Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Big Bang: Sarah Z Experiences the 2005 American Cheese Society Conference

I was thrilled to be going to going to the big cheese gig with Rob (the big cheese of Murray's), Diane (Murray's cheesemonger and ACS judge) and Sasha (Murray's affineur). But I wasn't quite sure what to expect from American Cheese Society's annual conference in Louisville, Kentucky besides bourbon and barbecue. The agenda sounded so cerebral: educational sessions starting at 8:30 in the morning to discuss terroir, milk quality, bacteria counts and the future of “maitre fromager" (something akin to a sommelier of cheese) in the United States. But soon someone mentioned Judy Schad's pool party at Capriole Farm in Indiana so I knew we cheeseheads were in for a good time.

It was a whirlwind time: three days of constantly bumping into fellow retailers, cheesemakers and my idols of the cheese world. Being in the cheese world, I sometimes forget how young the farmstead cheesemaking movement in America is. Mike Gingrich (a most pleasant and knowledgeable cheesemaker as I finally got the chance to meet him) makes Pleasant Ridge Reserve, one of my favorite cheeses and this year's "best of show" ACS winner. Yet his farm has only been working on the cheese since 1994!

The conference showed a complete spectrum of cheesemakers. There were those who didn't seem to have any idea how to figure out pricing for the cheeses they were working so hard to produce and some cheesemakers so far along in the consumer game that they have become savvy, using special packaging and sales techniques to stores like Murray's.

And of course there was the call to arms. Randolph Hodgson of Neal's Yard Dairy gave an inspirational talk about England's mobilization to save farmstead raw milk cheeses. A few cheesemakers over there educate the inspectors of the Food Standards Agency (their version of the FDA) by letting them allowing the inspectors to work hard to make and then enjoy eating their own wheels of cheese?

Then it was time to divide and conquer the Festival of Cheese on Saturday night. We studied up on the judges’ list of cheese categories that Diane had access to before the awards ceremony. From A to X with subcategories in between, we split up the cheese scouting job according to our personal interests and our roles at Murray's. There were over 600 entries after all.

Being a big fan of soft, fresh cheeses and always looking for some interesting items for Murray's dairy case, I hit the youngsters first. It made me proud to hear everyone cooing over our prize winning ricotta, calling it clean, sweet and gentle. Another prize winner, Bellwether Farms' crème fraiche will be making a return to Murray's this week, as well as Cowgirl Creamery's clabbered cottage cheese. I look forward to all the samples so many cheesemakers said they will send us and getting in touch with the long list of cheesemakers we have compiled, to get some of those new superstars into Murray's.