Friday, March 16, 2012

Judging at World Championship Cheese Contest

World Championship Cheese Contest, Madison, Wisconsin 
5-8 March 2012

I was a little nervous before arriving in Madison, as this was my first time judging outside New Zealand, and seeing the calibre/experience of the other judges.  However we were soon made to feel very welcome and accepted.

We arrived on the Sunday evening, and had not been settled in our room for long when we got a call from Russell Smith, the Australian who is chief judge at the NZ awards.  Russell invited us down to have a drink at the bar, where we met a number of the other judges, as well as some of the “B team” (of assistants) and the organising team.  Everyone was friendly and most importantly passionate about cheese.  We were looking forward to the main event!

On Monday, the first day of judging, there was a judges breakfast in which we introduced ourselves, were shown the new electronic scoring system, and were shown how we should sample certain cheeses (many cheeses were to be sold after the show, so we were asked to sample them carefully and not damage them too much). 

This year the competition used electronic scoring sheets, on laptops and linked by network to the “back room”.  It took a little while to get used to (remembering where each attribute was on the sheet, the layout etc) but once we got the hang of it, it worked really well.  There was much less need for the stewards to run back and forth looking for signatures, sheets didn’t get lost, and scores were averaged quickly so that results could go on the internet quickly, or any ties could be dealt with quickly when the cheeses were still fresh in our memories.

The B-team are the people that make things tick.  There was essentially a pair of B teamers assigned to every pair of judges.  They make sure all the cheeses are presented correctly, that everything is carefully repacked afterwards and that every one of the more than 2500 cheeses is labelled & tracked.  After each cheese is sampled by the judges they use a process called “schmutzing”, not a term we had heard before, which is basically covering the holes in the cheese with vaseline to stop it drying out/contamination before taping it up.   Sandi had volunteered to be part of this team & got involved with everything from carting around massive wheels of gouda, to helping with the tasting of flavoured soft goat cheeses, endless schmutzing and entering the results for the sweet sixteen.  She thoroughly enjoyed it all, met some fantastic people & would definitely do it all again.

Each international judge is paired up with a local US judge – I worked with Sandy Toney of Masters Gallery Foods in Wisconsin.  Below are my thoughts on each of the classes we evaluated. 

Monday:  today judging started at 11am, and we had 54 samples in the “Sharp Cheddar (6-12 months)” to get through.  The first half of the cheeses we tasted were not particularly high quality overall, with a reasonable number of samples having some bitterness.  At least 15 of the entries had some foreign matter – mostly small black specks or lint – which was disappointing.  Once group of entries were immaculately “dressed” and wrapped – but each had a hair or some lint inside the wrap which looked like it came from the dressing procedure, which was a let-down (and a pity for the competitor).   One cheese had a pretty high amount of lipolysis, and there was also one quite fruity cheese – these were interesting samples but not characteristic of Cheddar.   Towards the end of the day we tasted some quite nice, balanced, rounded Cheddars – one of which we scored as the class champion (Cracker Barrel made by Agropur, Glenview for Kraft).  This entry later went on to the “sweet 16” gala judging event (more on this below).  Interestingly, the next morning we were asked to “complimentary grade” three more cheeses for this class (i.e. their scores could not be entered in the competition because the manufacturers had entered more cheeses than allowed in the class).  Two of these samples we think would have been top scoring in the class – which goes to show it is worth following the entry instructions.  

Dinner tonight was at Jonny Delmonico’s, a nice steak/grill restaurant with a delicious shared starter of calamari rings with sweet chilli sauce (this bowl was refilled a couple of times!).  But the steaks were huge, perfectly cooked, tender, and delicious – pretty much exactly what I felt like after a long day of judging.  Over dinner we were able to have a good chat with some of the other judges and organisers.  We made some great contacts, and everyone seemed to be very encouraging of us taking this trip we are on to explore the cheese world. 

Tuesday:  a 9am start for a long day of cheese judging.  First up was “Reduced fat hard cheese” with 25 entries.  Mostly Cheddar, although this class did gave us a bit of variety with some string, a Swiss block and some beautifully presented Dutch Goudas (one of which won the class).  Most of the Cheddars were bitter, as expected.   Class winner was a nice, mild Dutch Gouda from Beemster.    Next class was “Two year or more Cheddar” – another large category, with 44 cheeses.   A number of the 3/4/6 year old cheeses looked good with nice texture, only to be let down by bitterness or sourness.   Our top scorer and class champion was a well-balanced 2-year Vermont Cheddar from Cabot, which also made it through to the final “sweet 16” round.   

Dinner tonight was at L’Etoile, a fine dining restaurant that sources all its ingredients locally within 200 miles of Madison.  The meal was delicious – and we particularly enjoyed the dessert.  

Wednesday:  We started with “Reduced sodium hard cheese”.  Although there were 22 cheeses entered, we were told only 11 of them had actually arrived.  We were quite surprised at the quality shown in the samples.  It was quite difficult to separate the entries, especially with a number of different styles of cheese in this class.  The best samples in this category were a mozz block (class winner) from Lake Norden Cheese and two Provolones from Agropur good examples of their typical cheese types with little to suggest any sodium/salt had been removed.    We finished before lunchtime, which allowed some rest time before the final rounds.

In the afternoon, all the judges met in the Ballroom and we were split into groups of five.  Each group of five judges then evaluated ten cheeses (each cheese being the winner from its particular class) and the two highest scoring cheeses from each table went through the “sweet 16”.  The two cheeses to go through from our table were the two Cheddars mentioned earlier.   We then had some more time to rest before the big main event – a gala evening which had sold out (400 tickets).  The new idea this year was to hold the final “sweet 16” judging in front of the interested audience.  This was an interesting experience.  There were many samples of non-medal winning cheese from the competition cut up and laid beautifully around the ballroom in geographical groupings, as well as some stunning displays from some local artisinal cheese makers.  

After the crowd had looked around, sampled some wine and cheese, each of the “sweet 16” cheeses was introduced, and held up for everyone to see.  This really felt like the world championship: of cheese!  Then in our groups of five again, we rotated in sequence to each table where the “table masters” plugged and prepared the cheeses for us to evaluate.  I can’t really imagine what the audience thought – to me it doesn’t seem that exciting to watch someone evaluating cheese – but then again we are used to it.  I guess to the public the process we go through and seeing the different cheeses presented was interesting.  I did feel privileged to be able to sample these top 16 amazing cheeses.  In the end, when all the scores were averaged, the cheese selected as World Champion for 2012 was a reduced fat cheese!  Vermeer Gouda from FrieslandCampina.   This was a great cheese, everyone was surprised it was reduced fat – you really couldn’t tell; it tasted great and was well balanced.

A delicious wheel  of Emmental, with the cheese laden tables & judges' stations in the background

Andrew plugging some cheddar (nice hat!)

Andrew with his judging partner Sandy Toney of Masters Gallery, Wisconsin at their station

Andrew & Sandi in their respective hats

Part of the beautiful cheese display at the judging gala event

The winning cheese! (centre) with the big cheese trophy

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