The thought of reviewing the “Best of Show” winner from the American Cheese Society awards is, honestly, a little daunting. After all, you’ve surely already read all about this seasonally-produced, leaf-wrapped, buttery blue from central Oregon. You probably have heard of Rogue Creamery, one of the West Coast’s most celebrated cheese producers. (Did you know they were the first to export American raw-milk cheese to Europe? That they test every batch of milk to ensure it’s antibiotic and growth-hormone free? That the founder, Tom Vella, spent three months studying blue cheese making in Roquefort, France?) Honestly, I could describe Rogue River Blue in one word: yum. But perhaps you’d like a little more description.

This particular cheese is a testament to Oregon’s terroir.  It is made only for a short window in the fall (during the autumnal equinox and winter solstice) when the milk is at its highest butterfat content. The cheese is wrapped in Syrah grape leaves from nearby Carpenter Hill Vineyards; the leaves are first macerated in locally-made Clear Creek Pear Brandy. The cheese is aged in caves built to resemble the famed caves of Roquefort, allowing natural molds of the Rogue River Valley to ripen the cheese. The resulting cheese develops a wonderful, complex flavor. It is buttery, silky and rich, sweet with soft fruit flavors and a slight smokiness.

Not having any Clear Creek on hand, I tasted this with a sip of my post-dinner Dark n’ Stormy. Maybe not a perfect pairing, but the ginger was an interesting match. Of course it goes without saying that a fresh pear will make a lovely companion for a hunk of this blue.

By the way, Rogue River Blue’s 2009 release started shipping yesterday, so head to your favorite local cheesemonger … right now!

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Noted in the cheese world this week…

photo (c) Oregon Bounty/Greg Robeson

photo (c) Oregon Bounty/Greg Robeson

* Be a Cheesemaker: We thought Jasper Hill Farm was clever with their luring in of eager cheese loyalists as willing labor; the Oregon Tourism Commission takes it a step further and uses hard labor at Rogue Creamery as a contest reward. We kid… who wouldn’t enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at Oregon’s most award-winning creamery plus a chance to get your hands dirty making cheese-filled truffles next door at Lillie Belle? Submit a video by next Friday, September 18 to enter to win this or one of the other “Cuisinternships” offered.

* NY Cheese Cook-off: In Brooklyn, NY, intrepid cooks will face-off this Sunday, September 13, in The Brooklyn Cheese Experiment, a cheese cook-off and home brew competition. Aside from the potential fame and glory of winning, a portion of proceeds from ticket sales will benefit Ovarian Cancer Research. 

* A Buffalo Taleggio? You heard it here first: Taleggio is the in cheese for fall. Janet Fletcher declares Quadrello di Bufala, a new buffalo-milk Taleggio-style cheese from Lombardy, a “must taste” cheese, and Tia Keenan concurs, describing it as “faboosh.” Have you gotten your hands on it yet? Let us know! 

* On the CheeseBlogs: Welcome to The Cheese Freak! The newest blog to join the caseosphere, The Cheese Freak (@thecheesefreak on twitter) has launched a project to chronicle himself and friends geeking out over cheese via video posts.  

* Briefly Noted: The fall issue of Culture is on the newsstands, or at your local cheese shop, and looking fabulous; and join us in wishing Cheesetique in Alexandria, VA, a happy 5th birthday! 

Calling all Cheesemakers:
got news to share? email dccheese @ gmail.com to be included in our weekly news highlights.

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)

It’s been an exciting week here at C+C. Not only did Colleen and I get to see each other for the first time in more than a year (!), we spent a fabulous three days eating our way through New York City. We’ll have lots more to share about our NYC cheese adventures next week, but we won’t keep you waiting any longer for our report from the big gig: the 2009 Fancy Food Show.

yes, that is a humboldt fog wedding cake

yes, that is a humboldt fog wedding cake

The Fancy Food Show is the biannual event of the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT), and it’s like Nirvana for anyone who loves food. Since it’s a trade show, it’s not open to the general public, but as the co-writers/publishers of a top 10 cheese blog, Colleen and I were able to attend as part of the press corps. (We felt very official.) Unfortunately, our busy schedules allowed us to spend only four hours at the show and we barely scratched the surface, but we did get to visit a number of cheese-centric booths and taste lots of cheese.

The high and low points of the show:

Hits

  • Meeting some of our favorite cheesemakers, like Mary Keehn from Cypress Grove Chevre and Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm. Both were generous with their time and samples, and Mateo even mentioned that he put a link to our
    talking cheddar with Lucy of Neals Yard Dairy

    talking cheddar with Lucy of Neal's Yard Dairy

    Winnimere review on Jasper Hill Farm’s Facebook page. (Thanks, Mateo!) Mary posed for a quick photo with us just hours before it was announced that her Truffle Tremor won the sofi for best product in the cheese/dairy category at the show. A well-deserved honor! We also had fun chatting with the folks from Faribault Dairy and Grafton Village

  • Learning about new cheese partnerships, such as Faribault Dairy and Grafton Village’s new collaboration on Clothbound Cheddar. Vermont-based Grafton Village now sends its Clothbound Cheddar to Minnesota to age in Faribault’s famed sandstone caves. British cheese powerhouse Neal’s Yard Dairy is also working with Colston Bassett Dairy to age its Stilton, and the union results in a creamier, tangier blue cheese that we really enjoyed.
  • Finding some untasted cheeses on our list, like the triple-crème Brie from the Marin French Cheese Company and the Rogue River Blue from Rogue Creamery. (Washed down with a gulp of Rogue Chocolate Stout, yum.) Watch for our upcoming reviews over the next few weeks!
  • Discovering new products to pair with our cheeses. You’ll have to stay tuned for specifics, but let’s just say there was no shortage of chocolate, crackers, oils, teas, coffees and more. (Imagine if we’d had time to sample all the adult beverages, too!)

Misses

  • Unfriendly French cheese exhibitors. The only way we were able to sample any French cheeses was to linger around the cheese displays for approximately 10 minutes before the person working the booth would even pay attention to us. Memo to the French: The reason why people come to the show is to taste your cheese. It’s really hard for them to do that if you ignore them.

    perfect pairings from rogue and rogue ale

    perfect pairings from rogue and rogue ale

  • Absent American cheese exhibitors … and too much floor space. We had hoped to try more new American cheeses, but were disappointed to find the Capriole Goat Cheese booth unmanned. Others we just didn’t make it to (Utah’s Beehive, Coach Farm) in our short amount of time. It would’ve been nice if the American cheesemakers’ booths were less spread out (own pavilion next year, perhaps?), though I imagine people with more time to spend grazing benefited from other snacks between cheese samples. 
  • Our wimpy stomachs. We didn’t eat breakfast that day in order to leave room for lots of cheese samples, but we still became full relatively quickly. Perhaps it was the dozen or so cheeses we had sampled the day before. Or the large iced coffees we drank on the walk to the show. Or the three desserts we shared during the previous night’s dinner at Casellula. Anyway, we were stuffed much earlier than I had anticipated. I managed to recover in time to try a Magnolia Bakery cupcake at 10 p.m. that night. Colleen said she choked down half a sandwich during her bus ride back to D.C.

Did you attend this year’s Fancy Food Show? Any stories or tidbits to share? Spill them here!

(And another miss, from Colleen – using the iPhone instead of a real camera. Um, duh. Will bring better equipment next year!)

We could recommend some of our favorite hoity-toity American cheeses to mark our nation’s 233rd birthday, but let’s be honest — the only cheese most Americans will be chowing down on on Saturday are those slathered over a juicy slab of beef* (or turkey or tofu). The New York Times today offered advice on creating the perfect burger, but in our not-so-humble opinion, the real ingredient to watch is the cheese. You might enjoy a healthy dollop of Roquefort or an Irish cheddar on your every day burgers, but needless to say the 4th of July calls for more patriotic selections. Fortunately, American cheesemakers are a force to be reckoned with (and they were a large contingent of the cheese crew that made up the largest single food category at this week’s Fancy Food Show).

If you prefer a classic burger, try a cheddar from Vermont’s Grafton Village, and you can’t go wrong with Jasper Hill’s Bayley Hazen or Rogue Creamery’s Smokey Blue.

For a Greek-American burger, dress it up with Hidden Hills Dairy Bolton Feta (from Pennsylvania) or goats’ milk feta from Mozzarella Company of Texas. 

Stink it up with Meadow Creek’s Grayson, an American tallegio (the 2009 batch has just been released), or go for total sensory overload with a dollop of Cypress Grove’s Truffle Tremor.

If you really just have to have individually-wrapped slices of pre-cut cheese — well, you probably aren’t reading this blog. But just in case, let me point you toward Tillamook’s cheddar cheese singles so you can still enjoy the convenience without compromising on a “cheese food product.”

If you need additional incentive to seek out artisanal American cheeses for your July 4th celebration, see the “Cheese as an Act of Patriotism” post at The Saxelby Almanac. And tell us, what’s the best cheese and beef pairing you’ve ever had??

(*I’m going to assume you’re using local, grassfed and e.coli-free ground beef, but here’s some advice if you need help finding a local beef provider – and check out the craft beer finder to find a good patriotic beer to wash it down.)

Putting thoughts of the French countryside aside for now, I had the “rainy day blues” when I stopped into the cheesemonger to pick a cheese for this week. I chose the Crater Lake Blue from Oregon’s famed Rogue Creamery, one I usually overlook in favor of Rogue’s Smokey Blue, a personal favorite.

Crater Lake Blue is made from raw cows’ milk, and like a certain other blue cheese from abroad, is sharp, salty and tangy. Its bite was a little firmer than the Roquefort, but as far as taste I’d have to say this is the closest I’ve tasted yet from a domestic rival.*

The deeply blue-green veining of this cheese provides a lovely contrast to some fresh spring cheeses on a seasonal cheese board. Crater Lake Blue stays fairly firm as it comes to room temperature, so makes a fine snack with some of last year’s last pears. Or, melt a pat on top of a (local, grass-fed) steak for a decadent Sunday night treat. You can’t go wrong.

(*Speaking of which, we’ve been remiss in noting that the looming Roquefort tariff was postponed one month, until April 23. We’re watching anxiously to see if a peace accord was struck in the off-the-record chats of President Obama’s European tour.)