I've been trying to think, over the last 24 hours, of an experience that equals -- or at least resembles -- the feeling of walking into an exhibition hall and seeing at most two dozen people and over 1,700 cheeses and knowing you can eat any of them. Maybe being the first freshman in line signing up for classes in high school, and all of the classes are, like, astronomy or something cool like that.
There's really no way to do the American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese justice except to experience it. Not everyone liked astronomy as much as I did, anyway.
I was offered a media pass to attend Saturday's Festival, but it quickly became clear: this was an event that could either be covered, or experienced -- not both. There's no way to experience even a significant minority of the cheeses on offer, but without carrying around the plastic tasting palette they give you, you can't hope to even make a dent. And carrying that tray eliminates note-taking and good photography. (On that note, sorry for the shitty art; one-handed iPhotography in the midst of a crowd doesn't allow for selective focus or depth of field.)
This kind of event is definitely food writer bait. It was nice, as it always is, to run into Lindsay Christians and share googly expressions of awe with her. Brian Lee, one of the proprietors of eatdrinkmadison.com, stopped to introduce himself; I made sure to pass along some knowledge on the flavored cheese table I'd just left and he was approaching. Wisconsin Foodie host Kyle Cherek was moving about the crowd with a camera crew, so stay tuned for his coverage of the event. And of course, I owe the experience to Joanna Miller of PR firm Stephan & Brady; it was good to meet her, too.
For the most part, Kristine and I have similar tastes in cheese. We like them all. She was pretty happy with the goat cheeses, the chevres, and the marinated cheeses that she tried. Stomach capacity notwithstanding, I could have spent a long, long time at the smoked cheese table, and did spend a lot of time at the flavored cheese station; the queso blanco above was probably my favorite of the event. The soft-ripened table was awfully popular, and we did hit that first, but those are some rich, hefty cheeses. We had to peel away from that one or we'd have maxed out.
Seeing so much Wisconsin and Vermont cheese was to be expected, but Texas and the South in general represented well. We were wickedly happy to not notice a whole lot of California cheese. I'm sure it was there, but I don't recall being drawn in by any of them. Quebec showed well. Rogue Creamery out of Oregon took a bunch of ribbons for its blues, and had a table of its own to highlight its beers, spirits...and canned tuna? Hey, if they do it right like they do everything else they do, then more power to 'em.
Indeed, the outer ring of the room was lined with peripheral products: beer, crackers, meats, sweets. Gail Ambrosius' pecan smokies seem to have mellowed a bit; I liked the sample I tried a lot more than the last time, a few years ago. The Quince and Apple team was pouring the newest syrup in the lineup, Lime and Cucumber. (It's got a little mint in it, and it's great.) Creminelli salami aren't on par, for me, with Underground or Bolzano, but they're not from Wisconsin, so you can't hold that against them. The spicy Calabrese was my favorite of the special order-only sausages the company was presenting.
I understand that passes to the more scholarly, industry-specific portions of the conference are pretty expensive, even for members. The general admission tickets for the Festival of Cheese were $55, but the public could show up Sunday morning and fill a flat-rate $25 tote bag with the remnants and cheese orphans of the previous night's extravaganza, so it has to be said that everyone had a shot at these goodies, not just the press or the insiders.
And hey, "extravaganza." That sounds better.