Out of my and Kevin’s Craig’s List apartment on Rue Hutchinson — uphill from downtown — early this morning, looking forward to the coasting down to the Palais to pick-up my tastings tickets first thing…except, as I swiped my credit card to get my code to unlock a bike at the rack around the corner, I took a *little* too long, or I pushed the wrong part of the screen, and instead of displaying the unlock code, I got the welcome screen. When I swiped my card again, it said I had already taken out the maximum number of bikes…! So I got a little extra exercise this morning by walking downhill. I still arrived in time to get the first two tastings tickets handed out.
No scheduled breakfast this morning so I got some *$ coffee across the street from the Palais, and then wandered around the Notre Dame cathedral a few blocks away in the older section of Montreal’s downtown near the river. Meanwhile, Caitlin organized a group to visit one of the big Montreal farmers markets first thing in the morning, but it was quite a few Metro stops away from the Palais and I needed to get back in time for my 9am tasting, I gave up on joining them.
There’s a lot of evidence of France in the architecture of some of the buildings, but there’s truly a mix of styles, with a heavy contribution of 1950’s, 60’s, and 70s modernism. One building I particularly like is the provincial building across the street from the south end of the Palais.
It’s not terribly original in concept, and a pretty bland utilitarian form, but there’s something clean about it’s simple grid that I really like.
High expectations followed me inside the “Canadian and US Cheddars” tasting room like a cloud of mold spores. I had attended a Cheddar seminar in Chicago that featured the cheesemakers from Widmers, Cabot Clothbound, and Beecher’s that was fascinating and very informative about the art of making aged cheddars. They discussed rennets, adjunct cultures, affinage techniques and challenges, and what they look for in a long-aging cheddar cheese, which turned out to be VERY different for each cheese maker. I’ve often thought back to that seminar as a moment when a lot of cheese making concepts came together in a way that I was finally prepared to hear them, and then to taste them. This is even more surprising given that I don’t (and probably never will) make cheddar cheese to sell.
Right from the start, my balloon of (unfair) expectations began to deflate. The room was only half-full and I was convinced that it would be one of the most popular events of the conference. The person speaking on behalf of the US Cheddars was a last-minute replacement. There was only one Canadian cheddar brand represented — Saputo’s Armstrong line of aged cheddars — while the US cheddars were from three separate producers, the “usual suspects” of Cabot, Widmer’s, and Beecher’s.
A vertical tasting of different ages of the Armstrong line wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but right away it was clear that we would be comparing apples to oranges. The representative from Saputo made many assertions about Canadian cheddar making processes (only calf rennet, never colored…) that may have been true, but it would have been nice to hear from several producers that this was the case, so it was hard to take some of his information about all Canadian cheddar at face value.
And the US representative was a cheese retailer, not a cheese maker, so couldn’t speak to specific techniques from a technical standpoint, but sounded (to me — a cheese maker) like she was talking to us the way she talked to the general public customers in her shop. Lots of surface descriptions, and very little substance. The very fact that I don’t have any pictures of the cheeses on the plate tells you how little enthusiasm I had for what was presented. I’m sorry to have to say that but I want to be honest in my descriptions
We tried four, five, and seven year old Armstrong cheddars. All of them were block cheeses (meaning that they were made in 40 lb. blocks and aged in plastic). In general they were all very good, but without a diversity of Canadian cheddars, it was hard to get a grasp on a Canadian style or general concept of cheddar. Unfortunately the cheeses from the US were *not* good representations — I’ve had much better from each maker.
All of these factors, combined with the low energy (lots of Cheesers had a late night on Friday) made for a very disappointing seminar.The very fact that I don’t have any pictures of the cheeses on the plate tells you how little enthusiasm I had for what was presented. I’m sorry to have to say all this but I want to be honest in my descriptions, and when I am enthusiastic about a presentation, I want the reader to know that the enthusiasm is sincere and not just pulling something positive to say about each item.
Which brings me to Sister Noella, “The Cheese Nun.” Oh My God (in a somewhat literal and totally NON-ironic use of the term), what a gift she is to the ACS conference, and when her presentation on Geotrichum candidium and associated molds and mites combined with Dr. Rachel Dutton’s review of the preliminary work she and her lab has done investigating surface associated microbial communities it was like I was knocked over the head with the sledgehammer from the heavens. Namaste — yes, I am now awake.
First of all, Sister Noella is in full habit, which shouldn’t really matter but for someone who is not used to seeing nuns in full habit it is distracting at first. Then after two sentences at the podium she has already hooked you on her passion for Gc fungi in all its forms and how they affect cheeses, and nothing else but a shared passion for cheese mold really registers. Sister Noella has a doctorate in microbiology but one of her gifts is an ability to speak about complex ideas in a way that is completely clear to the non-academic. Her honesty was disarming as she openly talked (and showed pictures!) about her own cheese making “failures” and what they taught her, something all cheese makers experience but often are reluctant to share with their peers.
For those who don’t know Geotrichum candidum (Gc) is an all purpose workhorse of cheese ripening that is involved in almost every cheese that is ripened with mold, even if it doesn’t “appear” as itself in the final product. It is a prevalent and pervasive dairy mold, with spores present almost everywhere in the world, as well as in established strains available through dairy culture suppliers. It is critical in making bloomy rinds because Penicilium cambertii (Pc) does not grow well in acid environments, and it depends on Gc to establish itself on the surface of a fresh cheese, raise the pH, at which point Pc takes over and overwhelms the surface. Natural rind blue cheeses will also have Gc present because it is able to compete/coexist with Penicilium roquefortii. Gc is most obvious in the cave aged classic Tomme de Savoie and St. Nectaire with their velvety gray coating.
And besides all the wonderful things Gc can do for ripening cheese, it turns out that it has a symbiotic relationship with cheese mites that actually feed on the growing mold. In some cheese making communities of France it turns out that the appearance of cheese mites in a cave is a very happy thing because the mites not only feed on the mold, but they also distribute the mold among cheeses, increasing its affect. However mites left unchecked can result in a loss of up to 25% of the weight of the cheese in your cave, so most cheese makers, particularly in the US where consumers are NOT used to seeing cheeses affected by mites, prefer to eliminate mites altogether whenever they’re found in their caves. Toward that end Sister Noella introduced a cheese maker in the audience who said that he was successfully using ozone machines in his cave to control mites. Others, according to the Sister’s handout, have used a 99.5% CO2 environment to help kill the eggs.
Dr. Rachel Dutton then began the presentation of her research projects involving bacterial communities that are found on the surface of cheeses. She is not a cheese maker, nor was cheese a particular passion in her life until she began this work. Instead she is a microbiologist who has worked with multi-bacteria film layers in other contexts that appear to function together much in the same way we expect specific ecosystems to work. Natural rind cheeses provide much the same types of bacterial communities with the added benefit that there is a wealth of knowledge about the expected organisms (B. linens, Pc, Gc, etc.) and how they are supposed to affect the surfaces and substrates (cheese) on which they grow, but a dearth of knowledge about the *unexpected* community residents — most of which are NOT purposely added by the cheese maker — and their own contribution to the changes in the cheeses.
The most interesting piece of information that Dr. Dutton shared with us was that in a study of several types of cheese surfaces at Jasper Hill Farm, they found Brevibacterium linens on the surface of the blue cheese and bloomy rind cheese they studied, but NOT on the washed rind cheese…even though there were the characteristic sulfur aromas and orange-y color on the washed rind…in addition, Dr. Dutton found many organisms that are not traditionally associated with cheese making at all and are known to science ONLY as being present in arctic sea ice or in Norwegian fjords…? Currently Dr. Dutton’s lab is studying how all of these bacteria interact on the cheese rind, including some very important aspects of their ability to fight off pathogenic organisms such as Listeria monocytogenes. Obviously this is really exciting stuff, not only for cheese makers. Dr. Dutton was quick to point out that her research was really in the initial stages and that she didn’t expect to begin publishing her findings formally for another few years. I look forward to hearing more about her work, and that of one of her grad students, Ben Wolfe, who is studying Gc’s specific role in these microbial communities.
I got tickets for the Raw Cheeses of Quebec tasting at the same time as I got my US vs. Canadian Cheddar tasting, and the extraordinary information and incredibly good cheese I got in return MORE than made up for the disappointing cheddar tasting.
I arrived outside the hall where the Festival of Cheeses would be held a little before opening time at 6pm. There was already a crowd of eager cheese enthusiasts wanting to get first crack at the 1674 cheeses and fermented dairy products (yogurts, creme fraiche, marscapone, etc.) on display and available for tasting. When the doors did NOT open on the dot of 6:00pm the crowd grew visibly tense, and seemed barely unable to contain its anxiety — was there a problem? Did the cheeses, somehow, disappear? The people who had been chatting amiably in a loose crowd in front of the doors now all looked at the doors for any sign that they would open, and people began inching toward them, forming a denser and denser pack until at 6:03pm they were flung open, we were all handed a wine glass and a curiously shaped plastic plate to hold our cheese samples AND our wine glass, and 1674 cheeses were there in front of us like King Midas’s treasure suddenly unearthed.
My goal in getting to the Festival first thing was to try to get pictures of all the MCG award winning cheeses with their ribbons before the HUGE expected crowds made moving around and getting close to the tables much more difficult. It was not as simple as I had hoped (unlike the rest of the tables, the yogurt table was completely disorganized), but I did manage to snap everyone in their glory. Here they are in order of their announcement at the awards ceremony: