Thousands of people trek to the American Cheese Society conference every year to attend the Festival of Cheese, by far the most popular event of the annual shindig. And while I definitely look forward to trying not to get sick by eating 1,600 cheeses, my favorite ACS event instead happened tonight in a much smaller room, attended by far fewer people.
It’s a little thing called Meet the Cheesemaker.
I don’t know why, but I find something absolutely magical in walking around a room, eating cheese from dozens of different companies, and getting to shake hands and talk shop with the man or woman who makes each cheese. Every year, I especially try to seek out new and upcoming cheeses, and this year did not disappoint. A few discoveries of the evening:
Mountina, Vintage Cheese Company, Montana
This washed rind cheese is made by cheesemaker brothers Dwayne and Darryl Heap, both of whom attended tonight’s Meet the Cheesemaker. The pair market their cheese as “an Alpine cheese from the mountains of … Montana.”
The pair have been been making thier Mountina cheese since 2009, but just released a new version called Mocha Mountina, which is washed with coffee and cocoa beans. Surprisingly, the coffee compliments the natural nutty flavor of the cheese.
The Heaps’ father, a cheesemaker by trade, came up with the coffee and cocoa bean wash recipe before passing last year. Larry Brog, of the famed Swiss cheesemaking family of Star Valley, Wyoming, helped the Heaps perfect the recipe and method. And to tie it all together, Larry’s uncle, Paul, a Swiss immigrant and cheesemaker, trained Dwayne and Darryl’s grandfather to make cheese. It’s a long and winding story, but the cheese is totally worth it.
Shepherd’s Basket, Valley Shepherd Cheese, New Jersey
Eran and Debra Wajswol host between 20,000 and 30,000 tourists at their farm every year. Built as a family destination, agri-tourism site, Valley Shepherd Cheese is making some pretty good cheeses from the milk of their 600 sheep, 30 goats and 20 cows. My favorite is Shepherd’s Basket, a Manchego-style, raw sheep’s milk cheese made in a five-pound wheel with basket-like weave rind.
I’d love to show you a picture of this beauty, but when I asked my hubby to get a shot of it, he instead took a close-up of a cotton-ball sheep with googly eyes sitting on the Valley Shepherd Cheese table. Sigh. So you’ll just have to take my word for it – this cheese is a keeper.
Le Sein d’Helene, La Moutonniere, Quebec, Canada
This cheese was quite popular with the fellows at the Meet the Cheesemaker event, as it is shaped like and named for a woman’s breast. Cheesemaker Lucille Giraux said she created the cheese to represent the mountains of where she lives, and then thought of the name afterward, in honor of her village, Ste. Helene-de Chester in Quebec.
Made from a mixture of sheep and Jersey cow milk, Le Sein d’Helene has a natural rind and is aged between two and four months. It’s sweet and buttery, which makes it the perfect table cheese. If only I could get this in the United States. Sigh.
Espresso Bellavitano, Sartori, Plymouth, Wisconsin
Master Cheesemaker Mike Matucheski has done it again. The wizard behind Sartori’s line of fruity BellaVitano cheeses, the company’s newest offering is Espresso BellaVitano, rubbed with oil and espresso beans and then cured between two and six months, allowing the espresso flavor to work its way through the rind and into the heart of the cheese.
While in Montreal this week, I learned something new about BellaVitano. The cheese was actually inspired by a cheesemaking trip to Italy, where the Sartori cheesemakers tasted Piave, an intense, full-bodied cheese, reminiscent of Parmigiano Reggiano. The team returned to Wisconsin with a mission to make their own style of the same cheese, and voila … BellaVitano was born. In the process, they created an American Original beloved by many.
Thanks to all the cheesemakers to attended tonight’s event – it was awesome to meet each and every one of you!