Friday, August 01, 2008

American Cheese Society Conference 2008

Photo: Chicago Skyline carved in cheese.

Click on the slideshow to enlarge the pictures.

The American Cheese Society Conference began with a bus tour of Roth Kase in Wisconsin and ended with the Festival of Cheese. Four days of lactic gluttony, schmoozing, and workshops. Well worth the time and expense to get to Chicago. From 7:00am to late at night, we immersed ourselves in the American cheese world. American cheese does not mean those little plasticine squares of orange colored cheese food. For me, American cheese is over 1100 cheeses produced by hundreds of cheesemakers from all over the North American continent. I spent hours getting to know some of these fine folks and I enjoyed every minute of it.

My days were spent in workshops like "Demystifying Rennet and Coagulants," "Wine Versus Beer Smackdown," Ripening Cultures for Cheesemaking," and "Selecting Suitable Cheese for Extended Aging." Gripping subjects and stimulating discussions. The highlights were the annual Awards Ceremony and the Festival of Cheese. My favorite cheese discovery this year was Ocooch Mountain by Hidden Springs Creamery in Wisconsin. Brenda Jensen is a relative newcomer to cheesemaking, she's been at it for 1 1/2 years. Her sheep's milk cheese was exquisite. Raw sheep's milk, semi-firm washed rinded cheese in a Basque style like Ossau Iraty or P'tit Basque. Yum!

Jim and I ran away from the conference on Friday afternoon. We went to see the Cubs play the Florida Marlins at Wrigley Field. Our friends Carrie and Bob had tickets and offered us three seats. Carrie couldn't make it, but Bob, Jim, my friend Pam, and I spent a lovely afternoon at the ballpark, watching the game and the crowd. I got to enjoy a Chicago dog in one of the best ballparks in the country. Pam and I ran away after the seventh inning stretch. We had to go to the American Cheese Society Competition Awards. She had some cheese entered, so we couldn't miss the ceremony.

The awards were fun. It is always nice to see friends recognized for their efforts. The Best of Show went to Carr Valley Cheese Company for their Goat Milk Cheddar called Snow White. Sid Cook, is a fourth generation master cheesemaker. He produces over 80 cheeses, many have won awards, but he's never taken Best of Show. Quite a feat for him. If you're curious, click here for the results from the judging.

The finale for the conference is the Festival of Cheese. Imagine a huge ballroom, in this case the Grand Ballroom of the Chicago Hilton, with countless tables laden with cheese. Every cheese that is entered into the cheese competition is set out for sampling. Ribbons are on the award winners. There is a table for everything. You can find blue cheese, smoked cheese, flavored cheese, marinated cheese, washed rinded cheese, soft ripened cheese, sheep's milk, goat's milk, buffalo milk, even a wasabi cheese. Sure, there are cheddars, goudas, jacks, feta, yogurt, butter, and cheese spreads. Everything is up for grabs.

Photo: Ocooch Mtn Cheese, a new favorite of mine. Aged sheep's milk cheese from Wisconsin.

If you get thirsty, there is also lots of beer and wine to wash down all of that cheese. Bread, fruit, crackers, and jams are also available for sampling. The amount of cheese in the ballroom is staggering. Jim and I took care to pace ourselves. At the last festival we learned to get to the the top winning cheeses early and then be more selective about what you want to try. This year I wanted to explore the Canadian cheeses since we don't see most of them on this side of the border. Carrie and her friend Amy joined us and they had a field day, running around from table to table, doing vertical tastings of blue cheeses, washed rinded cheese, cheddar, and goudas. I felt like Homer in Candyland or a golden ticket winner entering Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. Everything was edible and most were delicious.

The crowd started to thin during the last hour of the festival and there was still a ton of cheese left on every table. At 9:00pm, the festival was officially over, yet there was still a lot of cheese to be consumed. We looked at all of this cheese and wondered what they were going to do with all of it. Throw it out? I grabbed Steve, one of the organizers and asked if Carrie and Amy could take some leftovers home. "The pig farmer backed out, so anything that's cut is up for grabs. We're just going to throw it out." I relayed this info back to our friends. Their eyes got big and they grabbed their plastic "to-go" containers and did their best to keep some of the best cheese out of Chicago's landfill. After 10 minutes we regrouped. They had filled their containers with a wide variety of small format cheeses and wedges of some nice looking semi-firm cheeses, too. Tucked under an arm, Carrie had a rustic loaf of french bread, Amy had a round loaf balanced on top of her plastic container. Others followed their lead and grabbed cheese, too. Jim and I didn't want to take anything on the plane, so we just got to be voyeurs and helped Carrie and Amy with their haul.

The Festival of Cheese is as close to heaven as a cheese lover can get. And it happens every year. Next year you'll find me in Austin, Texas. Perhaps closer to having my own cheese ready to be judged and consumed at the Festival of Cheese.

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