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American cheese All-Stars

October 8, 2011

It’s inevitable. The first annual American Cheese Month is announced and hard cheeses start flexing their muscles. Soft cheeses get to limbering up. Bloomy-rind cheeses fluff their delicate white fuzz. They know it’s only a matter of time before people start sizing them up, recruiting the American All-Star team. After all, this will be a month of cheese tastings, and cheesemongers are picking their line-ups. So who makes the team? To scope out the stars of the American cheese scene, find shops or restaurants holding cheese tastings in your area this month.

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Here’s a case study:

At the Scardello Artisan Cheese shop in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, owner Rich Rogers held a “10 for $10 American Cheese Celebration” today, where customers paid $10 to sample a selection of what he considers “the 10 best American-produced cheeses now.”

What counts as “best” for Rich? (See the list below.)

Like a good cheese patriot and representative of his métier, he first made sure his selection covered the major cheese categories: washed-rind, soft, hard, blue. He also showcased all three dairy queens: the cow, the goat, the sheep.

From there, he assumed his own idiosyncratic role as taste guide.

A few selections were “perennial favorites” from the more than 500 cheeses that have come through his shop in the last three years—the ones that might cause riots if they disappeared from the case.

Like “Divine” Plain Chèvre from On Pure Ground Dairy in Bonham, TX, one of the local artisan cheesemakers he staunchly supports. The name is no exaggeration, according to Rich.

“I think Cheryl [of On Pure Ground] makes the best chèvre I’ve ever tasted. . . . So it’s not just local, but best-in-show.”

Rogue River Blue from Rogue Creamery in Oregon wasn’t just the token blue on the list, either: this much-acclaimed cheese won Best in Show in the 2011 American Cheese Society competition.

“So it would be horribly sad not to include that in the tasting,” Rich said.

And then there were the personal favorites. A lover of washed-rind cheeses myself, I immediately noted the three in his line-up. These are the cheeses with tacky, orange-tinged rinds that often top people’s list of “stinky” cheeses. Think Munster and Epoisses. But there’s a great range, each often sounding a subtle flavor note that comes from a particular alcohol with which it’s been washed.

“I love washed-rind cheeses,” Rich said. And there’s one he was particularly keen to showcase.

It isn’t just the bark wrapper that makes Harbison special. Rich described Harbison, from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont, as “a cross between Camembert and a washed-rind cheese . . . the kind of cheese where you cut the top off and scoop it out with a spoon and it’s gooey and delicious.”

Not an easy specimen to get your hands on, but for people who are intimidated by the pungency of washed-rind cheeses, Harbison is a good place to start, according to Rich: “It’s a lighter style, so more approachable.”

So progresses our cheese education. With Rich, we’re in good hands.

And he’s not the only one out there waiting to let you sample American cheese all-stars.

“Given that it’s the first go-round . . . I don’t know that the general public is completely aware of [American Cheese Month] to the extent that the American Cheese Society would like it to be,” Rich said.

But it’s the perfect chance for us all to think about which American cheeses constitute our personal dream team.

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The Scardello Top 10

Seastack – WA (Soft Cow)

On Pure Ground “Divine” Plain Chevre – Bonham TX (Fresh Goat)

Brazos Valley Brie – Waco, TX (Soft Cow)

Pondhopper – OR (Hop-Washed Semi Soft Goat)

Cabot Clothbound – VT (Cheddar – Cow)

Pleasant Ridge Reserve – WI (Mountain Tomme – Cow)

Cave Aged Marissa – WI (Hard Sheep)

Harbison – VT (Bark-wrapped soft washed-rind cow)

Red Hawk – CA (Washed-rind triple-crème cow)

Rogue River Blue – OR (Leaf wrapped, pear brandy soaked, blue- Best in Show Winner ACS 2011)

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jly permalink
    November 26, 2011 6:38 pm

    Even when you take me to places I wouldn’t otherwise go, my imagination gets revved up and my senses have a good ride. I liked hearing about cheese rinds and meeting the three dairy queens. I was a little surprised to see where the contestants came from and I wonder where you have the best chance of ever tasting the cheeses like the pear brandy soaked blue or the Cave Aged Marissa (sheep cheese) if you’re a thousand or more miles away.
    P.S. I LOVE your cheese plate photo.

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