Sunday, February 20, 2011

Gold Fever - Royal Sydney Cheese Show

 Now that the results for the Sydney Royal Cheese & Dairy Produce Show have been officially announced, I can blog about it.

I always look forward to the show – a chance to taste cheese all day long, hang out with other cheesey people, and see what cheese-makers around the country are up to – new products, improvements since last year etc.

However it is also a day of mixed emotions. It is particularly heart-breaking when some of the cheeses you love and sell all-year around are not at their best on judging day. It happened this year for both Holy Goat La Luna (first year without a gold medal), and Bangalow Nashua (only a silver this year, but a gold for their Triple Cream).

Also, I know a lot of people are critical of the whole show/judging system – with comments along the following lines ‘how can you judge a ricotta next to a hand-made, cloth-bound cheddar – it’s not fair’, ‘how can a show that accepts entries for commercial cottage cheese take itself seriously’ etc.

In order to throw my 2 cents in, I will briefly outline the Show for you:

The Royal Agricultural Society has been judging dairy products for over 150 years. Any dairy products made in Australia are eligible to enter – from small artisan products, to mass-produced, supermarket products.

All entries are split into categories: fresh goat’s, white mould goats, cow’s milk ricotta, mild cheddar, semi-matured cheddar, vintage cheddar etc – there are about 50 classes, so like is judged against like and there are particular expectations for each category.

All entries are scored out of 20 points:
4 points presentation
6 points texture
10 points aroma and flavour

16 to 17.9 pts is a silver medal, 18 – 20 is gold.

All judges are from the industry and are suitably qualified via experience and/or training via a specific dairy products sensory evaluation course. A small team of 3 or 4 judges are assigned to judge specific categories on the day. Judging is done individually and in silence, then scores are averaged at the end to get an overall score for each entry.

At the end of the day, certain high-scoring cheeses from different categories are pitted against each other for various awards such as Champion Fancy Cheese, Champion Cheese etc. In these instances, it is possible for a ricotta to be ‘in the running’ against a cheddar.

On the day I judged the following categories:
-       ricotta (both fresh and baked)
-       cottage cheese (uncreamed, creamed and flavoured)
-       cow’s milk washed rind
-       cow’s milk mixed rind
-       cow’s milk hard cheeses (parmesans, pecorino’s etc)
-       innovation

I had many ‘judge’s conundrums’ on the day (particularly trying to judge Australian ‘parmesans’, when I usually only eat Parmigiano Reggiano – but that is a whole other blog post). Here is one example:

early morning session - Cottage Cheese class:
Gherkin-flavoured cottage cheese:
Presentation – as it should be, even surface, nicely presented etc
Texture – great, couldn’t really find any faults. Even curd pieces with a great texture, evenly distributed in a creamy dressing
Flavour – a beautiful cottage cheese, with a very good gherkin flavour that was true and very nicely balanced.

Result – gold medal for mass-produced, gherkin-flavoured cottage cheese

late morning session – Washed rinds
Bangalow Nashua:
Presentation  - good, no apparent faults
Texture – rind slightly grainy, interior good
Flavour – a little disappointing: more ammonia on the rind that you would expect, and a touch of bitterness on the palate, a few unpleasant flavours from the rind – minor faults, still a pretty good cheese overall, but not a gold medal entry.

Result – silver medal for Bangalow Nashua


This was disappointing, but all I can say is this: According to the scoring criteria, the gherkin cottage cheese was almost faultless, while the Nashua entered on the day had some small, but obvious faults. I spent a few years working for one of Australia’s biggest dairy companies, and believe me – the production team there took just as much pride in producing quality products as small cheese-makers do. Why shouldn’t they get a gold for an amazing cottage cheese? I honestly feel that excellence should be rewarded in any area appropriate, and constructive feedback given for all entries in an attempt to try and raise the standard for the whole industry. We won’t get anywhere rewarding mediocrity.

NB – not that I am saying Nashua is mediocre, quite the opposite – a silver medal is a great result, I happily eat and sell this cheese regularly... Trying to choose my words carefully here… some people think that we should support all artisan cheese-makers simply because they are small and artisan, even if they make a sub-par cheese, and I just don’t agree. The cheese has to be good. Full Stop.

OK. Moving on…cheese shows are so contentious!

Highlights of the day:
-       2 great entries in the fetta category – Small Cow Farm Fettice, and Highland organics Fetta
-       Generally a good standard in the washed rind category
-       Some great entries from Milawa this year – 3 silver medals for King River Gold, Capricornia and their goat camembert (I find Milawa to have variable quality, so it was good to see so many good entries from them this year – keep up the great work guys!)
-       Berry’s Creek blue cheeses – gold medals all around
-       Bangalow Triple cream – hopefully we will get some in store soon

-       Holy Goat cheeses not up to their usual standard, resulting in stunned silence from all judges on the day. I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come now that their cheeses are starting to be distributed to Coles supermarkets
-       No Barossa Valley cheeses – I would have loved to see the new Geo there
-       Unfortunately no golds for Woodside – but lots of silvers. Also a very mysterious entry in the ‘innovation’ category – described as a ‘leaf-wrapped triple cream’ which was not leaf-wrapped, nor innovative in any way that I could see…
-       A couple of entries with foreign matter – hairs, fibres etc

I also conducted some cheese & wine matching tutorials at the RAS Cellar Tasting on Saturday. The classes sold out quickly and everyone who attended was really attentive. The line up on the day was: Goat’s cheese & Sauvignon Blanc (a mix of Capra Allegro, Holy Goat La Luna and Woodside Edith), Milawa Capricornia with Pinot Grigio, Small Cow Farm Brie with Pinot Noir, Ashgrove vintage cheddar with Cabernet Sauvignon and finally Berry’s Creek Tarwin Blue with Moscato – which seemed to be the highlight of the class.

On a final note I would like to say congrats to everyone who entered and did well, and I really look forward to seeing new and exciting stuff at next year’s show.

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