Here’s the fascinating thing about cheese. All cheese is essentially four ingredients – milk, salt, cultures and rennet. Consider the wide range of flavors cheesemakers can create with those four things. We actually think there is a fifth ingredient – artisanship. It’s like two chefs taking the same four ingredients and making completely different dishes.
Which is why we love the “Cheese Oscars,” also known as the American Cheese Society annual awards competition. This year, more than 2,000 cheeses (a record number) from 281 companies competed in 400+ award categories.
As a testament to how far the American artisan and farmstead cheese community has grown, in the first year of competition (1985), 30 cheesemakers entered 89 cheeses in seven categories.
Our very own Head Cheese, Steve, was one of 44 cheese experts selected from across the country to judge the awards. We are excited to spotlight the three Best of Show winners in this year’s competition as well as five other Gold prize winners in a special tasting class on October 6 and October 22. (A handful of seats are still available for the Oct. 6 class)
This blog post tells the story of this year’s top three Best in Show winners.
Farms For City Kids Foundation/Spring Brook Farm, Vermont
The Farm at Doe Run, Pennsylvania
Cellars at Jasper Hill, Vermont
Meet Tarentaise Reserve, the Best in Show cheese in the 2017 Cheese Oscars. This is your excuse to eat more cheese to support a good cause. It comes from a 1,000-acre farm in Vermont that brings urban children to the farm for a week in their “outdoor classroom.” The program integrates academics into everyday farm activities – think math to determine cow rations and chemistry in the creamery. To date, 12,000 kids, mostly 5th and 6th graders from Boston and New York, have gone through the program; for many, it’s the first time they’ve left the city. We spent time on the farm a couple years ago and were truly inspired.
And then we tasted the cheese! Tarentaise Reserve is a semi-hard washed rind cheese made from raw, organic grassfed cow’s milk. It was inspired by the cheeses made in the French alps and is named for the valley where its inspiration came. It’s made in copper vats as is the case in France, using traditional methods.
It has the classic nuttiness of a traditional alpine cheese, with buttery and grassy flavors as well. The regular Tarentaise is aged for around 10 months, but the Reserve stays in the cave for approximately 18 months. All the profits from the sale of Tarentaise are used to support the urban education program.
This is the second time Tarentaise Reserve has won Best in Show. It took top honors back in 2014 as well, and is only one of three U.S. cheeses to have won Best in Show more than once. Rogue River Blue has also won twice, and Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Creamery is the only cheese to win an unprecedented three times.
The Farm at Doe Run, Pennsylvania
Many of America’s best cheeses are made using traditional recipes from Europe, and then there are what we in the cheese world call “American originals.” These are cheeses that often don’t fit neatly into the standard categories of cheese.
St. Malachi is one of those. It is the result of an experiment by the farm’s two cheesemakers. One had experience in Alpine cheeses and the other worked more with washed curd cheeses, so they married their expertise and came up with St. Malachi – a washed rind, washed curd cheese.
We think of it as the marriage of a Dutch gouda and a French alpine cheese. What is a washed curd cheese, you ask? It’s a technique used throughout Europe, but is most closely associated with gouda. In the cheesemaking process, cheesemakers use rennet to turn milk into curds and whey.
The Dutch then add warm water to the curds. This pulls more lactose (sugar) out of the curds. Without that lactose, the bacteria have less food (sugar) so they will stop making acid. The result is a low-acid, sweeter cheese. (Brie and blue cheese, on the other hand, are higher acid cheeses).
Ok, science class is over. The result of this mashup produces a cheese that is a nutty brown butter bomb with notes of caramel and a crumbly texture.
It comes to us from the Farm at Doe Run, a 700-acre farm about an hour outside of Philadelphia. The farm is known for its sustainable and organic practices and for producing award-winning cheeses from their herds of Jersey cows, East Friesian sheep, and Saanen and Nubian dairy goats, all of which are rotationally grazed.
This is the second year in a row that St. Malachi has taken Second Best in Show, and St. Malachi Reserve took Gold in the last year’s World Cheese Awards in San Sebastian, Spain.
Cellars at Jasper Hill, Vermont
Jasper Hill Farm and the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont are considered one of the leading American artisan creameries. The farm was started in 2002 by two brothers–Mateo and Andy Kehler–with a small herd of cows. Andy tended to the herd and Mateo made the cheese. And they quickly started winning national acclaim.
But they quickly expanded beyond just a small cheesemaking operation to a larger agricultural operation with an even larger mission of restoring a thriving agricultural economy in northwest Vermont.
Their biggest investment came in the mid 2000’s when they cut 22,000 square feet of underground aging tunnels into their farm’s hillside to create the Cellars at Jasper Hills. Different tunnels are designed to maintain the specific climates and temperatures necessary for ripening different types of cheese.
The Cellars not only age Jasper Hill Farm cheeses, but they also age cheeses from other Vermont creameries to help them create award-winning cheeses. It’s a fabulous example of would-be competitors partnering for the benefit of all.
We could go on and on about the many ways Jasper Hills is helping make Vermont the go-to place for artisan American cheesemaking—their investments, collaborations, conservation efforts and so much more, but in the end, it’s really about the cheese.
Harbison, their spruce wrapped, ooey, gooey bloomy rind cheese, took Third Best in Show this year. But that’s just the latest award for the cheese. In 2015, it was named Best American cheese at the World Cheese Awards and one of the 16 best cheeses in the world. That same year, it also took Third Best in Show at the Cheese Oscars. And in between, it’s taken a lot of gold medals in various competitions.
Harbison is also a mashup of two of Jasper Hill’s other cheeses. They call it the love child of Moses Sleeper, the creamery’s Camembert-style cheese, and Winnimere, its bark-wrapped washed-rind wheel.
The cheese is wrapped in strips of bark harvested by hand from white spruce trees on Jasper Hill’s property. Those strips are dried and boiled to make them malleable enough to wrap the day-old molds of cheese.
The bark isn’t just for show. First, it keeps the ooey-gooey cheese contained as it ages. It also gives the cheese a distinct smoky, earthy flavor. When it’s young, you can actually peel away the bark and slice it. As it ages, the inside becomes like a buttery, eggy pudding. At that point, you want to slice the top off and scoop it out with a spoon. We think of it as fondue, without the pot.
The taste is a rich, buttery, slightly nutty flavor. It’s Camembert at its best with the added complexity of the woodsy flavor thanks to the wood wrapping.