Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Caseus Repor(t): Murray's Represents USA in World Cheese Competition -- Comes in Last!

I was a late draft for Caseus. Well, really more of a chaperone for Cielo and Frank, the two cheese masters of Murray's, competing in what, for the last few months we’ve been calling the Cheese Olympics.

It was a grueling start with overnight international travel and transfers. We almost lost Cielo at customs, due to his ever changing hair color. Finally we arrive at 7.30am at the Lyon Eurexpo for the beginning of Caseus, but the guys have been up since 5.00am prepping.

Frank Meilak puts on his game face as he prepares for battle.

Many competitors have already gone through a national challenge to claim their place at this international competition. This is the second Caseus event ever and the first in which the US has competed. So this means Murray's = USA! And of course we put on a show for the timid Europeans.

The first event starts at 7.45 and the contestants have one and a half hours to recreate a cheese counter. Right away we can see the difference in style. The US works ferociously; with Cielo tearing off cheese wrappers, clapping and yelling, “Lets go!” at the start. Both Cielo and Frank work with tremendous speed and determined, focused faces.

Frank and Cielo channel their decades of experience in counter preparation.

By 8.05am it is clear that the world of cheese is quite different around the world. The Japanese are so exact, with pre-cut cheeses (shouldn't this be illegal?) and a grid of their case. Japan uses bamboo sushi mats instead of straw under their cheeses.

Spain uses odd hexagon boxes to support thin foot long wedges of cheese with precarious balance, something like the Almodovar movies.

The French have nothing at all in their case, except for the custom cut mirrors that cover tiers in the case. (shouldn't this also be illegal?) All throughout the counter session, the judges scrutinize, ask questions and take furious notes. We, of course have no idea just what they think a “good case” looks like. In the end, Frank, with Cielo as his right hand man, produces a plump case that looks like a mini Murray’s with delicious descriptions on each cheese. But, to the crowd's severe disapproval, France takes one of the top scores for their counter: A truly minimalist setup with ghastly blue lighting (also illegal?) and so few cheeses that would be depleted after a couple of hours of business in Paris or NYC. You can decide from these photos; whose counter would you prefer to shop in?

The Dainty and Sterile French


The Robust and Magnificent Americans!!!

Next up the team is divided. Frank covers the blind taste test with descriptions and Cielo handles multiple choice questions. Both feel strongly that they have aced the exams.

Cielo begins the next event in which he has 35 minutes to break down a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano AND using only a quarter-wheel, create 20 pieces of 400 grams each. His training has been just that for the last few months, ripping open Parm behind the cheese counter timed on a stopwatch. No one has dared open a wheel in his presence. Super Cielo dazzles the crowd, grunting as tennis pros do, dividing the wheel like a mad man. Mouths drop; the French have never seen anything like it and the Belgian film crew zooms in to capture his karate-like moves. Meanwhile, on the left, Japan is still daintily plying the wheel with knives.

Samurai Cielo takes his challenger (a huge wheel of Parm) head on

The final product of a skilled master, ready for the judges' scrutiny

Click below for video footage of the master at work:


Midway through the parm cutting, Frank begins to compete in the selling event. The judges tell him the scenario: 20 guests for dinner and, oh we’re double parked outside so you’ll have to move fast. Luckily, Frank’s twenty-something years with Murray’s has certainly made him an expert in this. Suddenly Frank reveals himself to be a most charming cheesemonger, grinning from ear to ear and displaying a superior knowledge of cheese.

The final exam is a presentation of Abondance, and Cielo explains the ins and outs of production and enjoyment of the cheese.

All along, none of these events have fazed me, at least until the awards ceremony. Music blares, spotlights twirl and the contestants walk onstage, flags flying high, all shown on the big screen. The patriotism has hearts beating fast as the results are revealed. Bronze goes to Italy, Belgium walks away with the silver and......France earns the gold medal! In this case the prize is actually an unusual totem pole of a cow, sheep and goat on a pedestal.

Even in the face of defeat, our boys are standing tall.

Sadly, the US comes in dead last, but, in recent developments we've found out that there was a rules & regulations section that we never received! We think sabotage for sure and smile about how many rules we must have broken along the way.

So, we leave disappointed, but also with a long list detailing how we will certainly beat the pants off of the rest of the cheese world in 2009! (And the French aren't invited because they won!)

-Sarah Zaborowski
Director of Merchandising & Cheese Olympics Correspondant
Murray’s Cheese