Every second year, Fromarte, the organization that defends the interests of Switzerland’s artisan cheese makers, stages the Swiss Cheese Awards. It’s a great show — inevitably dubbed the Swiss Cheese Oscars — and falls into two parts. First, there’s cheese judging, held behind closed doors. Separately, the public can taste and buy products at a spectacular well-furnished cheese market. The idea behind it all is to identify and reward the country’s finest cheese-makers and to raise awareness of the quality and variety of cheese being produced throughout the confederation today.
In true democratic fashion, the event moves around the country from year to year, taking place alternately in each of Switzerland’s three main linguistic regions. In 2008, the awards were held in German-speaking Unterwasser in the Toggenburg region in the east part of the country; 2010 was the turn of French-speaking Neuchâtel. This year, from Sept. 27 through 30, the competition will be staged in the city of Bellinzona, in Italian-speaking Ticino.
Four days of tasting at Swiss Cheese Awards
Cheese judging takes place on the first day of the four-day extravaganza. In 2010 I joined other jury members drawn from all over Switzerland and Europe and a handful of experts from the American cheese-making fraternity. We assembled to receive our marching orders and were issued full-length aprons, cheese knives and clipboards. At a given signal, we moved next door into an immense hall where all the cheeses were laid out on long trestle tables covered in white cloths.
The cheeses — divided into some 25 categories — ran the gamut of types, from extra-hard and hard to semi-hard, soft and fresh. Some had white bloomy rinds (think Brie), others were highly colored with stinky washed rinds. The flesh was rich and creamy, or crumbly, or shot through with blue veins. And the samples were made variously from cow, goat, sheep or buffalo milk — even, occasionally, from a mixture.
Along with four other judges, I was assigned to the innovations category: newly devised cheeses that don’t fall under the usual headings. Each product was anonymous, identified only by a number and a few succinct notes on type (hard, semi-hard, soft), age (from weeks to months or — rarely — years) and milk type. We were required to assess them, using a scale of 1 to 5, on appearance, flavor/aroma, innovation and marketability. A score of 5 would indicate a blameless cheese; a 1 condemned it to outer darkness.
In silence — chitchat or exchanging impressions was strenuously discouraged — we moved around our table, observing, slicing, sniffing, tasting, ruminating over and allotting scores to the 40 cheeses offered for our inspection. The standard was high — scores of 4 were common, 1 was rare. At the end we got into a huddle, averaged the scores and handed in the results.
Cheese judging — like wine tasting — is an absorbing and demanding exercise. It’s one thing to nibble away appreciatively at a piece of cheese in the context of a meal; it’s quite another to give it your undivided attention and to assign meaningful and considered scores for the different aspects under scrutiny.
Pine and wasabi accents
The range was dazzling. Some cheeses were genuinely innovative, others more sedate and conservative. Perhaps rather too many were the classic, semi-hard kind. As this is Switzerland’s most common category by far, it was hard to award many marks for originality, though at least one distinguished itself by sporting a burnished rind stamped with pine motifs. More adventurous was a bloomy rind cheese sandwiched with a wasabi/cream-cheese paste and resembling a small sponge cake with filling.
Chili flavorings were popular with the cheese makers, but less so with the judges. A soft, bloomy-rinded goat’s cheese was dwarfed by its too large wooden box, which gave it a somewhat pathetic and shrunken look. The prize for the strangest looking went to a vermilion red, heart-shaped cheese — designed with Valentine’s Day in mind, perhaps?
We hung up our aprons, stored our knives and took a break till the results were announced, and the cheeses and their makers’ names unveiled. To my delight, two old friends (both of them featured in my book “Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture“) had scored well: Willi Schmid of Lichtensteig with his Trüffel Büffel, a truffle-infused buffalo milk beauty, and Michel Beroud with his Dzorette, a soft, bloomy rind unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese sprinkled with toasted pine needles which imparted a gently resinous flavor.
Honor was satisfied, the country’s most skilled cheese makers had been recognized and rewarded, and the quality and variety of Swiss cheese amply demonstrated.
The 2012 Swiss Cheese Awards will be held in Bellinzona, Ticino, Switzerland, from Sept. 27 through Sept. 30, www.cheese-awards.ch
Top photo: A soft rind contender at the 2010 Swiss Cheese Awards. Credit: Sue Style