On November 18, 2007, I actually reached my cheese limit and cheese head that I am, that was no small feat. So what brought me to my breaking point? Simply, it was The American Cheesemaker Awards, held for the first time at the Fairmount Hotel in Newport Beach, California, that did me in (at least for that day).
This four day event started off on Thursday with a day of judging. Choosing the best in 11 categories from 26 cheesemakers and their offerings of over 100 different artisanal cheeses sounded like it would be a daunting task. However, a panel of 18 judges consisting of food writers, chefs and other food experts were up to the task and on Friday night, the awards were given out at the American Cheesemaker Awards Dinner.
It wasn't until the weekend that the public was able to participate in all this cheesy goodness. For the cost of your ticket, you were able to not only sample all the cheeses that had previously been judged, but to also create your own pairings of these cheeses with both specialty food items and wine provided by Sapphire Pantry and Bristol Farms. Another bonus was what was referred to as "Cheese Academy." On both Saturday and Sunday, there were a series of classes to help you with improving your cheese knowledge, from how to do cheese and dessert pairings to a demo of how to make gourmet mac and cheese.
My time there was fantastic. I have to tell you that there's no way I could have been a judge. I tasted so many outstanding cheeses that I think I would have driven myself mad if I had to decide which ones deserved recognition above all the others. I definitely had a full day and for me to tell you about every experience would be equivalent to me writing War and Peace, so I'll just tell about some of my highlights of the day:
Interesting Ingredients Added to Cheese: Roasted Tomato and Basil Cheese, Cumin Gouda Cheese, Cheese with a Cocoa Rub, Cranberry and Cinnamon Goat Cheese.
The Freshest Cheese I Tasted: Using curds, salt and heated water, the rep from California-based Mozzarella Fresca, made a fresh ball of mozzarella for you to sample.
Cheese Art: Two rounds of cheddar cheese had a turkey and the logo for the event carved into them. That's food art taken to a different level.
New Twist on Recipe Favorite: Mozzarella Fresca displayed some recipe suggestions and I was really taken by the mozzarella cheese, grape tomatoes and basil leaves on a skewer. Now that's easy eating.
The Most Unique Cheese I Tasted: Barley Buzzed cheese, from the Utah-based Beehive Cheese Company, is hand rubbed with a mixture of lavender buds and the grind of South American, Central American and Indonesian roasted coffee beans.
Interesting Dessert Topping For Cheese: Ballard Family Dairy and Cheese were grilling their appropriately named Golden Greek Grillin' Cheese and topping it with a mixture of honey and lime. Sweet and tart! Yum!
Blue Cheese and Dessert Wine Pairings: At one of the Cheese Academy classes taught by Starr Cornwall, Cheesemonger for Sapphire Lounge and Peter Neptune, Master Sommelier, I tasted how perfectly the salty-pungency of blue cheeses paired with the sweetness of dessert wines.
Jams on Cheeses: From rose petal preserves to burnt fig jam to spicy fig mustard jam, when paired with the right cheese, you get a duet of fabulous flavors.
Cheese Making: At another one of the Cheese Academy classes, a rep from Mozzarella Fresca demonstrated how to make plain mozzarella cheese (which he was already doing throughout the day), how to roll up different ingredients in the cheese for great appetizers and also how to make burrata cheese.
Overall, I was in cheese heaven and I can only hope that this event will return to Orange County next year because I'll definitely be there.
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