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Cheesemakers in paradise

There's socializing, music, networking, teaching, and learning, and since it's the annual American Cheese Society conference, there's tasting -- lots and lots of tasting

American Cheese Society members at the opening reception in the Breeding Barn at Shelburne Farms (top). Above from left: Katherine Tucker passes hors d'oeuvres. Many of the cheeses can be found locally at markets like Formaggio Kitchen. Cheesemaker David Gremmels of Rogue Creamery (left). American Cheese Society members at the opening reception in the Breeding Barn at Shelburne Farms (top). Above from left: Katherine Tucker passes hors d'oeuvres. Many of the cheeses can be found locally at markets like Formaggio Kitchen. Cheesemaker David Gremmels of Rogue Creamery (left). (photos by Corey Hendrickson for the boston globe; wendy maeda/globe staff (above center))

SHELBURNE, Vt. -- Inside the Breeding Barn at Shelburne Farms, hundreds of people mill about, hugging and kissing and shaking hands. "You are here this year!," one woman exclaims, embracing another. "It's so good to see you." It's a hot and humid evening, and the air smells like a mixture of goats, hay, and butter. This isn't the perfume of the barn -- the smell rises from the tables arrayed around the walls. They are laden with cheese: cow's milk, sheep's milk, goat's milk, and mixed milk cheese; the bloomy rinded and the hard; velvety chevres made that morning, smoked mozzarellas, cheddars old enough to attend grade school, tar-veined blues.

This is the opening reception of the American Cheese Society's annual conference -- its 24th, held last week at the Sheraton in Burlington -- a chance for artisan cheesemakers, retailers, distributors, restaurateurs, and enthusiasts to network, taste, and learn more about the object of their obsession. The event includes a competition, like the Oscars for cheesemakers, and a win brings more than glory -- it can have a substantial effect on sales. But right now a bluegrass band is launching into a tune. People lounge on the lawn outside the barn. The sun is going down, and huge clouds of bugs swarm the lights. "I'm going to Affinage," one man says of his workshop choice for the next morning. "Me too!" his friend replies with glee, as excited for this talk on the aging of cheese as a kid might be for a field trip. This isn't just business. This is summer camp for cheesemakers.

"It's like a big family," says John Eggena of Fromagerie Tournevent, whose Le Chevre Noir first won an ACS award in the '90s and is up for another this year. "There's kind of an honesty, you can't be a hokey folky con man. We're palate people. You can't fake it."

This year, there's a particular buzz in the air. "Per Capita US Cheese Consumption Nears 32 Pounds After Big 06 Jump," trumpets the front page of the July 27 issue of the weekly Cheese Reporter. (That's up about a pound from 2005; if factored in, the average per capita cheese consumption at this conference might substantially boost the '07 figures.) Consumer interest in artisan cheese is on the rise. And more people are making cheese. "Half of the [345] cheesemakers in my book didn't exist in 2000," says Jeffrey Roberts, author of "The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese."

Some of the new cheesemakers are young people drawn to the romance of living off the land, or professionals starting second careers. But many are dairy farmers feeling the decidedly unromantic squeeze of increasing fuel and feed costs. Rising milk prices may not be enough to keep them in business; turning that milk into cheese may. Food microbiologist Catherine Donnelly, a professor at the University of Vermont and codirector of its Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, offers an example. "One dairy farmer had 65 cows. He had to build a barn to house them, so he sold 15 cows, started making cheese, and made enough to build the barn." Fifty cows' milk would have earned him $100,000, she says. Fifty cows' milk made into cheese would net $1 million.

More people are also shelling out for these cheeses. Increasingly, consumers are attending cheese classes and trying to eat locally, perhaps in part because of safety concerns due to recent food scares, but also for the pure joy of terroir -- eating something so connected to the land you can taste it.

"The cheese world is changing so much," says attendee Tia Keenan, fromager at Casellula Cheese & Wine Cafe in New York. "Americans in wealthy urban markets are really interested in food in a different way. The precursor was the gourmet boom of the '80s. That started the process of making food important in one's life. It leads to: Where does my food come from? People's questions about cheese have changed, what people are willing to try has changed."

In many ways, the structure of the cheesemaking world resembles that of the art world: At the bottom of the chain, there's often a starving artist putting in long hours for little money; middlemen buy the product and sell it to well-off customers. "Distributors make money -- they dress in suits," says Mark Goldman of Formaticum, a purveyor of specialty paper in which to wrap cheese. "They buy, they sell. It's tricky to negotiate farmstead treated in a commodity fashion." (A farmstead cheese is one the farmer makes with milk from his or her own animals.)

"It's an interesting world," he says. "There are cheese nerds, like baseball card collectors. It's fetishistic. There are groupies."

No wonder, when there are such cheeses to taste as Mettowee, from Consider Bardwell Farm in West Pawlet, Vt., the creamiest chevre ever -- it's ladled into a mold, not extruded (and not entered for an award). Or Rogue River Blue from Oregon, made only during the autumn equinox and winter solstice, and wrapped in syrah leaves macerated in pear brandy. Or an American burrata that has people talking -- "Did you taste it?" "There's something funny about it!" "I liked it." It would be easy to get nerdy about most of the more than 1,200 entries, but somehow the judges must pick their favorites, including best of show. (Can you say palate fatigue?) The judging is based on each cheese's technical and aesthetic merits.

As the competition draws closer, contestants start to get jittery. Justin Trosclair of Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy is beyond all that, however. Haystack, in Longmont, Colo., has several cheeses up for awards, but if they don't win, he says, "I'm cool. There's next year." Still, he has high hopes for a cheese called Red Cloud. It has a washed rind and "just the right amount of pungency," he says. "It's a magical combination we luckily struck upon."

The awards ceremony convenes in the Emerald Ballroom. "Everybody nervous?" asks emcee David Grotenstein.

There's a collective "yes."

"Me too," he says.

Trosclair, indeed, had nothing to worry about -- Haystack wins a third place ribbon for its chevre en marinade, a second place for Red Cloud, and a first in aged goat's milk cheeses for Haystack Peak.

Fromagerie Tournevent wins three awards, including a first place for Chevre Noir in a cheddar category, reprising its win. (Eggena is mobbed after the ceremony. "You feel like Madonna," he says.) Rogue Creamery's Rogue River Blue and Crater Lake Blue tie for a second place. And a burrata made by BelGioioso wins a second place in fresh mozzarella (though by the time we get to taste it at Saturday afternoon's orgiastic Festival of Cheese -- 1,100-plus cheeses to sample! -- who can say whether that was the burrata everyone was talking about earlier).

Then it's time to announce the best of show winners. Third runner-up is Roth's Private Reserve, a cow's milk cheese made by Roth Käse USA Ltd. Second runner-up is Flagship Reserve, a cheddar from Beecher's Handmade Cheese. And first place goes to an aged raclette made by Leelanau Cheese Company of Michigan.

It gets a rare perfect score from the judges. Unfortunately, cheesemaker John Hoyt isn't here to collect his trophy. He just couldn't get away from the farm.

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