Photo: Max Shrem
What happens when the country's most prominent cheesemongers come together to celebrate cheese? Imagine cheese paradise – a room with a long rectangular table covered by tantalizing geometric patterns of cheeses ranging from dried-fruit-covered German Limburger to Oregon's Caveman Blue, meringues topped with creamy Strathdon Blue and juicy sweet raspberries, the full range of Tom Cat Bakery breads, and a selection of refreshments from Butternuts Beer and Ale.
That's exactly what the scene was like this past Saturday at the first ever Cheesemonger Invitational. Filling up a vast food warehouse in the Long Island City neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., the event celebrated the country's best cheesemongers, from Anthea Stolz at San Francisco's Bi-Rite Market to Matthew Rubiner at Great Barrington's Rubiners Cheesemongers & Grocers. In town to attend the Fancy Food Show, pretty much anybody else in the food business who's interested in or even remotely involved in cheese was also in attendance.
Apart from a vast array of cheese, the festivities included a series of competitions – beer and cheese pairings, blind tastings and cheese plates. For the Bedford Cheese Shop's Chris Hanawalt, the most daunting aspect of the competition was the blind tasting, in which the cheesemongers had to taste five different cheeses and then identify the cheese's milk, style, age, country of origin and name. "To prepare, I had my fellow Bedford colleagues test me at several points of the day," says Hanawalt.
The contestants' creativity and meticulous attention to detail were manifested in their cheese plates. "I like to change things up," says Richard Sutton from New Orleans's St James Cheese Co. He only used American cheeses, such as Capricious, an aged goat's milk cheese made from Donna Pacheco in Petaluma, Calif. Rubiner, who came in first place, included a hard-to-find (on the East Coast, at least) mixed milk cheese from central Illinois called Krotovina, which has a layer of vegetable ash separating the goat's milk portion from the sheep's milk. (The cheese is made by the same farm that makes Little Bloom on the Prairie that we covered last year.) Michael Anderson of Murray's Cheese came in second place.
The cheesemonger challenges brought together experts from around the world. The judges included Jason Hinds from Neil's Yard Dairy in London, Peg Smith from Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco, Kate Arding from Culture Magazine and Konrad Heusser from Chäs & Co in Zurich. Despite the presence of these luminaries, the gathering was anything but formal. In fact, it was more like a warehouse dance club, thanks to huge speakers, turntables and the house-y DJ spinnings of Jayski Love (actually Hinds, who was a DJ in a former life) and Carlos Souffront (who has a radio show in Ann Arbor in addition to coming in third place in the cheesemonger competition, representing Zingerman's in Michigan).
Chefs, cheesemakers, cheese importers, distributors and cheesemongers chatted, shouted and danced the night away (the party was still on when we left at about 11pm). For these cheese enthusiasts, the week of the Fancy Food Show got off to right start. After all, fine dining and cheese plates are all about conviviality.