Hello, my friends! Whew, M. Cheesemonger and I spent a quick getaway weekend in Boulder/Denver, where it was unusually rainy! Oh well! We did manage to get a little hike in, and we did find some very fine local food!
However, this week, what I really want to share with you is my experience being a cheese judge at the Good Food Awards! Each year, awards are given out to food producers in 15 categories, including cheese. Winners are chosen not only based on the blind tasting judging event, but their commitment to sustainability and high levels of craftsmanship.
So, what was it like? We judges began trickling into the venue around 9am, ready for an all-day tasting event. The place was packed. There were at least 20 judges per category, so with 15 categories, there was a LOT of serious food people power going on!
The first tasting began at about 10am. Cheese judges included folks like Kat Craddock from Saveur Magazine (OMG I made their Instagram story that weekend!!), Steve Jones of Cheese Bar and Chizu in Oregon, and David McIntyre, global head of food for Airbnb. We were grouped into “pods” of about 3 people, and each pod had an assigned bunch of cheeses to taste. We were supposed to judge the tasting based on aroma, appearance, mouthfeel, and flavor. A cheese runner was assigned to our pod, so that we didn’t need to stand up to grab cheese, or wash knives at all. Everything was taken care of!
My morning session probably consisted of about 25-30 cheeses, and lucky for me, many were of the soft-ripened variety, although we did get some alpine styles, and even a couple of blues. These cheeses were just a small percentage of the total number of entrants! There were a couple cheeses in the bunch that I thought were outstanding in all aspects, and it was interesting to see that the judges in my pod and I were often in agreement. Does that mean that cheeses appreciation is not quite as subjective as we can be led to believe, that there can in fact be a benchmark for fine cheese? I think so. Actually, as time went on and we tasted cheese after cheese, our little pod grew remarkably quick at identifying the technical points of the cheeses that came our way. Because it was a blind tasting, we did not receive the names of any cheeses. Some were identifiable by shape, but most were unknown to me.
There were some defects in some cheeses, and these are things we noted as well. Examples of problems included skin slip, when the rind of a soft cheese can’t really hold onto the paste well, and “slips” off; ammoniated aroma, which can indicate that a cheese is past its prime; air pockets in the paste of a hard cheese, which indicates unwanted gas build up in the paste; blue cheese that isn’t very blue, which could mean that it hasn’t been pierced enough to allow the penicillium roqueforti to flourish. There are a lot of other things that can happen, but that gives you an idea of what we encountered.
How did I not get full? Well, I did, but I think my cheese-eating capacities are greater than the average person. I cut my tastes myself, and each one was maybe ½ ounce. It’s strange because while that is indeed a lot of cheese to eat, I never feel exactly full from it. Instead, I just start craving balance, i.e., salad. Luckily, our tasting organizers anticipated this, and we had some delicious salads catered by Bi-Rite for lunch!
The second round of tasting was a little smaller than the first. There, we only tasted the highest rankers from the first round. They were all fairly good at this stage, but again, one or two really shone in particular. After this tasting round, the high rankers will be judged based on their sustainability and craftsmanship practices, with the winners announced in January. The events all coincide with the enormous Fancy Food Show, a massive food trade show I have covered several times in the past.
All of the cheese judges received a copy of a wonderful book, Reinventing the Wheel [affiliate link], by Bronwen and Francis Percival. I am a couple chapters in, and absolutely love the storytelling, fact-telling, and message that we must support more traditional, microbe-rich cheesemaking methods.
There was an after-party, but after spending about 6 hours with the same group of people, I was ready to join M. Cheesemonger at his board game afternoon! When I arrived home, I saw that M. Cheesemonger had prepared crêpes Suzette from scratch, which was a wonderful treat after a hard day of tasting! Our friends played a gorgeous board game called Tokaido [affiliate link], where the players are all touring through the east sea road of Japan. It was lovely, and it involved food! Another of my favorite party games also involves food—Sushi Go [affiliate link]! I’ve found that board games offer an interesting window into the mindsets of my friends while offering a good time.
What cheeses have you been eating? Let me know in the comments! Or leave a comment on Instagram!