Hot news from the American cheese front: Last weekend, the 30th annual American Cheese Society Conference was held in Madison, Wisconsin. A record-setting number of cheeses were entered into the yearly tasting competition: 1,794. But there was only one overall winner among them, walking away with the coveted Best in Show title. Read on to see why you, too, should experience the best of the best.
Congratulations to The Cellars at Jasper Hill Farm, and to their American original, Winnimere. "Winni," its pet name, was initially modeled after the Swiss great, Forsterkase. Forsterkase is a washed rind raw cow's milk cheese, wrapped in spruce, which imparts distinctly woodsy, meaty, and earthy notes. There's something totally nuanced and unique about the way that those richly milky flavors balance the intensity of the wood binding.
Winnimere takes the Forsterkase idea and goes to the next level. Wheels receive the same spruce wrapping— from trees grown on the Northern Vermont farm— but they're washed in a lambic-style beer from Hill Farmstead Brewery up the road. The beer is made specifically for the cheese, and the brewery is teeny tiny, with a cult-like following and numerous accolades. The resulting cheese is at once woodsy, eggy, and nearly sweet, in a pleasantly fermented fruit kind of way. It's almost reminiscent of Vacherin Mont D'Or, especially in texture: gooey, unctuous, and oozing when perfectly ripe.
Incidentally, just a couple of weeks ago, I profiled another cheese coming out of The Cellars, Weybridge, by Scholten Family Farm. But unlike Weybridge, Winnimere isn't just aged in Jasper Hill's cellars, it's made on the farm itself, from the milk of the farm's cows, too. Winnimere, thus, is a true farmstead cheese.
Of the win, Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill says, “Winnimere represents the soul of our business, and the award is recognition for the hard work of so many people.” In 2006, The Cellars at Jasper Hill won its first Best in Show title for a different cheese, for their Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, on which they collaborate with Cabot Creamery, who makes the cheese and then transports it to Jasper Hill for a year or more of aging.
Sadly, at the moment at least, the cheese is kept very seasonal. It's the farm's cool weather offering, and the next batch will be released in January, so keep it on your winter cheese radar. In the meantime, you can try Harbison, also by Jasper Hill Farm, which is another cheese wrapped in spruce bark but has a bloomy rind. It's delicious and will surely offer a sneak peak into the sorts of flavors that the bark imparts to Winnimere.
Winnimere is one of those cheeses that makes a definite impression, and its flavor is wholly unique. I had to wonder if somehow the judges at the competition were ever so slightly biased. If you know the cheese, it's recognizable immediately, even in a blind tasting. It's an easy cheese to love, and it deserves every bit of its Best in Show award, don't get me wrong. It's one of my indubitable favorites, of any category, milk type, or region. And when at its peak, there's not much else that can compete. And clearly, this year, even 1,793 contenders couldn't.