What better way to kick off Curds & Words than with a recap of the cheese curd tasting I went to last week?
It was my first American Cheese Society Conference this year. I finally decided to go because it was in Madison, my alma mater, and because my parents still live in northern Wisconsin.
I was only going to volunteer, since tickets are exorbitantly expensive (do they put bricks of cheese in the welcome bags? Free massages in the exhibition hall? Hand out gold plated cheese knives? None of the above. I’m still confused) but after agreeing to a somewhat long and arduous volunteer shift on Saturday, my former boss gave me a free Friday day pass.
The only tasting not sold out by the time I signed up was the cheese curd one–and it never did fill up. Why? It turns out most people still think of curds as a byproduct, or a processed food, or just low-quality cheese. So wrong. So, so wrong.
Sure, eating cheese curds vs. slicing off delicate curls of aged Pleasant Ridge Reserve may feel like cramming fistfuls of chocolate chips in your mouth rather than waiting for your chocolate soufflé to set up, but can we all agree that both joys are necessary in this life? Most good Wisconsin curds are made from the same milk as all those cheddars winning awards and topping your meals.
At the tasting, we tried curds from Hennings, Clock Shadow/Cedar Grove, and Decatur. I was especially excited about Decatur, since on my Great Cheese Curd Tour of 2011, I declared Decatur my favorite of all the ones we tried. Unfortunately Decatur only brought their jalepeno and buffalo wing flavors which I consider a crime against nature. So did Steve Stettler, the cheesemaker, as far as I could tell. Oddly enough, he seemed to have the same attitude about curds as most snobs. To him, they just seemed to pay the bills.
My favorite of what we tasting were the Hennings–two colors of the same curd. They were the most classic and had the best salt content, I believe. One of the interesting things the panel pointed out is that they sometimes try to tweak their recipe depending on who will be eating them. One panelist said that for Northern Wisconsinites, you have to salt them more since most people will be eating them in a bar with beer. Maybe that’s why these all seem undersalted to me, a born and bred Northwoods girl. I enjoyed the Clock Shadow and Cedar Grove ones as well. They are two branches of the same company. Same recipe, different cheesemakers, and different milling techniques. See how huge the Clock Shadow curds are? That’s because they mill them by hand in an old press, rather than mechanically.
This was the first year (!) that the American Cheese Society creating a category for cheese curds. I realize they are difficult to judge fresh, but I consider curds an American original and I’m glad to see them in finally. I’m horrified it took so long. The winners were: 1st, Springside Cheese Corp; 2nd, shared between Arena and Carr Valley: and 3rd, Jisa Cheese (in Nebraska! Who knew? Time for a road trip…). I haven’t had any of these, so I look forward to tracking them down to eat warm, straight from the bag, as God intended.