Not every person behind every cheese counter is a passionate cheese enthusiast. But many are, and many of them dream of competing in the Cheesemonger Invitational, the semi-annual smackdown that crowns a victor after two days of grueling tests and contests. Evaluated on their skills at selling, cutting, tasting and pairing, the participants engage in friendly battle intended to raise the stature of their craft.
Mongers “are care takers, truth tellers and therapists for the cheese,” according to the official CMI website. “Without great cheesemongers, cheese dies a lonely, sad death.” Banish that sobering thought and let’s meet the most recent winner: 27-year-old Rory Stamp, artisan food manager for Dedalus Wine Shop in Burlington, VT.
Stamp, who was competing for the second time, topped 30 other hopefuls from across the country in last week’s competition in San Francisco. Challenges included a written test of knowledge and two sensory exercises—identifying aromas presented blind in vials, and identifying several European cheeses by name, country and milk type. Then come three timed tests of dexterity: cutting precise quarter-pound pieces from a larger wheel; wrapping odd-shaped pieces artfully in Formaticum paper; and wrapping wedges seamlessly in plastic film. Yes, there’s an art to that.
Combatants also have to create a beverage to complement a specific cheese and a “perfect bite” and “perfect plate” using assigned cheeses. (They get their cheese assignments weeks ahead.) This foodservice round is where the competition goes a little off the rails for me. Some of the concoctions and combinations are so complex and, shall we say, path-breaking that I’m left wondering where the cheese went.
I spoke to Stamp a few days after his big win.
Wrapping in plastic film? Really? What does “good” look like?
It’s about the tightness of the wrap. No bunching. The cheese has to be sealed well. It’s the Neal’s Yard Dairy “glass” approach. The idea is that the customer doesn’t know there’s plastic on the cheese.
What was your thought process on your cocktail pairing for Cremont? You made a Preserved Yuzu Vesper, whatever that is.
I love the floral character of gin with a lot of goat cheeses, and creamy cheese with bubbles is a no-brainer.
The recipe, please?
One ounce Hendrick’s Gin, one ounce Lillet Blanc, one-half ounce fresh yuzu juice and one-quarter ounce of a preserved yuzu syrup that I made. You’re basically drinking a citrus martini, with a sparkling rosé from Liguria to chase it.
And your perfect bite: pink-peppercorn macarons with Mt. Tam buttercream and lemon curd. Full marks for originality.
Full disclosure: I’ve been watching a lot of the Great British Baking Show lately. And Mt. Tam is such a buttery, luscious cheese—it’s almost the consistency of buttercream to begin with. I wanted to pipe it between macarons. I started trialing it a few weeks ahead, and I would say I’ve made between 600 and 800 macarons since. To be honest, when I made them in my apartment in Burlington, when it was zero degrees with no humidity, they were perfect. In my friend’s kitchen in Oakland two days before the event, they failed miserably. I had to make five more batches before I was happy with them.
Has participating in CMI changed you as a cheesemonger?
Definitely. It’s really invigorating to know that we have this community, even though it’s small. And I’m inspired to scrutinize every aspect of my counter: are we sourcing the best products? Are we taking the best care? Are we telling our customers the right things and making cheese accessible?
I got a trophy with a cow on top, a cash prize and a trip to Neal’s Yard Dairy, which is a huge highlight for me. Oh, and I won a trip to Vermont.
I’m walking into your store today. Send me home with three cheeses that make a beautiful plate.
I would say Little Dickens from Sugar House Creamery. It’s a cow’s milk robiola. We have some extra-aged Alpha Tolman that was set aside for us. And I just opened up a wheel of Beenleigh Blue and it’s singing.
Every monger I know has cheese tattoos. Do you have any cheese tattoos?