Wednesday. I enter Monona Terrace Convention Center and look around (where are the banners? why no trumpets?). In front, a row of tables, with men and women (but really men) sitting in pairs, as if in a chess tournament. But maybe they’re medics – all in white robes, peering, dabbing with sharp knives, studying samples?
No, they’re judges and they are picking winning cheeses at the 2008 World Championship Cheese Contest. 1941 entries from around the world, 79 categories, 36 judges. Biggest cheese competition anywhere! We’re good at doing things in big ways.
I walk up to the tables and watch. They cut, they sniff, they taste and most often they spit it out. And eat an apple slice to cleanse the palate.
Jean-Marie Humbert is here to judge from France. I am drawn to his table because he is…expressive. A gorgonzola is placed before him. He looks at it, takes one whiff and shudders. I ask him in French what’s wrong. I don’t want to eat this! He says emphatically. It may make me sick!
The judge from Australia is studying the runny Reblechon. I ask if Reblechons are supposed to run. No, it is unusual. Maybe there’s some excessive moisture… Maybe a drip from the ceiling? – his partner judge looks up. I’m thinking the judges like being watched.
There aren’t many onlookers and I am given plenty of opportunities to ask questions and sample cheeses. Me, I don’t spit. I am drunk with these jewels of the food world! Leave me on a mountainside with a baguette and a good cheese and I shall not complain! (A glass of wine added to this would truly send me over the top.)
Thursday. After class, I rush back to Monona Terrace. The last part of the competition is underway. The 79 categories each produced a winner yesterday. Today, all judges are tasting the 79 cheeses that placed first in their class.
And when their votes are tallied, we will have a blue medal winner. The supreme cheese. The grand dame. The best of the best.
We are waiting now for the results. Jean-Marie comes up to chat. I’m not so good with my English and only a couple of my friends here speak French. I don’t believe him. Foreigners are always understating their knowledge of English. No, really. It took me a while to figure out what they meant when they announced that we were judging cheese 5205. Who knew that the Americans call a “zero” by the letter ”o”?!
I meet Ernst Oettli, the judge from Switzerland. He tells me that big as this contest is here, in the States, it has yet to get huge billings in Europe. There’s room to expand there.
But what will the Swiss or French do when asked to submit a cheese in, say, category no. 78: “shredded, flavored cheese”? The winner in that class (indeed, in all shredded and grated classes) is from Wisconsin. The best shredded, flavored? --from Masters Gallery Team: "Finely Shredded Taco Cheese Blend".
But the French judge defends the “shredded” category – they offer unique, interesting textures! -- he tells me. (Even as I know his heart is with the the cheeses from his own neck of the woods.) The French are so kind.
And now comes the announcement: Third place finish: An Emmental from Switzerland. Second place – a Gorgonzola from Italy. And first place? I’m as tense as a parent is on their kid’s big recital.
There you have it. A Gruyer from Switzerland. The Swiss judge smiles. Small wonder. He knows the cheese, the cheesemaker and his family. It’s a small operation. Only five wheels per day! He says.
And now Ernst is surrounded by cameras. He’s no longer a judge, but a spokesperson for his country’s cheeses. What’s so special about the Gruyer? – he’s asked. The fruitiness, the full flavor…
I move to the side. Jean-Marie is there again. He asks me – you’re a pigiste, aren’t you? It sounds sort of porcine, but I know it can’t be that… He’s smiling: it means a journalist that writes what he pleases and then looks for a place to publish his work. Much better than pig-lover. And yes, I am writing an article on the competition. With a small summary exclusively delivered here, on Ocean.