Each year in New York, cheesemongers slug it out in a world championship. Will Studd joins in the madness.
It's no secret that the finest artisan cheese begins with good milk, or that every batch is slightly different depending on the season. Creating interesting textures, flavours, and aromas depends on the skill, intuition, and dedication of the cheesemaker and, of course, patience as the cheese ripens. But that's only part of the story. If cheese is not handled with proper care after it leaves the dairy, all the hard work is wasted by the time it reaches the customer.
Shopping for cheese that's in optimum condition can be a hit-or-miss affair. In truth, the quality of the cheese depends largely on the enthusiasm and professional knowledge of the person behind the counter. This is particularly the case in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the US where the convenience of the supermarket dairy section has traditionally dominated how and what cheese is available, and specialist cheese shops are a rarity.
But there are encouraging signs of change as a new generation of enthusiastic young mongers with a passion for cheese adopts the trade as their vocation. The catalyst for this new movement lies in North America and has parallels with the revolution in single-estate coffee and craft beer.
I recently attended the annual Cheesemonger Invitational on Long Island, New York (you'll see the trip in an episode of Cheese Slices). Inspired and hosted by Adam Moskowitz, a third-generation cheese broker, this unique event bills itself as "Fight Club meets Wrestlemania".
It's certainly no ordinary cheese competition.
You won't find judges in starchy white coats with sterile hats and serious looks on their faces as they browse rows of nameless cheese from behind clipboards. Instead, mongers from all over the country gather here to celebrate their mutual love of artisan cheese in a wild party atmosphere and duke it out for the title of world champion cheesemonger.
Day one is all about education: workshops focused on everything from mould types to maturation with some of the most respected names in the cheese world. Last year these included representatives from Neal's Yard Dairy, Stichelton, Jasper Hill, Rogue Creamery, Vermont Creamery, Cravero, and Marcel Petite.
The second day marks the beginning of the competition. It starts early with a series of highly charged preliminary rounds crafted by the author of The Cheese Chronicles, Liz Thorpe. These include a tough general-knowledge test based on the classes the day before, blind tasting, selling skills, and preparation of a perfect bite. As the day progresses the atmosphere becomes more emotional and tensions rise. It'll come as no surprise to learn this intensity is actively encouraged by Moskowitz who, around this time, adopts an eccentric alter ego known as Mr Moo, and starts demanding loud moos of approval from the contestants as they complete each round.
By late afternoon the judges have chosen the finalists and the grungy warehouse is transformed into a sweaty nightclub, replete with bar, pumping tunes, and (perhaps not so nightclubby) trestle tables groaning with wheels of cheese.
The doors are opened to a waiting crowd more than 600-strong, and Mr Moo, now dressed in cow suit, spins tunes and cracks jokes as he oversees the final rounds on a brightly lit central stage. Audience participation is strongly encouraged as the finalists struggle to cut the perfect wedge, wrap cheese in record time and pair it all with local beer.
Silly as some of it sounds, it also serves a great purpose. As Anthony Femia, cheesemonger from Spring St Grocer in Melbourne and a one-time finalist said to me, the atmosphere of camaraderie for anyone working in the cheese world is deeply affecting.
We joke that if baristas are the new DJs, then cheesemongers are the new baristas, and just as their coffee-obsessed brothers and sisters now sport ink of milk-flowers and group heads, so too are cheese professionals wearing the sigils of their trade tattooed on their arms. Expect to see me with a Manchego-inspired band on my arm or some sleeve-work detailing the history of cheddar soon.