North Carolina’s cheesemakers have duked it out for “Best in Show” at the State Fair for four years now, and each year Chapel Hill Creamery has swept the competition.
Chapel Hill Creamery’s Calvander took the blue ribbon this year for the third time. The only other cheese to win the competition was the creamery’s Camembert soft cheese, which took the prize last year.
On Friday morning, six local and visiting judges sniffed, nibbled and examined 76 cheeses from 15 competitors for more than four hours. With no wine in sight, they kept bite-sized crackers and water on hand.
Three teams of two judges weighed several of the 16 different classes, which included various textures and consistencies of cheeses made with milk from goats, cows and even sheep.
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One judge on each team examined aesthetics in ways most cheese eaters don’t consider: Did the flavor have a pleasant tartness? Was there even distribution of aging crystals in the body? The other awarded half of the total points for technicalities: Did the cheese emit an animal or barnyard aroma? Did the body seem “corky” or “gassy”?
A soft cheese crumbled in Texas dairy scientist Stephenie Drake’s hands as she gingerly opened the packaging.
“Well, that’s not fair,” she said. “There goes aesthetics.”
MaryAnne Drake, who teaches flavor and flavor chemistry in dairy products at N.C. State University, describes tasting dairy products as a captivating entwining of art and science.
“The beautiful thing about cheese and a lot of dairy products is that they are very much an art, but they are also a science,” said Drake, who has been at it for more than 20 years. “From my perspective tasting gives you the real depth and breadth of the art. As a scientist, you can go back through each of those steps and really understand the chemistry and the processing and how they directly influence flavor.”
The judges admitted that their notes were often tough, but ultimately the comments that are shared with the makers provide constructive feedback to help them improve. The exposure at the fair and blue ribbons also help with marketing.
The number of entries in this year’s State Fair competition was about double last year’s while the number of cheesemakers involved tripled. Participation rose even though the number of licensed makers in the state has dropped from nearly 50 to 38, said organizer Steve Lathrop, a marketer for the N.C. Department of Agriculture.
Lathrop thinks the industry is maturing along with its products.
Competition is better, since cheeses are improving, making picking winners more difficult and weeding out businesses that just couldn’t make it. As cheesemakers continue to enter the fair, their products improve in quality and consistency, Lathrop said.
State Fair visitors will be able to sample and purchase most of the 76 cheeses in the competition and visit the blue ribbon display featuring the champion Calvander.
Judge Maggie Bradshaw, a cheesemonger at Southern Season in Chapel Hill, says that public awareness and interest in specialty cheese is growing.
“People like to buy local stuff, and farms are more willing to experiment with new types of cheeses,” Bradshaw said.
MaryAnne Drake noted that the flavors that the average consumer enjoys usually differ from the palates of expert judges.
“I like that big broad picture where there is something for everybody,” she said, adding, “I like a good, aged, nutty, caramelized Gouda with some spicy, beefy notes to it.”