Planet Cheese is a weekly blog devoted to everything cheese: products, people, places, news, and views. James Beard Award–winning journalist Janet Fletcher writes Planet Cheese from her home in Napa Valley. Janet is the author of Cheese & Wine, Cheese & Beer, and The Cheese Course and an occasional contributor to culture. Visit janetfletcher.com to sign up for Planet Cheese and view Janet’s current schedule of cheese appreciation classes.
Really, what are the chances? Two thousand cheeses in a competition and the Best of Show is a repeater? But that was the case in Denver in July’s last weekend, when the American Cheese Society judges, tasting blind and scoring independently, awarded top honors to the same cheese that prevailed in 2014. I was among this year’s group of judges so I know the winner was worthy. But I tasted several other newcomers that impressed me almost as much. I’ll get to those newbies, but first a virtual standing ovation for Spring Brook Farm’s Tarentaise Reserve, a raw cow’s milk wheel in the tradition of France’s Beaufort. Aged for two years (twice as long as the non-reserve Tarentaise), the cheese was intensely savory and concentrated. No “hints of” anything here. You couldn’t miss the big aromas of roasted onion, toasted walnuts, beef broth and brown butter. On the tongue, it was dense and silky, with a finish like thick, warm cream. French onion soup meets crème brulée.
Like the two cheeses that ranked just behind it (St. Malachi from The Farm at Doe Run in Pennsylvania, and Harbison from the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont), Tarentaise is a farmstead cheese, made with the milk of the farm’s 40 Jersey cows—“the wrong milk”, joked Jeremy Stephenson, the cheesemaker. (By French standards, Jersey milk is too rich for this style).
But Stephenson emphasized grass-fed more than farmstead. Every year, when it is time to select a competition entry, his team routinely looks to June and July batches. This year’s winning wheel was made in early July, when Vermont pasture is lush. “We know (summer) cheese has a certain quality conferred by the grass,” says Stephenson.
After nine to ten months of aging, each wheel of Tarentaise is evaluated for the reserve program. Only five percent get to spend another year in the cellar. “It’s very expensive real estate,” says the cheesemaker, but that extra affinage cranks up the flavor.
Tarentaise Reserve unquestionably deserves the win on its merits, but the outcome is especially heartwarming because cheesemaking profits support a program that educates city kids about farm life. More than 12,000 disadvantaged fifth- and sixth-graders have spent a free week in the “classroom” at Spring Brook Farm.
Myself, I fell hard for St. Malachi, a hybrid cow’s milk cheese incorporating both Gouda and alpine techniques. Aged for a year in natural caves, it was sweet and nutty, with whiskey and butterscotch aromas. Flawless cheese.
Four other cheeses from the competition that I can’t wait to encounter again:
Arethusa Farm Arethusa Blue (Connecticut): Farmstead cow’s milk cheese; buttery and toasty, reminiscent of Saltine crackers
Briar Rose Creamery Brigid’s Bender (Oregon): An aged goat’s milk wheel washed in Pinot Noir. Smooth and mellow, with a subtle winey note. And such a beauty.
Prodigal Farm Rowdy Gentleman (North Carolina): Supple, yeasty beer-washed goat cheese
Tucker Family Farm Feta (Montana): Awesome sheep’s milk feta, creamy and tangy, from a diversified farm milking about 100 sheep.
By the way, Tarentaise Reserve is not the only repeat Best of Show winner. Wisconsin’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve, from Uplands Cheese Company, has won three times. Given the growth in the competition entries, another three-peat seems unlikely.
Cheese Class: Cheese Meets Beer
Monday, August 14
Silverado Cooking School
5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Even wine lovers have to admit that some cheeses don’t play nice with wine. Craft beer to the rescue! For every cheese, even the most challenging types, there’s a brew that pairs to perfection. I’ll prove it to you tonight as we “work” through seven awesome cheese and beer matchups. Joining me to provide color commentary on the beers: Jack Hyland, Certified Cicerone for Fieldwork Brewing.