Artisans vie for ‘big cheese’ at NC State Fair

akenney@newsobserver.comOctober 11, 2013 

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    Going to the fair

    The N.C. State Fair runs Oct. 17 through 27 at the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh. Tickets are $7 for adults and $3 for children until Oct. 17. Tickets are sold at ncstatefair.org and at several locations, including the fairgrounds.

CORRECTIONS: This article misattributed a judge's quote to organizer Steve Lathrop. Additionally, it was mistakenly reported the cheese competition was the fair's first event, when a beer contest was judged several days earlier. Corrections made at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013.

RALEIGH -- By midmorning Friday, the panel of judges had tried more cheeses than any dinner party guest would ever endure. And, like dinner guests, the cheeses came in many varieties: Some were salty, some were smoky, some beautiful but shallow, and a few divine.

The competition was one of the first events of the N.C. State Fair, and it featured the cream of the crop from North Carolina’s fledgling cheese scene: rounds, hunks and blocks shipped from across the state – and one from abroad – stripped of identifying marks and nibbled down by discerning mouths.

There was so much cheese, about 30 pounds in all, piled up in a basement classroom at N.C. State University for the tasting panel. Toward the end, it seemed like even the cheesemongers and dairy scientists were tired of it.

“We’re ready for another category. We’re getting to the end of this stuff,” said MaryAnne Drake, a professor of flavor and flavor chemistry in dairy products at N.C. State University.

They’d tasted Asiago and blue, goat, cow and sheep cheese, among others. They shaved down blocks with knives, extracted cheese cores, and spooned off soft, ripe cheeses.

“That smells really nice – smell that,” said the labcoat-wearing Drake, passing a slug of cheese to the tattooed hands of a man with thick-rimmed glasses.

“It’s really good,” replied Matt Hart, the top cheese buyer for Southern Season. “It’s super consistent.”

The best-traveled cheese came from an Australian producer, while the only other non-North Carolina cheese was lost in the post from Ohio. Still, organizers included an international category.

Part of the competition’s goal is to expand the brand of the state’s cheese. Organizer Steve Lathrop, a marketer for the N.C. Department of Agriculture, has been hitting the road on behalf of the young industry and the younger-still competition, which is only in its third year. He recently landed in Wisconsin, trying to attract cheese makers to join the fair’s annual contest.

“They thought that was great that North Carolina was doing that,” he said. But “some of the big cheese makers I talked to said, ‘Well, that’s just not worth our time. It’s a small market.’”

Even so, the fair competition has draw, especially among a growing regional cheese scene. It’s up to about 45 cheeses from nine entrants compared with its first year’s field of six cheese makers and 19 cheeses. (The numbers are down, however, from last year, when entrants overflowed from the American Cheese Society’s conference in Raleigh.)

“I remember for years that there was not a cheese competition at the N.C. State Fair,” said Portia McKnight, a co-owner of Chapel Hill Creamery. “There was biscuits and pies and cakes, and then there was wine and vegetables and livestock, but there wasn’t cheese for a long time.”

In all, organizers estimate there are 50 cheese makers in North Carolina. McKnight, whose Asiago won the first two “Best in Show” awards, sees a fair competition as a way to bring together cheese makers – or their cheeses at least. None of the producers were present at Friday’s judging session, in part to spare them the occasional bad review.

“I taste nothing. It’s like a blank slate. No bad flavors, no good flavors,” said Drake, a technical judge, of one “American Original.”

“It’s really pretty,” said Hart, an aesthetic judge.

“So sad,” Drake concluded. “There’s nothing wrong with it. … You could certainly sell it.”

After a few hours of tasting, the six judges gathered around a table to review the top-ranking competitors. The final competition boiled down to an Australian cheese and a soft cheese by McKnight and her partner, Flo Hawley.

There was a brief debate – some judges said they just couldn’t endorse an Australian cheese for the top award at the State Fair, while others simply preferred the Chapel Hill Creamery product.

Ultimately, McKnight and Hawley won, maintaining their status as the only grand-prize winners for the State Fair’s cheese competition.

McKnight and Hawley started their creamery 12 years ago and now graze 35 Jersey cows on a 37-acre farm in Orange County. In that time, they’ve had to learn quickly what traditional cheese makers have been doing for centuries. For the Camembert-inspired style that won this year, McKnight said, the draining of the whey from the curd is essential.

“If you don’t nail it, then you either end up with a hockey puck or a puddle on the plate,” she said. “We’ve been working on that cheese for years now.”

The winners and other cheeses will be sold at the fair. And at the end of the judging, somehow, the expert panel was ready for more.

“This is a really good cleanser,” Hart said, spooning out one more dollop of smoked chèvre.

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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