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A Celebration of Cheese by Jack Dronen

In late July, Daniel and I attended the American Cheese Society annual conference for professionals working with cheese. From mongers to cheese makers to equipment manufacturers, this three day conference has a focus on education and networking. The conference is also a cheese competition where over 1800 cheeses and butters are judged in over 100 different categories. After all the cheeses are judged, they are beautifully plated for the Festival of Cheeses, where conference attendees can try as many as they can digest.

The first session we attended was Celebrating a Fermentation Renaissance. With a focus on beneficial microbes and fermentation, we tasted our way through three different cheeses, beers, and cured meats from the Pittsburgh area. Tasting the caramelly, sweet St. Malachi from the Farm at Doe Run with some of Ari’s funky lamb prosciutto all washed down by the New Skel IPA from Southern Tier was by far my favorite pairing from the tasting.

We wrapped up our first day at the convention by networking with farms at the Meet the Cheesemaker event. With over 200 cheesemakers packed into one room with all their products on display, it’s like being a kid in a candy store. As a cheese monger, cheesemakers are my rock stars. Without them I wouldn’t have the opportunity to tell their amazing stories. Besides tasting phenomenal new products that hopefully end up in the Marché cheese cases, talking to the makers, getting an insight to their daily routine and putting a face to the name really helps me as a monger better express the cheesemakers’ story through their products.

Friday started with a presentation from Simran Sethi, who is a journalist and educator focused on food, sustainability, and social change. Simran spoke about biodiversity and the impact on society concerning the things we take for granted. For example, a cup of coffee: from the people who harvest the beans, to where they are fermented, the journey the beans take to get to your favorite coffee spot. Finally, taking into consideration the machines to make the coffee and the cups the coffee is poured into. She was very thought provoking.

At another tasting session, Old and New Frontiers In Bandaged Cheddar, Vince Razionale, the recipient of the Daphne Zepos Teaching Award, presented two different producers of bandage wrapped cheddars; Hafod, by the Holden Family and Montgomery’s cheddar aged by Neal’s Yard Dairy. Vince gave us five cheeses, three pieces of Hafod from different make days, and two Montgomerys. The Hafods had a total aging difference of 5 days and one of them used no cultures. The Mongomerys had a four day age difference. The differences in the cheeses were mind-blowing. For example, the youngest Hafod was buttery, creamy, and smooth. Three days older and it tasted of mustard and root cellar. Then with no starter cultures you tasted red wine and garlic. So interesting what a few days of aging makes.

Next was a class called Drink the Apples, Eat the Cheese. This was a cider and cheese tasting, again focusing on things local to the Pittsburgh area. From dry still ciders to bubbly sweet we tasted them all with perfect cheese pairings, I think this would be a fantastic class for Marché in the fall!

Saturday started with my favorite class, From Terroir to Cheese. Typically, when talking about terroir you describe the climate, terrain, geographic location, but in this class they went in depth about how humans affect the terroir. Comté (a French gruyere) is an example: The pilgrimage of cows and makers every spring up into the mountains on the same path every year. The copper vats and wood fueled fires to heat the milk. The cheesemaker’s hands touching and stirring the curds. All these are examples of ways we affect our terroir. These traditions create the nuances of the cheese.

Another interesting class was Transhumance 101. Transhumance is the pilgrimage of cows and makers in the Alps every spring when the fresh grass starts growing. Cheeses like Gruyére, Comté, Beaufort, and Vacherin Mont d’Or are all alpine cheeses. Alpine cheeses refer to the grazing and making location of the cheese. The Alpine is a flat area on a mountain with fresh pastures, perfect for cows.

Lastly it was Cheese Pairings from the Far East. We tasted some wild things. From green tea coated goat cheese to fig miso paste on a washed rind. But my favorite, hands down, was a camembert wrapped in a piece of nori. It was cheese sushi and an umami bomb that I will be revisiting in the future.

With the conference ending, there was only one thing left, The Festival of Cheese. There were 13 tables holding almost 1800 different cheeses from around North America – an amazing display! With a loose game plan, we tried to taste all the potential cheeses we could bring into the Marché cases. We’ve already got some of the award winners in house! The creativity of the cheese mongers putting these displays together was something to behold.

What a great weekend of education – and a big shout out to my coworkers for working around the clock so I could attend. I can’t wait to be back next year in Richmond, Virginia!