Tuesday, July 25, 2006

For the Love of Cheese: Diane at the ACS

Before the actual ACS conference begins, the cheese judging competition takes place. Let me begin by explaining the gigantic feat accomplished before the judging starts. Nine hundred different cheeses are sent by over 150 cheesemakers to Portland. A forty foot long refrigerated trailer is rented by ACS and attached to a loading dock at the Oregon Convention Center which is a ‘light rail’ ride away from the conference hotel. The big 3, Competition Chairman David Grotenstein, Chairman Emeritus John Greeley and all around amazing cheese Receiver Debra Dickerson arrive the week before, to begin receiving the cheeses. The cheeses fall into 22 main categories like Fresh Unripened Cheese, American Originals, Flavored Cheeses, and our favorite Farmstead Cheeses which are then split into sub-categories yielding 91 categories in all. The cheesemakers are invited to send their cheeses with no identifying characteristics (well, they must be in their usual form - so maybe we cheese people recognize our favorites - but I for one certainly can’t tell one block of large cheddar from another.)

These cheeses come in and are labeled with secret codes (identifying the cheese maker, sub-category and cheese #). The refrigerated trailer - a dark, spooky, cold (41 degrees, lit rather poorly by hanging industrial light bulbs) - is set up, stuffed to the gills with speed racks - rolling shelves with removable aluminum trays often used to wheel around food in the business. The speed racks are organized by sub-category and hopefully in alphabetical order. One must keep in mind also that never before have this many (more than 900) cheeses entered the competition (the last few years hovered around 750). And each new location and year presents its own unexpected challenges. (One this year was the inadvertent miscommunication of the deadline for cheese arrival.) The one thing I saw over and over was that the people running the show are supremely dedicated to fairness and inclusion: to presenting all 900 cheeses in their proper category and in the most pristine condition possible. No corners cut, no decisions made with expeditiousness outweighing these high standards.

I arrived on Monday morning, one day before the judging would begin. We wished all the cheeses had arrived but of course many were, as yet, undelivered. As I learned the system and saw the scope of the task I just gaped, eyes wide: how can this all get done? May I add that almost everyone is a volunteer. Only the Executive Director of ACS , Marci Wilson, new this year, enthusiastic and excellent, and some wonderful FSA people are getting paid for this project. While some people are, of course, sent by their companies, this intense work is done mostly for the love of cheese.

So, as Debra received more cheeses, mostly from local cheesemakers, Elizabeth Kooiman (wife of conference co-chair Tom) and I spent hours double checking about two thirds of the 900 entries to see if they were checked in, correctly marked with no identifying labels or boxes and all pieces of one lot on the same tray. The choice was to do this in the freezing cold and dark trailer - with the AC going on and off and blowing on our soon to be stiff necks - or, our choice, wheeling the heavy and cumbersome speed racks in and out of the trailer. I had arrived a bit late at 10:30 in the morning and when we finally finished at 7:00PM I was sure I would need a shoulder operation in the morning. I was vastly relieved when the computer whiz Silverstons claimed me for the less physically demanding task of adding up the judges score sheets for Tuesday and Wednesday.

This year there were 12 pairs of judges- up from 10 to accommodate the increase in cheese. For a more in depth description of scoring see my last year’s blog on the competition when I was a judge. But this year what amazed me was the organizational feat: getting the right cheeses out of the truck through a 5 minute walk through the bowels and then carpeted halls and passageways of the convention center to the judging room to the table of the right set of judges (pre-planned) in the right order at the right time. As a judge last year, I had no idea what chaos might be going on behind the scenes. I didn’t give a thought to how the cheeses miraculously appeared on my table. This incredibly complicated task was again supervised by Debra D., assisted by the esteemed Daphne Zepos and three steadfast cheese angels sent from Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Seattle, and a woman named Sabra from Seattle. The judges have their first categories and now I’m in the front of the room with the Silverstons who have streamlined the computer system from last year. These people are amazing volunteers because they are not officially cheese people - they are a retired couple from Texas who absolutely love cheese, having stepped up to fill this need and have continued to refine the system. So now come all the opportunities for more glitches - which ALL must be dealt with, figured out and satisfied in a way that will assure the highest quality of competition. The score sheets have to be checked, mostly by me, and later verified again by Karen Silverston, to make sure every cheese has been properly identified and evaluated by both judges. Missing cheeses must be tracked down. Ties for first place in any category must be re-presented and broken. The judges train early on Tuesday morning so things don’t whip into gear for us score keepers until lunch time. We have a significant number of cheeses to complete that day. Apparently everything went quite swimmingly compared to last year. My backlog file rarely got out of control and Michelle the young and energetic woman from FSA pitched in everywhere.

And did I mention - aside from keeping the judges happy we also must hurry up and finish categories (resolve ties, select first place) so the speed trays can go back to the cool truck because the cheese reigns supreme. Some of the same cheeses must come back the next day for the second round to select the “Best in Show” but also this is the cheese for the crazy Festival of Cheese which is the culminating night of the conference where we cheese heads plus some paying customers go to a cocktail party staring these very same 900 cheeses. So not only does everything have to be right and fair, it’s got to be quick. Kathleen Shannon Finn managed the “triage” table in the back of the room preparing to send the correctly marked and organized cheeses back to the truck. We worked from 8AM to 7:30PM that day, though the pace didn’t pick up till lunch time. I was supposed to eat dinner with a friend from Portland who insisted he show me a glimpse of the Gorge before sunset so I didn’t eat some Kobe beef sliders at the Rogue Brewery until 10PM (and Portland closes down early on weekdays!) and I was famished. I’d eaten almost no cheese all day, just one wonderful judge had left large leftover plugs of cheese on her paper plate in case she needed to revisit her scores. And that was luckily my favorite category - farmstead cow. I was involved in some necessary discussion over her score sheets and got to sneak a taste. A room redolent of cheese and not a drop to eat until then.

The second day was initially more of the same. I knew not to show up at 8AM because there wouldn’t be score sheets for me till the judges finished their first categories, but by now we were all in the groove, which was good because the first round needs to be completely finished, judges sent on a much deserved but short break and then quickly figure out all the first place winners, any stubborn late ties, and bring back those blue winners to the twelve tables for round two, where every judge tastes every category winner, grouped somewhat logically on the 12 tables, to pick the very best to line up for the final round for Best in Show. There were 74 first place winners. A fair amount of categories had no firsts because a cheese must score 91 points out of 100 possible to place in the highest range.

Now we’re talking excellent cheeses, but in all shapes, sizes and flavors. From Bittersweet Plantation’s new White Chocolate Praline Butter to Redwood Hill’s Garlic-Chive Chevre to Wilamette Valley’s Cumin Gouda. And in the more traditional categories: the Cowgirl’s Pierce Point, Blue Ledge Farm’s Crottina and Leelanau’s Aged Raclette. Out of this amazing batch - no offense but we all know that the low salt or marinated categories ain’t gonna win- you can sense or smell a winner. Even if you are the non-hired help and are not officially tasting. Well, at this point, when we were cleaning tables preceding the final round, Nicholas from La Brea Bakery, Dany Schutte from San Francisco’s Whole Foods and I are darting about for some succulent crumbs.

Best In Show this year was awarded to Cabot Creamery Cooperative for their Cabot Clothbound Cheddar which was aged at Jasper Hill by those Kehler brothers, and has been carried at Murray’s for some time and has been a staff and customer favorite since it hit the case. It’s a great cheese! My co-workers attending the conference tried their best to elicit the secret winner from me, but my lips were sealed until the awards ceremony Friday night, two days hence.

- Dr. Diane Stemple