The second exam for the American Cheese Society’s Certified Cheese Professionals was administered July 31st in Madison. 172 applicants sat for the exam this year. As of this writing our Subject Matter Experts team is determining the passing score for the exam. Many test-takers have asked why it takes so long to know whether or not they passed. The short answer to that question is simply not that short. Our SME team wants to make sure the exam is tough enough but not overly difficult. This takes careful analysis of each and every question of the 150 on the exam. How did each question fare? What was the highest score and what was the lowest? What was the median score and what was the mean?
If one question fared poorly (as in less than half answered the question correctly) then is the question flawed in some way, or is there more than one defensible answer? We also put the overall performance on the exam into some historical context by comparing how the exam-takers did this year compared to the first year.
Analyzing how each question fares is not only dependent upon how many people answered the question correctly but also dependent on the consensus among the SME’s. Was the answer to a particular question something that the CCP™ should be able to answer correctly, and if so, what percentage of the test-takers would get it right?
Tomorrow the persons that passed the exam should be receiving their notifications that they are now ACS CCP’s. Based on our post-exam analysis it looks like we will have many more added to the 121 who passed last year. This is great! We expect to welcome even more CCP’s after the third exam at the 2014 conference in Sacramento.
A big “Thank You” to the team of Subject Matter Experts who volunteered many hours to this important endeavor, and to Jerry Rosen and Michelle de los Santos at Knapp Associates, and to our own Jane Bauer, as well as all the many people who have lent their support over the past decade. A tremendous amount of work went into this process. I know it seems like it has taken a long time to get the results but to maintain the standards I believe it is worth the wait. This certification is too important for the entire cheese industry.
These contests give us opportunities to witness other experts go through their different judging processes. Some judges take longer to assess the appearance of the cheese surface, while others spend more time assessing the paste. Some judges take a whiff of the fresh sample, then a second whiff, and then contemplate the aroma for a full minute before proceeding to the taste. For most judges, the taste matters most, and for a full assessment of the taste the judge must wait up to a full minute after the cheese is in the mouth to evaluate the full profile of a cheese. It is that imprint on the cognitive receptors that gives judges their final evaluations of a cheese. For some judges, the texture is almost as important quality as the taste.
One of the judges, Russell Smith who is a veteran cheese expert from Australia, told me that the texture is all-important. I agree; so many cheeses seem to have a nice appearance, a pleasant fresh milk aroma, even a balanced flavor, but the texture disappoints. For many of the categories he was judging, like almost all of my categories, there were several cheeses that had this flaw: a pasty, gummy, or mealy texture. As Russell and I agreed, this rubbery texture may not be considered a flaw by some consumers however the experience of tasting a cheese which has the appropriate texture for its class is an experience that you will not forget. I know of no cheese for which a pasty texture is desirable. I tasted many cheeses that had a well-balanced flavor yet their textures were weak.
Assistant Chief Judge Stan Dietsche, in his introductory remarks explaining the judging process, recommended the judges approach tasting each cheese with a certain reverence. He compared the proper approach to a two-minute love affair. That remark reminded me of one of our core classes – Sexy Cheese. Stan’s advice brought laughter from the judges, but his point was fully understood. This is certainly the approach my judging colleague Roland Barthélemy takes. Roland, who is president of the Guilde des Fromagers, takes in the full view of each new cheese he tastes, his eyes wide in wonderment. You can see his nose twitch slightly in anticipation. Yet he sizes the cheese up very carefully, all around its surfaces, before he focuses on the aroma. The judges take core samples with their cheese triers, hold the core sample up to their noses, and take in the full aroma. Roland has a distinctive flare to this process. He receives the tool used to extract the sample (the trier) as though he is receiving a sacred relic. He holds the sample up to his nose and sniffs the length of the sample. He turns his head to exhale then he goes through the exact same process again.
The usual process followed in cheese competitions involves taking in the cheese appearance, then the aroma, then the flavor, then the texture or mouthfeel, then you wait for the “finish.” That final aromatic profile is what “seals-the-deal” in the evaluation. Everything else may be fine, but the finish sometimes disappoints.
Again, the texture is very important. This contest lists twenty possible texture defects a judge can assign, with a couple of open spaces for any others. I recall going through several wheels of Appenzeller (one of my favorites) and finding good rinds, nice aromas and flavors (though slightly different, one wheel to the next) but when I got down to the texture critiques, I found myself checking off little deductions for the same “flaws.” Nearly all of them had a “pasty” and/or “gummy” texture, nearly all of them, unlike the Appenzeller we proudly offer. One of our sayings around here has been “Taste the Difference.” I would extend that to “Taste and Feel the Difference.” That two-minute love affair should last much longer, and the cheese’s texture helps make that happen.
I recently had occasion to make my Maiden Voyage to the fair city of Madison in the State of Wisconsin.
To be frank, there was little I knew about either the city or the State beyond the prevalence of all things Dairy, Cheese in particular and things like the Green Bay Packers (about which I nothing more than the name â€“I think they play baseball). Iâ€™d also heard rumour of some sort of secret society called The Cheeseheads that is most notable for outlandish headwear and while there, I learned that Badgers were revered in some way, though I have no idea why.
So in order to address what could at best be described as a somewhat patchy (or more accurately, pathetic) intellectual grasp of what lay before me, I wisely reached out to a small and carefully selected group of cultural advisers. And as I was going to one of the great centres of American cheese production it seemed only natural to reach out to the oracles of the fermented curd in order to learn better which cheeses were likely to be my best bet and where to find them.
(After all, there can be few greater pleasures than shopping for cheese â€“ itâ€™s basically shopping for the senses. Some ladies of my acquaintance feel that way about shoes, but for me itâ€™s cheese!)
â€œBut pray tellâ€ (I hear you say), â€œwho are these cheesy oracles of which you speak?â€ In short, they have each provided me with exemplary service and help over the years (not to mention entertainment and pleasure) in my pursuit of gastronomic delight. The first is Artisanal Cheese, whose expertise and array of cheeses makes any time spent on their web site akin to a mental massage â€“ an indulgence possibly only bettered by a visit to their Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro in New York where on my last visit my companion and I managed to while away five hours of our lives wallowing in some of the finest cheeses Iâ€™ve ever experienced along with a different wine pairing for each (more on this another time).
My second oracle was none other than the legendary New York purveyor, Murrayâ€™s Cheese who can always be relied upon for a spectacular array of both cheese and salumi at their Bleeker Street and Grand Central locations, and my third source of inspirational insight was Culture Magazine which is always a rich source of information and inspiration on all things cheese whatever your needs and desires. Finally, my good friend Cheeseslave made some splendid recommendations for which raw milk cheeses to look out for.
Duly equipped with enough knowledge to work up an appetite I sallied forth.
Now it must be said that Madison itself is an utterly delightful city and a splendid food town. On the basis of my experience, the people seem remarkably friendly and the area around the State House is teeming with good food and dining experiences (one major regret is that I didnâ€™t make it to the Farmerâ€™s Market that takes place right by the State House each Saturday and Wednesday through the Summer). Anyway, more on my dining experiences in Madison another time. My focus today is cheese!
One of the critical pieces of advice I received â€“ and which was echoed by my hosts in Madison â€“ was that my search for cheese nirvana should begin and end at Fromagination â€“ an establishment that elevates the art of buying and selling cheese and any manner of accompaniments to a level of pleasure that is seldom achieved. Evidence of this was first indicated not only by the easy and friendly nature of the service and the offer to taste various cheeses when I was ready, but also by the fact that a glass of a decent choice of wines was forthcoming nice and early in the proceedings.
Fromagination is clearly something of a hub of the regional cheese community in Madison. Certainly there were cheeses from further afield and abroad, but it seems to me that the majority were from the area and as such delightfully new to my palate.
In accordance with the guidance Iâ€™d been given I duly gravitated toward those suggested while also being guided by Fromaginationâ€™s own experts on hand. Hookâ€™s Cheddar had featured large in my recommended list and I soon understood why. There were five, ten and twelve year old cheddars on offer (Hookâ€™s produce a fifteen year Cheddar around Christmas) and each was spectacular (and I say this as one that is not readily impressed with Cheddars produced outside of England having grown up on the original stuff). I came away with a hefty lump of the ten year old and a smaller piece of the five. Every morsel was delightful but the ten year cheddar is especially so â€“ sharp and characterful this is no shrinking violet of a cheese and it also benefits from an unusual and very subtle crispiness in the body which Iâ€™m told is due to the aging process producing something called â€œlactate granulesâ€. Sounds strange but I can assure you itâ€™s jolly good!
Dunbarton Blue was another great success. Like the Hookâ€™s this is made from cowâ€™s milk and is a nice firm cheese that to all intents and purposes has the characteristics of a very good cheddar mixed with a very subtle firm blue cheese. Itâ€™s extremely easy and very rewarding to eat and it wasnâ€™t long before I regretted not buying more.
Branching out into the realm of the sheep, I sampled â€“ and subsequently purchased â€“ some Dante. This is an aged cheese that (to me at least) tastes ever-so-slightly nutty and has a smooth after taste. Gorgeous.
My final purchase was of a small piece of Buttermilk Blue from Roth Kase â€“ it didnâ€™t last long!
I tasted many others but it is the sad lot of the traveler to be bound by the limitations and rigors of travel itself upon the things he or she would like to purchase. Some cheeses would not have survived the journey home and buying all those I tasted would have resulted in at lest some of them being past their best before Iâ€™d enjoyed them to the full.
Others that I tasted and which I heartily recommend include Ocooch Mountain (raw Sheepâ€™s milk), Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Pleasant Ridge Reserve Extra-Aged (Cowâ€™s milk), Reserve Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar (Cowâ€™s milk), Saxony (raw Cowâ€™s milk) and Eagle Cave Reserve (Cowâ€™s milk). In truth there were probably more but by the end of it all I was in such a state of reverie that I was feeling quite giddy!
It goes without saying that if you find yourself with the opportunity to go to Madison you most definitely should and that when you are there you must visit the good folks at Fromagination â€“ some of the cheeses they stock are only available there so youâ€™re sure to find something you havenâ€™t experienced before. And theyâ€™re jolly nice people (special thanks to Steve for indulging me and suggesting things to try).
If of course youâ€™re not in that part of the country and feel inspired to try some of Wisconsinâ€™s finest, you can always order from them online and if in New York, then naturally you can always drop into the Artisanal Cheese Shop at the Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro or buy online from them or head to Murrayâ€™s Cheese. And it would be remiss of me not to suggest you take a look at Culture Magazine too â€“ it will do you good.
Thanks then to all of my oracles and to all at Fromagination â€“ not to mention the noble cheese-makers of Wisconsin. Long may you practice your art and long may we appreciate you.