Championing the world of cheese

A cheese championship placed in the pastoral dairyland of America makes sense. A few short miles from the contest’s urban Madison, Wisconsin location, dairy cows lined up for their second milking of the day. The cows yielded the warm, sweet liquid cultured into the over 2,500 cheese and butter products vying for gold. As a spectator of last night’s championship, dozens of those entries lay before me in bite-sized cubes, beckoning to be tasted and contrasted to their neighbors. I tried 15 cheeses in one blissful hour while I soaked in the remarkable atmosphere of the event. My tasting began appropriately, with a local cheese from Middleton.

1. Carr Valley Airco, a smooth blend of sheep, goat, and cow’s milk finished with applewood smoking. Middleton, WI.

Living up to its world championship title, cheesemakers from 23 countries displayed carefully crafted wheels for appraisal. Wisconsin and other domestic cheeses bordered the room and two long curving tables snaked through the center laden with the international offerings.

2. Landana Red Pesto, a shocking crimson compared to its pale neighbors and carried a full-bodied basil flavor. Netherlands.

Wandering among the among the attendees, my nose alternatively filled with red wine aromas and varied bouquets from our sliced and cubed samples. Though the judges would only assess the previously-determined top 16 cheeses, dozens were out for sampling.

3. BelGioioso Burrata, served on Beglian endive and the epitome of creamy, perhaps simply describable as cream. Green Bay, WI.

Each new tray offered the promise of surprising flavors and decadent textures. Every cheesemaker delicately laid their selections before a salivating audience. People filed by with tiny plates and a handful of toothpicks, carefully piercing each cheese with a fresh pick. Nearby trash bins filled with these quickly dismissed wooden tools, simply a means to a sample.

4. Dubliner Stout, darkened by the beer to a cashew color and mellowly bitter. Ireland.

Between the cheeses sat similarly diverse accompaniments. Raspberries, strawberries, braised eggplant, roasted peppers, fresh celery, crackers of all types, almonds, pecans, walnuts. These “not-cheese” foods were well-selected, except for the prunes. Dumped here and there, punes stuck together in clumps. They didn’t fan out delicately like almonds or have the succulent appeal of raspberries. The prunes looked thick and unattractive; nobody touched them.

5. Sartori BellaVitano Gold, pleasantly dense with a fruity finish. Plymouth, WI.

To break up the two-hour banquet of toothpicked treats, sometimes people wandered to the roped area where 40 judges stood around 16 cheeses. Those were THE 16 cheeses out of more than 2,500 that made it to the championship round. Before the judging began, each cheese was announced and its maker proudly lifted a wheel high in the air with both hands. The professional tasters all wore long white jackets, invoking the science of their discerning taste, and hats. The hats ranged from red baseball caps to what I can only describe as the white, rustic cap an Italian artisan would wear, a choice as refined as the palette beneath its bill.

Photo by Mario Koran

6. Sirana Gligora Sir Tartufi, distinctly flavored and speckled with black truffles. Croatia.

After the cheese introductions, judges split into small groups and systematically sampled each contender. An official of the World Championship Cheese Contest twisted a long half-pipe cylinder into the center of each wheel as though coring a tree to count its rings. After completely inserting the cylinder, the official slid it back out, presenting the half-exposed rod of cultured milk. Each judge slowly slid it under his or her nose and inhaled like it was a fresh Cuban cigar.

Photo by Mario Koran

7. Montechevre Organic Mini Bucheron, soft-ripened goat’s thickly coated my mouth upon contact and immobilized my tongue. Belmont, WI.

Then they all received a slab to smash, tear, chew, and taste. After extracting every quality of interest, the cheese evaluators threw mangled remains in the trash, spit out masticated creamy mush, wiped greasy hands, and moved to the next table. Though this is the reason for the whole event, spectators had to turn away before it became too unappetizing. Instead, we set our eyes back on the cornucopia before us.

Photo by Mario Koran

8. Druidale with blueberries from United Kingdom.

9. Gmunder Berg from Austria.

10. Moliterno di central from Italy.

11. Isle of Man Cheddar from the United Kingdom.

12. Triple cream brie from Canada.

13.  Feta from Denmark.

14. Camembert from Australia.

15. Mascarpone from Wisconsin.

And then I had to stop. Each cheese was a work of art. It was designed to be appreciated, not over-consumed. Even though placards advertised cheeses I may never encounter again, it wasn’t right to diminish artisan craftsmanship by feasting instead of savoring. I softly set my sampling plate in the pile of discarded dishes and sighed. Tonight, I indulged in a creamy, salted, cultured experience called the World Championship Cheese Contest.

All photos contributed by Mario Koran.

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