The end of July is a favorite time for more than a thousand cheese nerds as we gather for the annual American Cheese Society Conference. It’s a chance to eat cheese, attend seminars to expand our knowledge, eat cheese, catch up with other cheese nerds, eat cheese and attend the annual Awards Show where we learn which American Artisan Cheese wins Best of Show.
This year’s 1843 entries scored some of the highest numbers in the Judging and Competition’s history. At breakfast with Mary Quicke, who judged cheddars, she shared that she wondered if she was being “too easy” until some of the other 50+ judges stated the same thing: highest scores ever and more cheeses getting perfect scores than is past years. In the Open Category – Soft Ripened Cheeses – Made from Cow’s Milk, four cheeses received perfect 100 scores; a first-ever. In a conversation with Janet Fletcher, Russell Smith, a four-time judge from Australia stated that at least ten other cheeses could have prevailed as Best of Show with his blessing.
The cheese to win Best of Show this year was Little Mountain, made in Wisconsin by Chris Roelli of Roelli Cheese Haus. An alpine-style cheese inspired by Appenzeller which Chris and his wife began making only two years ago. Chris, a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, is a fourth-generation cheesemaker whose father taught him as a boy to make cheese. Sadly, Chris’ father made the difficult decision to cease cheesemaking more than a decade ago when he was literally making only one penny per pound of cheese produced. After closing the cheese plant, Chris and his father continued to sell fluid milk but Chris’ heart urged him to return to cheesemaking. In 2006, he upgraded the old cheese plant, reopened the doors and began making artisan cheeses. He gained early success with Dunbarton Blue and Red Rock, both Award-Winners.
Now he’s at the top of the mountain with Little Mountain. At the Festival of Cheese, luckily I snagged a sample Little Mountain before it was all gone. ACS members get first entry to the festival, an hour before the public, and the rush is to taste the winners first. Only a few minutes into the festival and most of the pieces were already gobbled up… thrilled that I had the chance to taste this sublimely nutty with its roots in Switzerland. It’s firm but immediately melts on the palate and becomes smooth with meaty notes. My mind immediately traveled to a big bowl of French Onion Soup with a hearty slice of Little Mountain sitting on top and oozing down the sides of the bowl. But alas, we’ll be waiting awhile to secure that slab. At the time of his win, Chris had about twelve hundred pounds of Little Mountain again…but he’s been busy since winning the top honor making more of this cheese to satisfy the overload of orders that he has received during August.
The Holstein milk used to make Little Mountain is heat-treated (thermalized) which means the milk is not heated as high as it would be if pasteurized but not truly raw either. In the eyes of the FDA, this cheese would be categorized as a raw milk cheese. The wheel entered into the competition was aged nine months, seven months older than the FDA requires a raw milk cheese to be for legal sales in the United States… hopefully that will be changing soon as the FDA continues to re-evaluate its rules on production and selling of raw milk cheeses.
Were our beloved Spaulding Gray still writing these reviews, it’s safe to assume he would give Little Mountain 4 Paws… cause that was all he had…
Serving Suggestions: With a cheese of this caliber, serving it at room temperature sitting on a simple cracker such as 34 Degrees Natural Crisps is what I would do. However, if you want to wow your dinner guests with your French Onion soup, having a slab of Little Mountain melted on top would make even the most finicky eater swoon… I can only imagine what it would do to The Man…who is easily swoonable…
For a complete list of winners, click here.