Chapel Hill Creamery Asiago takes Best in Show at State Fair

With cheese’s ‘intense nutty and fruity flavor,’ eatery triumphs again

kpoe@newsobserver.comOctober 5, 2012 

— After sampling 95 cheeses from around the state and beyond, judges of the second-annual N.C. State Fair international cheese competition chose a winner from the Triangle.

An Asiago from the Chapel Hill Creamery won the titles of “Best from North Carolina” and “Best in Show,” beating cheeses from Australia, Texas, Maine, Tennessee and elsewhere in North Carolina.

“It’s got a really nice, intense nutty and fruity flavor that’s got a lot of depth to it,” said MaryAnne Drake, head judge and professor of sensory analysis and flavor chemistry at N.C. State University.

Judges began the six-hour process of tasting cheeses from 19 cheese makers at 7:30 a.m. A technical judge and an aesthetic judge each evaluated half of the cheeses based on criteria from the American Cheese Society. A local food blogger joined in, so the cheese could be judged from a consumer’s point of view, said Steve Lathrop, state Department of Agriculture spokesman. All five judges evaluated the four finalists.

Winning cheeses stayed true to their type in terms of flavor, texture and feel in the mouth, said Michele Lacatena, aesthetic judge and regional associate coordinator at Whole Foods Market.

“They have to have a nice, lingering finish, nothing off-tasting,” Lacatena said.

The top four cheeses will be on display in the Education Building at the State Fair, which opens Thursday. All of the cheeses will be sampled and, except for the Australian cheese, sold at the fair. The top cheese will be auctioned.

Money raised from the fair will go to N.C. Dairy Advantage, a state program that aims to help and grow North Carolina’s dairy industry.

The American Cheese Society held its annual conference in Raleigh in August, which allowed the Department of Agriculture to recruit cheese makers for the State Fair competition, Lathrop said. There were only 23 entries last year.

Chapel Hill Creamery won the 2011 competition as well. Co-owner Portia McKnight said the creamery’s careful attention to detail from start to finish makes its cheese stand out, which is why the creamery has its own cows.

“We’re very insistent on excellent health in our herd,” McKnight said. “We’re very proud of our animal crowd, and that leads us to great milk.”

MaryAnne Drake’s sister, Stephanie Drake, was a technical judge Friday. She’s a principal scientist for Daisy Brand dairy products in Garland, Texas, and tastes a lot of dairy products, but never 40-something cheeses in a day. The task seemed daunting at first, she said.

To keep their edge, Stephanie Drake said, judges drank lots of water, took their time between cheeses and ate unsalted plain crackers to cleanse their pallets between entries.

And they didn’t actually eat the cheese; judges sniffed and tasted each one before spitting them out.

Poe: 919-829-4563

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