5th Annual Cheesemonger Invitational

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Sunday night, I went to a cold storage warehouse in Queens to the 5th Annual Cheesemonger Invitational, a battle of skill pitting monger against monger in a championship bout – and raucous cheese party. Forty six cheesemongers spent the previous two days in the preliminary stage of competition, judged on their knowledge, skill, taste, and charisma. Sunday night, the mongers presented their “perfect bites” to the public and the finalists (Top 11 this year) battled for the title. And welcoming us all to  The Cheesemongers Invitational this year was an adult man in a cow suit, Mr Moo aka Adam Moscowitz, the tournament’s fearless organizer.

Inside the warehouse, I walked a gauntlet of cheesemongers presenting their perfect bites. I had a clear favorite: Leslie Uhl from Di Bruno Bro’s in Philadelphia’s The Full Cremonty, a bright, fresh concoction of La Quercia, Thai Basil, Whipped Prosciutto, Key Lime Pie, Cremont. I wasn’t surprised when she was called as one of the top three best bites.

The competition rolled through rounds of cutting to weight, wrapping, “selling” the monger’s favorite cheese, a beer pairing, and finally the winner was announced: the first NYC based female monger to win, Emily Acosta of Eataly.

Seeing the group of cheesemongers who were competing, the cheesemakers and writers and business owners attending the competition reinforced for me my belief in the importance of those whose role is to match-make between food and the inexperienced eater. In the hands of a snob, cheese becomes  the apocryphal vol au vent of larks tongue, inaccessible and unappealing; in the hands of a pedant, it becomes boring. But cheese making and selling is hard, dirty work, work that is often fueled by passion above profit, for love of the fascinating world of milk and microbes and cows, goats, sheep, of grass and earth.

For me cheese is the “everyman” artisan food in large part because of the kind of people who make and sell cheese. I don’t want to generalize, but wine can have an intimidating aura surrounding it, walls reinforced by the vocabulary and cost. Cheese people may take their work seriously, but they seldom take themselves too seriously. They tend to be generous people, knowing that what they do enhances and is enhanced by the good work of other artisans.

I also see cheese as the food to help a larger swathe of the public appreciate why a slower food system is worth supporting. It has been exciting to see the growth and refinement in the craft and business of cheese that has taken place in the last few decades; new creameries are coming to market all the time and cheesemakers are refining their skills to produce world-class cheeses that can hold their own against anything from Europe.

The people who sell wine, cheese, or any new food to people are the ambassadors for that product and as such, their approach to neophytes can either open or close the door on exploration. During a trip to Europe in my early twenties, I visited a cheese shop in Rotterdam. I had read  David Lansing’s Confessions of a Cheese Smuggler describing the raunchy sticky glory that is Epoisses de Bourgogne. I really wanted to try it in Europe where it is made with raw milk but being young and on a tight budget and a little intimidated by the Euro I was a little afraid to ask for it lest I accidentally find myself the unwitting buyer of  a ruinously expensive piece of cheese. The shop owner greeted me graciously, asked if I needed help as I wandered around looking at the bounty in the glittering cases. I demurred, but a few minutes later, she persisted, asking if I’d like to try anything. I said I was interested in Epoisses but didn’t know how much it cost. As any good monger slash psychologist would do, she read my unease and said emphatically “Nothing is too expensive to taste.” Looking back, and knowing what I now do about which cheeses are usually sold as whole pieces, I don’t know if she already had a wheel of Epoisses open to sample already or if she broke one open for me, but she gave me a taste of the cheese and then sold me a quarter of it. It was a generous gesture and an approach to the timid eater that has informed nearly every interaction I’ve had with a nervous customer since then.

Here is why I think cheese and cheesemongers are important: cheese reflects certain stages of growth in a culture. Great cheese happens when a society is sufficiently established to advance from a subsistance agricultural existence to an agrarian model with the resources of time and money to support culinary arts. In the case of American artisan or farmstead cheese, it has been formed by advancement from subsistence to industrial and then the fortunate (and progressive)retreat to a “slower food” approach from the goal of peak efficiency that industry forces upon food producers. We’ve seen the shortcomings in an industrial model of food production and have begun the work of establishing a support level for food production that takes longer, is less of a cost/benefit decision, and is more of an investment of time into the quality of the product. It’s a progression that is easy to see in the maturity of American wine making- from the rustic wines of early American vineyards to the jug wine mechanically harvested giants of the mid to late 20th century and now the plethora of smaller grower producer wineries that are emphasizing terroir and healthy ground and the deft touch of the maker’s hands. Cheese has followed a similar route. And with smaller farmers struggling to survive in a bulk commodity crop economy, cheese is a value addition to a raw product that creates more profit for daily farmers who may not be making ends meet selling milk to dairies at constantly fluctuating prices determined by the commodity futures markets.

American palates have matured too. I remember my grandmother telling me that she had never tasted pasta during her childhood in Montgomery Alabama or her college years in Philadelphia until her husband and brothers returned from Europe after WW2. Food writers like Julia Child and Marcella Hazan fueled American’s curiosity taste for European food and created a market for imported cheeses, wine, olive oil, charcuterie, and daily baked bread. American food began to develop an identity, an aesthetic, a rich broth created by the waves of immigration and the growing ability of middle class Americans to travel. And the rise in awareness of the “slow, local, and sustainable” model of food production has made us more conscious of where and how our food is made.

The Cheesemonger Invitational was a lot of fun. I got to taste a lot of great cheese. but more than a great party, it was a glimpse into the future of cheese and I’ve gotta say, the future looks bright.