cheese. Ig talked about how his grandmother(?) was the head cook for General Vallejo at his home in Sonoma. When Ig was a kid, there was a debate raging at a family gathering about what was General Vallejo's favorite meal. "Go ask Grandma!" someone said. Grandma wasn't there, but they called her up and asked her. (She lived to be 98.) Well, she settle the score with one word: ravioli! Apparently General Vallejo loved her ravioli. Being a local history buff, I ate this stuff up.

The Festival of Cheese was the grand finale of the conference. It was held in the grand ballroom at the Portland Hilton. Imagine a huge cavernous room filled wall to wall with tables of cheese. There were 941 cheeses on display. Everyone who entered the competition had cheese for sampling. I volunteered to do prep that morning. Aged sheep and fresh cheeses were on my table. Team of three tackled the immense task of setting up appealing displays of all of the cheese from the countless categories. There was a mountain of cheddar along the back wall. The conference had hired cheese carvers to sculpt birds and images on blocks of cheddar. There were seventeen tables set up with all of these cheeses. It was impressive. I got a pretty sore forearm from all of the cheeses that I cut up into bite-size bits. We began at 7am and preparations lasted until 3pm. At 5pm, the doors opened to the public.

My pick of the 941 cheeses? Aged Raclette by Leelanau Cheese Company of Michigan. It is rich, dense, chewy, with hints of smoky toffee flavors. I'd eat it all day long if I could. Sorry, you can't get it anywhere except at the creamery and winery. Ugh! Ann and John Hoyt are making some mighty fine Raclette up there in Michigan. They trained in Switzerland for four years and now produce their cheese at a farm that also has a winery and inn. Hmm. Perhaps I need to visit Michigan....

No comments: