Wisconsin’s artisans put themselves in the right position, but France, by way of Pennsylvania, grabbed the cheese-infused glory.
A hard sheep’s milk cheese made at Mauleon Fromagerie in France and imported by Savencia Cheese USA in New Holland, Pennsylvania, was named best in show Thursday at the World Championship Cheese Contest at Monona Terrace. The cheese, entered in the contest by Savencia, was selected from 20 finalists that included five entries from Wisconsin cheesemakers, including two made in Antigo by Plymouth-based Sartori Co.
Many of the nearly 700 people who paid $25 to attend the gala and awards ceremony and sample piles of 60 different cheese came hoping for a repeat of the 2016 contest, when a cheese made in Monroe took home the best of show for the first time in 28 years. But just like in most of the World Championships of the past, it was a cheese from outside of the U.S. that was the winner.
“I’m very surprised it won. I knew it was a great product, but I was happily, happily surprised,” said Silvain Diedrichs, a native of France who now lives in Pennsylvania, where he works for Savencia. “The sheep from the region ... that’s a big part of the success of the cheese.”
The cheese, referred to as Esquirro and crafted in the Pyrenees region of France, scored a 98.376 out of 100.
But despite having one-fourth of the entries in the finals, Wisconsin cheesemakers failed to crack the top three. First runner-up went to a hard cow’s milk cheese aged in a silver mine in Austria. The Arzberger Ursteirer, made by Franz Moestl and Team Almenland Stollenkase, scored a 98.267. The second runner-up, Mont Vully Bio, a raw milk cheese washed with Pinot Noir wine and made by Ewald Schafer of Fromagerie Schafer in Switzerland, scored a 98.256.
The contest, hosted by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, is the largest technical cheese contest in the world and this year drew a record 3,402 entries, up 15 percent over the 2016 contest. Held every other year opposite the U.S Cheese Championship in Green Bay, the contest featured 919 entries from 26 foreign countries and 32 U.S. states.
The winners of each of the contest’s 121 categories were judged Thursday morning with the top 20 pared down by a team of 55 judges. The final 20 featured seven U.S.-made cheeses, including five from Wisconsin. They were English Hollow Cheddar from Maple Leaf Cheese in Monroe, a cave-aged Chandoka of cow’s and goat milk from LaClare Family Creamery in Malone in Fond du Lac County and a mild Gouda from Saxon Cheese in the Manitowoc County community of Cleveland.
Sartori’s two entries, both from its BellaVitano line, were Pastorale Blend, a cow’s and sheep’s milk cheese hand-dusted with paprika, and Reserve Espresso, rubbed with freshly roasted espresso. The company’s black pepper BellaVitano won the U.S. Cheese Championship in 2017.
“To me, (BellaVitano is) one of the friendliest cheeses,” said Mike Matucheski, a master cheesemaker who has played a major role in Sartori’s success. “It’s sweet, creamy, a little bit fruity. It’s got some crystals in there that are a little bit fun. I’m very, very proud of it. Because we achieve awards, our standards keep getting higher.”
Switzerland and the Netherlands each qualified four cheeses for the finals, with Austria getting two cheeses and Canada one cheese in the top 20.
‘Attention to detail’
But while Wisconsin may have been blanked in the finals, it was again a dominating force at the three-day contest. Wisconsin cheesemakers grabbed first place in 46 of the 121 categories, had 46 second-place finishes and 37 third places. Those numbers include a sweep of the top three spots in 18 categories.
“The quality is a huge focus of what people are doing and the neat part is that they’re plants of all different sizes,” said Katie Fuhrmann, cheesemaker at LaClare Family Creamery, which milks 800 goats a day. “I really think a lot of it goes back to the attention to detail on the farm side of it so that the milk that’s coming through the door is of high quality.”
But the contest can have a profound effect on a cheese company. Diedrichs of Savencia said he’s “not fully” aware of what the award will mean for his company and the cheesemakers back in France. Tim Omer, president and managing director of Emmi Roth USA, however, has a pretty good idea.
Since his company took home the best of show award in 2016 with a Grand Cru Surchoix, production of the alpine-style cheese has increased by 40 percent in each of the past two years. Omer, who grew up in Mayville, strolled the judging floor on Wednesday with an 18-pound wheel of his world champion cheese shortly after being interviewed by Martha Teichner of CBS’ “Sunday Morning.” His company is now trying to figure out how to make more of the cheese without compromising its quality.
“This contest has never really been about business. It’s about competing against your fellow cheesemakers,” said Omer, who has been coming to the contest since the 1980s.
“But at the end of the day it’s become such a big deal that it has a material impact on your business. You can make a great cheese, but if it’s not in the right cellar environment, has the right temperatures, the right flora, the right bugs, it’s hard to replicate.”