I've always spent my own sweet time getting to know cheese. So I was a tad apprehensive about taking a speed-dating approach to fromage. A few weeks ago, however, I tasted 225 cheeses in the span of 48 hours.
I had been invited to be one of the eight judges for the 2013 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix. On our first morning, we were given score sheets and welcomed into a small room where we'd be surrounded by dozens of smelly suitors.
It was the eighth edition of the biennial competition, established in 1998 by the Dairy Farmers of Canada, which is open to any producer of cheese made from 100-per-cent Canadian cow's milk. As a newbie I was thankful to other jury members for taking me under their wing, answering such crucial questions as, "should I spit?" (I didn't unless a cheese was really awful, which was rare) and "How daunting is the blue cheese category?" (sparkling water and baguette were necessary neutralizers between bites).
My other big question, "So how does it feel to eat all that cheese?" was answered at midday, when we broke for lunch and most of us stuck to whatever greens were on the plate. By end of Day 2, I was feeling full, but surprisingly not yet sick of cheese.
When the finalists were revealed on Tuesday, I was as eager as any contender to see the names on the short list. We had evaluated all 225 entries without a clue as to what province they came from or who the producer was (though there was a pretty strong Quebec vibe from the washed-rind category). You might exchange glances with another judge from your province with a silent "Hey, is that what I think it is?" but overall it was hard to know what cheese we were judging. Which of course, was the whole point.
Anyone who has ever done a side-by-side tasting (be it wine, cheese or peanut M&Ms) will know that preferences vary from person to person. We used a detailed scoring system to keep our assessments as objective as possible. Each cheese was evaluated on flavour, texture, appearance (are there production flaws such as cracks or other irregularities?) and salt balance. Cheeses are separated into styles, such as fresh cheese (ricotta or mascarpone, for instance), cheddar (with five categories based on age) or washed-rind (my favourite to taste; I was impressed by how many great ones we're making in this country).
I highly recommend doing a mini Grand Prix at home. Try three cheeses side by side that are of the same style but different producers – or even different milks or ages. No other accompaniments allowed. You may find that your favourite feta isn't actually your favourite. By allowing yourself to compare and think about what you taste, you'll get a clear sense of how a food made with so few ingredients can vary so vastly in flavour.
So what happens if you're judging and you do recognize a cheese you like … or even love? Well, you try to taste it as if it were the first time. I did recognize a cheese I enjoy frequently, but it was not in its best condition. Because it didn't reflect the qualities that should be showcased in that particular style, I regretfully had to acknowledge that in its score. Staying objective meant evaluating based on what you were tasting that day – not reminiscing about how good something had been before.
I will admit that is stings just a little to see the three finalists in each category and realize your top pick did not make it. Having a diverse jury levels the playing field, but one must also get over a certain indignation that not everyone agreed with you. As for the Grand Champion, it came as a surprise when I saw the cheese that scored highest among all the Category Champions. But it's tribute to the winner that even at that point, with a couple hundred cheeses under our belts, I wasn't the only judge who couldn't resist a few extra bites.
Until April 18, however, when the winners are officially announced, my lips are sealed. Well, except to eat cheese of course. For all the finalists you can go to www.dairyfarmers.ca/grandprix.