At the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival I set the cheese down just for a moment to test my new Flip recorder on a willing subject, Steve Getz of Dancing Cow Farmstead Cheese. He credited his wife Mary with the decision to make this particular award-winning batch of Menuet during a particularly lush few days on the couple’s farm, but she demurred to Steve to take the lead on camera.

As Steve explains, Menuet was Dancing Cow’s first cheese and has been somewhat overlooked in favor of their more well-known washed-rind Bourrée, which also ages at the Cellars at Jasper Hill. But here’s the story of Menuet, third-place finisher in the open category, cow’s milk, at the 2009 American Cheese Society awards:

Steve Getz chats about Dancing Cow Menuet from Colleen Levine on Vimeo.

Dancing Cow Farm is located in the Champlain Valley, and comprised of organically-maintained pasture on which their happy Jersey and Guernsey (and a few other breeds in the mix) dairy cows feed. Their newest cheese, Sarabande, is exquisite — a silky, pungent, washed-rind cheese made in a triangular Valencay mold (shh, don’t tell the French cheese enforcers!). In fact, the name comes from a forbidden Spanish dance. As with all Dancing Cow’s cheeses, it is made from fresh, uncooled raw milk of a single milking. You can taste the care and love in each of their cheeses, and I encourage you to seek them out at your local cheese shop.

P.S. I noticed Cheesetique has Bourée in stock right now, for all you DC/VA cheese fans.

Vermont Cheese Week resumes here on Cheese + Champagne, now that yours truly has reluctantly returned back south. Stay tuned for more virtual postcards from Vermont and a taste of Brooklyn’s cheese world as well.

The vast estate of Shelburne Farms served as host of the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival, and perhaps my biggest regret of the weekend was not spending more time touring the 1,400-acre non-profit farm. The farm is located just a few miles south of Burlington, and after driving up from Albany, NY, through the Champlain Valley we turned onto the dirt road into the farm expecting to see your usual grassy fields and dairy cows milling about. Sure enough, we were greeted by some meandering Brown Swiss cows, but we were surprised by the lush, FSC-certified forest, gorgeous 19th-century architecture, and most of all, to come around a bend and see this view of the lake.

Stunning, even on the dreary grey afternoon.

The festival was hosted in one of the barns, and the Shelburne Farms table was one of the first we visited. I was eager to try the 2-year-aged cheddar, another Vermont cheese on our Wine Spectator list; my sister-in-law and son were smitten with the smoked cheddar. (They’re not alone; Shelburne’s smoked cheddar won best of its kind at the American Cheese Society awards, one of the farm’s four blue ribbons this year.)

The farm was created as a model agricultural estate by William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb (yes, those Vanderbilts) in 1886, and became a non-profit in 1972. The cheese is just one part of the farm’s environmentally and economically sustainable programs; the green-certified timber is sold to local furniture-makers, and they lease land that houses the vineyards and winery for Shelburne Vineyards, organically cultivating climate-appropriate grapes to make high quality Vermont wines.  The herd of 200 purebred Brown Swiss dairy cows are grazed rotationally, meadows maintained without the use of chemical inputs and minimizing run-off; the cheese is even Humane Certified, making them just the third cheesemaker in the US to obtain the designation.

Okay, that’s all wonderful you say, but how does it taste? The cheddars are creamy, sharp and flavorful. The smoked cheddar had just enough smoke to lend flavor without overwhelming the sweet creamy cheddar base. The 2-year-cheddar was sharper, but again not overwhelmingly so; just enough bite to balance the creamy, nutty flavors. The cheeses are clearly a favorite of the locals, we spotted this display (above center) at Burlington’s Cheese Traders shop. It was a little early for apple season that far north — the u-pick blueberry patches were still open on our drive up — but if you have a chance to pick up Shelburne’s cheddar, I feel comfortable guaranteeing you’ll enjoy it on a grilled-cheese-and-apple sandwich this fall. It certainly went well with the Harpoon hard cider we sampled at the festival.

The American Cheese Society award winners were announced last night at the 26th annual conference and competition in Austin, Texas. This year saw a record-setting 197 producers from 32 states, Canada and Mexico, and the judging committee had the enviable task of tasting 1,327 cheeses and dairy products to determine this year’s winners.  The “Best in Show” award went to…. Oregon’s Rogue Creamery* for Rogue River Blue!  In second place is Cowgirl Creamery‘s Red Hawk (CA). Third place is a tie between Consider Bardwell‘s Rupert (VT) and Carr Valley‘s Cave Aged Mellage (WI). You can view the complete results here (link is a pdf file). Unfortunately Rogue River Blue is a seasonal cheese; we tasted the last of the 2008 batch at the Fancy Food Show in June, you’ll have to wait till the new batch is released in October and make due with another of Rogue’s wonderful blues in the meantime.

A few highlights:

In the “American Originals” category:

  • 1st place, cow, Roth Kase USA (WI), Valfino (in a tie for 3rd, Vermont Ayr by Crawford Family Farm/Cellars at Jasper Hill)
  • 1st place, goat, Carr Valley Cheese Co. (WI), Cocoa Cardona
  • 1st place, sheep or mixed, Carr Valley Cheese Co. (WI), Cave-Aged Mellage. (Carr Valley nearly swept this category with 2nd place for Marisa and 3rd place (tie) for Shepherd’s Blend.)

Some surprises, notably:

  • Cellars at Jasper Hill/Cabot Clothbound Cheddar was knocked out of first place in clothbound cheddars (aged less than 12 months) by Vermont upstart West River Creamery’s Cambridge Classic Reserve.
  • Beehive Cheese Company’s (UT) Barely Buzzed won the best flavored-with-things-that-aren’t-peppers cheddar category. (Okay, maybe not a surprise to the 99% of the cheese community who loves this cheese, but a surprise to me.) 

A couple local cheesemakers placed in their categories, though the Mid-Atlantic appears to have been denied any first place ribbons this year:

  • Meadow Creek (VA) Grayson, 2nd place in Washed-Rind, cow
  • Firefly Farms (MD) Bella Vita, 2nd place in International-Style, goat
  • Sweet Grass Dairy (GA) Kelle’s Blue, 2nd place in Blue-Veined, goat

Jill can claim a large number of winning Wisconsin cheeses as local to her, but we’ll also note that Hidden Springs Creamery (WI) Farmstead Feta took 1st place in Feta, sheep — not something you typically associate with Wisconsin cheese. Surfing Goat Dairy of Maui, which Jill wrote about earlier this year, placed 3rd in the flavor-added marinated category for their Maui Secret Sicily. And Minnesota’s PastureLand Cooperative took home ribbons for its butter (2nd place salted, 3rd place unsalted).

By the numbers:

  1. Wisconsin, 25 first place, 92 total
  2. California, 14 first place, 47 total
  3. Vermont, 14 first place, 33 total
  4. Oregon, 6 first place, 22 total
  5. New York, 4 first place, 19 total

Technically Quebec beats out New York with 8 first place, 20 total — but last I checked Quebec was not actually a state.

*Rogue’s Tom Van Voorhees and Steve Jones of Steve’s Cheese in Portland made up the winning team in the ACS’s first ever Merchandising Competition — congrats to Team Oregon! (and a thank you to Tami Parr for identifying the team members)