Thursday, March 06, 2008

Big Cheese Comin' to Town

Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why ... Big Cheese is comin' to town. Oh admit it, you know you'll thank me later for having this tune stuck in your head all day.

With almost 2,000 cheeses from 19 nations on their way to Madison, Wis., the Super Bowl of all cheese contests is about to start. Cheesemakers around the globe are already designing their "World Championship Cheese" labels in anticipation of taking the big honor.

Every two years, the global cheese media contingency comes to Madison, and with it, dozens of judges from dozens of countries start giving interviews in sexy accents. Top chefs, buyers and food writers from around the country gather round to interview cheesemakers who turn up for the event. Industry leaders mill around, scoping out new cheeses, talking with new cheesemakers and basically enjoying a day away from their desk.

Simply put, if you're into cheese, it's THE place to be.

The World Championship Cheese Contest has been held in even-numbered years since 1958 and is graciously hosted by the non-profit Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. Judging starts on March 11 and continues until the championship round on the morning of March 13. This year, the contest has broken all previous entry records, with 1,935 cheese and butter entries vying for top dog.

Cheesemakers and buttermakers from Austria, Australia, Canada, Chili, Denmark, England, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, and 30 U.S. states have sent in product to be judged in 79 classes by 22 experts from 11 nations. Two U.S. marketing experts will judge product packaging and six specialist judges from the U.S. will tackle selected classes.

In looking at the entry list, stand-out categories include four Cheddar classes, with each topping 50 entries. Then there's the ever popular Smear Ripened Soft and Semi-soft Cheeses with 64 entries, as well as the Open Class for Hard Cheeses with 51 entries and last and least, the Reduced-fat Cheese class with 58 entries (does anyone actually still eat reduced fat cheese, and if so, dear god, why?)

The contest is a technical evaluation of entries, using an objective measure of cheese defects to select the products in each class that best exemplify perfection for a cheese variety. The highest scoring cheeses and butters earn a gold medal, with silver and bronze medals awarded to second and third place finishers in each class.

As mentioned earlier, the tension mounts on Thursday morning, March 13, when the entire international team of expert judges convenes for the Championship Round of judging. The 72 gold medal cheeses from cow, goat and sheep milk classes are evaluated again and the highest scoring cheeses named World Champion and First and Second Runners-Up.

The Championship Round will be broadcast as a live, video-streamed program on the web from 8 a.m. to Noon CST. Contest result and digital images are posted throughout the competition.

And what does the winner receive? Behind door number two is an all-expense paid trip to a tropical island, a new car and ... oh wait, actually what they really win is behind door number one, which is a big gold medal and bragging rights. More importantly, they also sell a whole lot of cheese, because every food writer across the globe writes a story with them in the headline. That's even better than a vacation and new car, right?

In case you were wondering, I'll also be at the contest 24/7, blogging about cheesemakers, celebrity cheese personalities, sexy accents and of course, the cheese. Bring it on!

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