Cheesemongers are the unsung heroes of the cheese world. Bridging the gap between maker and consumer, their job is to introduce us to our next favorite cheese. “Along with cheesemakers, cheesemongers are the true rockstars of the cheese business,” says Adam Moskowitz. And so he decided to throw them a party.
The Cheesemonger Invitational (CMI) is held biannually in New York and San Francisco. This two-day event includes a day of educational workshops led by big names like Vermont Creamery and Neal’s Yard Dairy. The second day features a ten-pronged competition that involves everything from cutting a perfect quarter pound of cheese to screaming encouragement coming from fellow competitors to creating the perfect “bite.” More on that later.
However, this past CMI saw some interesting variances. I sat down with CMI Champion Evan Talen to discuss the competition, Midwest mongers, and blue cheese.
The Adventure Begins
Evan’s journey to cheese was a circuitous one. He spent three years in Southern California working in web design and video production before he had a change of heart. “I realized I hated sitting behind a computer all day,” he laughs.
He then moved to Washington state to be the head chef at Cheese Louise. It was there in wine country that he fell in love with wine and cheese pairings, as well as the stories behind the products. Evan and his wife eventually moved back to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan where he works as a monger at Aperitivo.
Evan had heard of CMI before, but traveling to NYC or San Francisco was difficult. The most recent competition was held in Chicago. “That made it super accessible to me,” he says. After signing up, it was time to brainstorm pairings.
Traditionally, CMI contestants are assigned three different cheeses to find the perfect plate, beverage pairing, and “bite.” This time, CMI simplified by assigning contestants a single cheese. Evan was assigned Jasper Hill Farm’s Bayley Hazen Blue. This cow’s milk blue contains a variety of flavor notes ranging from chocolate to butter.
Upon receiving their cheese, each monger has different methods to build the pairings. Evan began by reading tasting notes and pairing suggestions for this versatile blue before he started to brainstorm.
Most pairing suggestions for Bayley Hazen are sweet (think dark chocolate or a dessert wine), so that seemed the logical starting point. “I wanted to go the sweeter route initially instead of my normal tendency for savory,” Evan says.
Curd Nerd Tasting Party
Upon learning that CMI was being held in Chicago, Evan got mongers from his store and the Grand Rapids area to sign up. He invited the contestants to his house to taste test each other’s pairings and to offer feedback.
Evan’s initial impulse to keep his bite simple was met with some resistance. He had four simple options, but his fellow mongers wanted all the elements together. The end result? With an artisan crisp as the base, Evan layered tart cherry and port jams, Bayley Hazen, and Luxardo cherry candied bacon topped with dark chocolate for a sweet bite with savory elements peeking through.
Cutting the Cheese
The Sunday competition element often receives the most attention). However, contestants frequently remark that the education workshops are their favorite part. Since many mongers are unable to visit producers otherwise, talking with them at the event gives them a chance to learn the stories behind the products they sell every day. “It’s hard to explain how valuable [an in-person meeting] is,” says Evan.
Evan’s other favorite part includes the cheese-wrapping portion where mongers cut a quarter pound of cheese, wrap it in cheese paper, and then wrap the remaining wheel in plastic. “There’s only so much preparation [you can do],” he remarks. “Watching everyone get pumped up for that and cheering each other on was a pretty awesome part of the day.”
From Perfect Bites to round-table discussions with cheesemakers and affineurs, CMI is definitely the place to bond with other curds nerds.If you’re considering competing, Evan advises: “This isn’t a day to be stressed about, but one to be excited about.”