Teams smile and say “Chee-ooooose ... us”

Fes­ti­val de­ter­mines who’s the bet­ter ched­dar cut­ters

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Danika Wor­thing­ton

Three teams stood around 40pound blocks of ched­dar, ca­su­ally talking among them­selves.

Abruptly, and with a straight face, a woman an­nounced that every­one should start cut­ting the cheese — the Amer­i­can Cheese So­ci­ety’s hours-long cheese-carv­ing com­pe­ti­tion at the 34th an­nual con­fer­ence and com­pe­ti­tion had be­gun.

Caught off-guard, the teams got to work, ref­er­enc­ing pre­drawn specs of pho­tos on their phones. None of the cheese­mon­gers, or trades­peo­ple spe­cial­iz­ing in cheese, had par­tic­i­pated in a cheese-carv­ing com­pe­ti­tion be­fore but said they wanted to join be­cause it sounded fun.

A team of two Mas­sachusetts cheese­mon­gers looked at their sketch of a dairy can with Colorado flow­ers and planned out their path. All of the com­peti­tors had to de­sign around the event’s theme: cheese with al­ti­tude.

“I like to think it’ll be fast, but I’m sure we’ll not be very good at it and it’ll take some time,” said Chelsea Ger­mer, who works at Al­lium Mar­ket, a spe­cialty-foods mar­ket and cheese shop in Brook­line, Mass. Her team­mate, Beth Falk, from Mill City Cheese­mon­gers in Low­ell, Mass., went off to find a wire to cut the cheese.

Ger­mer said she was re­lieved to hear that every­one else was new to cheese carv­ing. It helped that two fa­mous cheese­mon­gers known for their DIY and punk ways hadn’t shown up — they were pre­vi­ous win­ners of the Cheese­mon­ger In­vi­ta­tional, the Olympics of cheese­mon­ger­ing. (Falk was a fi­nal­ist this year.)

Next to the Mas­sachusetts cheese­mon­gers, the Friscobased Whole Foods’ team worked on their cheese block. The team con­sisted of six­month cheese new­bie Heather Heiss and four-year cheese vet­eran Blake Sant­myker.

Heiss de­signed a pic­ture of the Colorado land­scape, fea­tur­ing moun­tains, a river, a hot-air bal­loon and a cow. The scene was de­signed to spill out of the frame at the bot­tom. The two used tooth­picks to mark their path. Sant­myker de­scribed their work as pow­er­ful, un­for­get­table and “an­other word for vic­tory … ex­cel­sior!”

“It’s not our first rodeo,” he said. “No, it’s def­i­nitely our first rodeo. I’m just try­ing to be over­con­fi­dent. It’s a de­fense mech­a­nism.”

As the Coloradans worked, two peo­ple who could be de­scribed as punk ran up to take the empty ta­ble, mov­ing quickly to ready their cheese and pulling out sup­plies. The for­mer

Cheese­mon­ger In­vi­ta­tional cham­pi­ons ar­rived af­ter all.

The Amer­i­can Cheese So­ci­ety, which works to pro­mote Amer­i­can cheeses, is based in Den­ver, but this is the first year the Mile High City hosted the con­fer­ence, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Nora Weiser said. The event, spon­sored by the lo­cal Whole Foods, was in­spired by Sarah Kauff­man, known as the Cheese Lady, who cre­ates gi­ant and in­tri­cate cheese sculp­tures.

“The food scene in Den­ver and the Rocky Moun­tains is ready,” she said, ex­plain­ing that the city has a new in­ter­est in the food scene, farm-to-ta­ble and lo­cal pro­duc­ers. “Den­ver is grow­ing up as a food scene.”

About 2,000 tick­ets were given out for Satur­day night’s pub­lic fes­ti­val, mak­ing it the big­gest one yet, she said. More than 2,000 cheeses were en­tered into the fes­ti­val — a 10 per­cent in­crease over last year’s en­tries.

De­spite be­ing late to the com­pe­ti­tion’s 10 a.m. start, the punk team moved quickly to catch up. Santa Fe-based Lilith Spencer carved the base of the sculp­ture, while Chicagob­ased Jor­dan Ed­wards, of Pas­toral Ar­ti­san Cheese, Bread & Wine, cre­ated cheese cows us­ing a cookie cut­ter. The two were de­pict­ing tran­shu­mance — a sea­sonal move­ment of peo­ple and their live­stock to higher pas­tures in the sum­mer.

By 12:30 p.m., the room had a slight smell of ched­dar to it. Sant­myker had fash­ioned a cheese mi­cro­phone and be­gan to in­ter­view his part­ner, Heiss. “It’s a fun ex­pe­ri­ence no mat­ter how it turns out,” she said into the cheese. Mean­while, Ed­wards used a hair dryer to at­tach cows to the cheese moun­tain.

Com­peti­tors had un­til 3 p.m. Fri­day to carve. They could then go back at it on Satur­day morn­ing. Two teams — the punks and Louisiana-based Kar­rie White, who was re-cre­at­ing a Cel­lars at Jasper Hill mu­ral that is fa­mous in the cheese com­mu­nity — fin­ished early Fri­day.

The win­ners will be de­cided by a pub­lic vote at the Fes­ti­val of Cheese and Cheese Sale from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Satur­day at the Sher­a­ton Den­ver Down­town Ho­tel. Tick­ets cost $65 and are avail­able on­line or at the door. The pub­lic can also see the cre­ations at the Den­ver Whole Foods stores.

Un­til then, the cheese cre­ations sit in a re­frig­er­a­tor, await­ing their fin­ish­ing touches and im­pend­ing judg­ment.

Pho­tos by RJ San­gosti, The Den­ver Post

A team of cheese­mon­gers moves a carv­ing cre­ated in ched­dar at the Amer­i­can Cheese So­ci­ety’s 34th an­nual con­fer­ence and com­pe­ti­tion in Den­ver.

At­ten­dees sam­ple cheese at the Sher­a­ton Den­ver Down­town.

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