San Francisco Days: WFFS & CMI

Phew. I’m tired y’all. Like the kind of tired that makes you go to bed before dinner but I’m also inspired. The kind of inspired that has me planning trips to see producers and tell their stories. I’ve got some fun stuff lined up but first we should delve in to the world of Food Shows.

Last year was my first experience at the Winter Fancy Food show and I feel like I wandered around looking scared. It’s HUGE. Thousands of foodstuffs in multiple halls competing for your attention. It was so overwhelming that after a short walk around, I just stayed in the cheese area because that’s where all my friends were and the only place I felt I belonged.

This year I got to work with one of my favorite producers, Quince and Apple. It’s a different world working behind the scenes in something like this. Thousands of people looking at what you have and talking non stop. It’s fun and invigorating though the hours on your feet are long. It starts to feel a bit like summer camp because you get to see all of your friends every day and make a ton of new ones. Walking down the aisles, saying good morning to everyone as they busily prep for the day is one of my favorite things about the show. It becomes a mini city of food and like any good neighborhood, you get to know your neighbors well. The sense of community that permeates the show is why I continue to be involved.

This week entailed more than just that though. There was also the Cheesemonger Invitational which is a duel to the death between cheesemongers. Ok, ok, nobody dies but these kids get to show off their stuff in a series of tests that challenge their knowledge and creativity. It’s a big cheese party and everyone is invited! Since I was busy working upstairs I didn’t get to take many pictures but I was able to capture this little video of the perfect bites before they were devoured.


Thank goodness they were projecting the competition behind me so I could see Alex from Mission Cheese take second place!

This is really the tiniest snapshot of what my week looked like. I spent three days working the Fancy Food Show and CMI was on Sunday night but soooooo much more happened this last week.

You’ll have to stay tuned for more updates and producer profiles! I promise it will be worth the wait!

ACS: Judging and Competition.

To me, judging is one of the hardest jobs of the American Cheese Society conference. It may not be as physically taxing as say, a cooler captain, but it can not be understated how difficult it can be on your brain and taste buds. There is a whole lot of cheese to get through and only two days to do it!

DSC_0180This is what the racks look like when they come out and the cooler captain is in charge of making sure that the racks are in order with the right cheeses and in the right category. Depending on the category, there can be 20 or more cheeses that need to be tasted for judging. There are often multiple pieces for each entry and only one piece needs to be tasted but it’s just easier to keep them all together because their life extends well beyond judging.

Judges are separated in to teams. One aesthetic and one technical. This is an important thing to note because both are looking for different things and if we had multiple teams of aesthetic judges there would very different outcomes than what we see today. Aesthetic judges tend to be cheesemongers, shop owners, or general cheese enthusiasts and the technical judges are those that are often dairy scientists, working at the center for Dairy Research, or a university with an active agriculture program. The judges go through trainings to calibrate their palates so everyone is on the same page but the amount of tasting fatigue experienced can be hard to remedy when tasting so many¬†cheeses. It is also difficult recognizing some of your favorite cheeses come through and being perfectly honest and frank about their flavor profiles or inconsistencies in the batches they have selected for judging. One of the things that people don’t realize or know is that every cheese gets feedback. Positive and constructive criticism. Sometimes it can be difficult to say anything constructive because it can seem like the cheese is perfect (and there were even a few this year that took home a perfect score, which is unheard of) and sometimes it can be hard to say something positive because you’ve either exhausted your words for the day or the simple fact remains that in a numbers game like this, there are bound to be some real duds.

Just imagine, also, that you’ve already tasted through a bevy of cheese and then have to prepare your tastebuds for the ultimate tasting, the Best in Show category. The blue ribbons in each category are pulled to the side and set up for a round table tasting of epic proportions. This year we prepared 105 cheeses for Best in Show tasting. It’s an amazing ordeal and I always feel so proud to be able to be a part of this particular tasting.

From here, the results are tallied and sent off to the printer to prepare for the Friday night awards ceremony. The J&C committees jobs, including my time as a cooler captain, are done but the cheese is passed on to the next set of volunteers for the Festival of Cheese.

To see life from the other side of the curtain, check out my friend Gordon Edgar’s post on being a judge. There is some great info on how they can judge all those cheeses.


The next installment though, regional tours. I went on a PORK TOUR!

A quick Portland trip. 

I have a long and storied history with Portland. I grew up in a small town just 30 miles outside of the city so a good portion of my teen years were spent doing anything I could to hang out there. The nineties were a fun time to be in Portland. The grunge scene had put a spotlight on the Pacific Northwest and Portland had a minor glow from Seattle’s success. Music and art was a plenty. I left for a few years, looking for somewhere to call home, but nothing sat with me as well as Portland did. I moved back and spent nine years watching the city change and while I still love it there, it’s not home for me anymore. The city is almost unrecognizable in certain areas and things I loved about it are slowly dying. I had a first hand view of it and I couldn’t watch the city I love being changed so much. It’s one of the main reasons I left. I know that Seattle has had huge changes also but it can be a bit easier to take when you don’t have such a strong emotional connection to the past. There are times when it’s hard to visit Portland because of the change and then there are times where I’m reminded of why I still love that city.

 One of the reasons I love going home is because the cheese game in Portland is quite strong and it’s in large part to the empire that Steve Jones has created with Cheese Bar, Chizu, and his newest venture The Cheese Annex at Common’s Brewery. I used to live within walking distance to Cheese Bar and it was one of my favorite places to hang out. Steve has impeccable taste so not only are his cheese selections top notch but his beer and wine selections are amazingly rich and diverse. I may not drink anymore but I still can see the talented palate that Steve has. I had made a stop at Cheese Bar and the Annex last week when I was in town  but knowing I would be in town again the next week, I contacted my friend Dave Selden (owner of 33 Books) to see if he would join me for a trip to Chizu. 

Find Dave’s awesome tasting journals at 33 Books

 Chizu is more of a concept than Cheese Bar which is exactly what the name implies, a bar with cheese. Chizu has taken Japanese style elements and applied them to a cheese plate. You can order by the piece or you can give the mongers a price and they will give you a plate omakase style. The fun of a place like this is all about the mongers. I left it up to them to provide us with a plate of things that were new and tasting fantastic right now. 

Sarah and Madilyn, the mongers, really hit the nail on the head. They gave me some old favorites that I hadn’t had in quite some time, Viegadarte, Paesanella, and Quadrello di Bufala, but they pulled out some show stoppers I hadn’t yet tried, Saulnois, Carbicharme, and Heublumen. They even tasted us on the Chiriboga blue with some dried Oregon Bing cherries. (Confession time, I’m not a huge blue cheese fan. I’m coming around but it’s not really my first choice. This combo though was a delight!) My personal favorite, the Carbicharme. The texture was perfect, the flavor was sweet, creamy, and just the perfect amount of funk to get your tastebuds dancing. Add in the house spiced nuts, Girl Meet Dirt Shiro Plum with Mint spoon preserves, Meadowfoam Honey, and a few dried fruit and any cheese fanatic would be satiated. 

Tasty and pretty! 

Simple style elements make it inviting. 

 Steve has been working his fingers to the bone but there seems to be no signs of stopping him. He is going to continue bringing great cheese to the masses in Portland in as many ways as he can. 

For cheese plates and bottled beer:

 Chizu 1126  SW Alder St Portland, OR 97205

For a proper cheese counter,small plates, and a vast array of beer and wine:

Cheese Bar 6031 SE Belmont St Portland, OR 97215

For nibbles while you drink:

Cheese Annex at Common’s Brewery 630 SE Belmont St Portland, OR 97214