Vermont’s Tarentaise Reserve took top honors at the American Cheese Society’s annual competition last week, surpassing 1,684 other cheeses to earn the prestigious “Best of Show.” I served as a judge and concur that this awesome two-year-old wheel deserved the recognition. It was my first choice. (Judges taste blind, but the distinctive concave rim of this 20-pound wheel gives it away.) Honestly, though, I tasted at least a half-dozen other cheeses that I would have been happy to see at the top. That’s a testament to the growing prowess of America’s cheesemakers.
Tarentaise Reserve is an alpine-style cow’s milk cheese similar to France’s Beaufort and Abondance. Spring Brook Farm, which makes the cheese from its own raw milk, saves the Reserve designation for wheels aged at least 18 months; most of the wheels are released after about 6 months. The winning cheese had a deep-gold interior (the signature of milk from pasture-fed animals), appetizing aromas of toasted hazelnuts and brown butter, and a silky texture interrupted by crunchy protein crystals. I don’t know how it could have been any better.
Spring Brook’s cheesemaker, Jeremy Stephenson, tells me that he typically sets aside 10 to 15 wheels a month for the Reserve program. “Obviously, we’re going to increase that,” he says. Learning that the prizewinner had been made in July 2012, I wondered if summer pasture contributed much to the outcome. “I don’t think that’s the determining factor,” Stephenson said, adding that he finds well-balanced wheels in every season. The farm’s regular Tarentaise, made from winter milk, also took a blue ribbon in its category. (Don’t ask how the same cheese can be entered in two different categories. It’s complicated.)
Admirably, Spring Brook Farm is a philanthropic endeavor, run by the Farms for City Kids Foundation.
Each year, the farm hosts about 750 urban fifth- and sixth-graders for a free week-long camp that integrates academics with farm chores and activities. Revenue from the cheese helps fund this program, so it’s especially satisfying to see Tarentaise do well.
Some observations on other blue-ribbon winners:
The Vermont Creamery feta that I showcased in last week’s Planet Cheese took first place for goat feta. Great for the creamery, bummer for me as it will now be even scarcer.
Bay Blue from Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese took second place overall, right behind Tarentaise Reserve. How sweet it was to see longtime California dairyman Bob Giacomini climb onstage. His daughters run the business, but they wanted him to claim the ribbon.
Sebastopol cheesemaker Seana Doughty (pictured above) nailed not one, but two blue ribbons: for Ewelicious Blue and Fat Bottom Girl, both sheep’s milk cheeses from her Bleating Heart creamery. Not bad for a newbie.