Last week, my social media was stuffed with cheese. I had the pleasure of being a steward at the judging for NZ Cheese Awards and also attended the CheeseFest a few days later. It’s hard to pin down an exact number, but I tasted at least 50 of NZ’s finest cheeses.
While I can’t share much about the judging process due to strict confidentiality regulations, I can say that it was a full day of cheese judging and I would do it again next year. I’ve never worked as a steward before, but it’s a bit like being a waitress only you’re handling cheese, and you get to sample a lot of cheese. I mean a LOT. I picked up a bunch of tips for my next cheese tasting event and while I don’t think I will be spitting cheese at tastings any time soon, I do understand why it’s done. If you love cheese and can spare a Sunday in February/March, I would recommend volunteering at the judging next year. PM me for details.
A run down of the Countdown CheeseFest
Held at The Great Room at The Langham, the CheeseFest consists of tables all around the outer edge of the room with a long cheese sales table and cheese makers stands. There are a few complimentary products such as crackers, fruit paste, chutney, and of course, beer and wine. Dominating the centre of the room are the winning cheeses are displayed in plastic boxes like a museum exhibit and some winners rotate on glamorous pedestals.
Last year’s CheeseFest winners were dominated Dutch style cheese but this year was dominated by blues. Puhoi Valley took the supreme title of Champion of Champions Cheese Award for their Kawau Blue. You can find this cheese in stores where it is sold as Puhoi Valley Gorgonzola-style Blue. I’m not sure why there is a name change, perhaps this is better for the international market as Kawau, an island in the north of Auckland near Puhoi, does little to describe the cheese.
Goat milk cheese is also popular, with Aroha Organic Goat Co and Crescent Dairy Goats both coming up with winning cheeses. There’s something charming about cheese makers who tend to their own goats. A real labour of love.
To think that 5 years ago, I didn’t like blue cheese or goat milk cheese and now I would happily (greedily) gobble both.
Sheep cheese isn’t as common but Mercer’s Sheep Pecorino was hands down my favourite cheese at the festival. This cheese won the NZ Chefs Association Champion Sheep Cheese Award. I’m almost out of my regular parmigiano-reggiano at home so I was keen to replace it with the pecorino, but alas, Mercer was the only award-winning cheese maker not selling their cheeses at the CheeseFest. They were giving away tasters so you can imagine I went back for seconds. You (and I) can find their cheeses at their shop in Mercer.
The CheeseFest is a great place to push your cheese boundaries and there were a few flavours that I wouldn’t normally go for, but great to try them to get a feel for how your palate is going.
One of the most dreamy cheeses I tasted was Massimo’s truffle burrata. Creamy and fragrant with truffle, this was indulgence on a spoon.
The unusual cheese I tasted would be Akaroa’s Barry’s Bay Oyster Stout Cheddar. The stout beer is made using Bluff Oysters by Three Boys Brewery in Christchurch. I would say it’s very much an acquired taste, though I love beer, I love cheese and I love oysters.
Buy! Buy! Buy!
The cheese sales tables have to be seen to be believed. Red stickered cheeses identify gold award winners and green stickers identify organic cheeses. Other than that, select your cheeses and let the bill ring up. Expect to pay less than half price on very good cheese.
I bought a couple of blues, some long lasting cheddars. A quarter wheel of brie for $6. A very respectable, oozy Puhoi Valley Farmhouse Brie. There was an 800 gram hunk of Meyer’s Maasdam for $10. A steal. Two pieces of Over The Moon Dairy Halloumi, one of which The Koala cooked up for breakfast on Sunday (pictured).
Ranging from $2-3 per piece, this was a halloumi lovers dream. 1 piece as enough for two as part of a cooked breakfast. I wish I had bought more.
There were other great bargains to be had, including the beloved 180 degrees oat crackers. If you haven’t tried these before, you’re in for a treat. They are my favourite cracker and come in a range of flavours. Usually $5.70 in stores, just $4 a box at the CheeseFest. I bought 2 boxes but wish I’d stocked up. Just don’t look at the nutritional info (thanks Carli @TheEnthusiasticCook).
Zoe Bone’s amazing fruit pastes were a hit and I bought the plum and feijoa varieties. These are really good with just about any cheese, but particularly good with blue or washed rind cheeses. Her thoughtful tasters certainly worked a treat.
Tips for CheeseFest:
- There are amazing specials on cheese. Clear your fridge and bring a chiller bag. Buy your cheeses first and it’s fine to have your bag stored behind the tables while you enjoy the festival.
- EFTPOS is available at the cheese sales tables but some individual sellers may be cash only.
- It’s damn near impossible to hold onto a plate, wine glass, camera, phone and bags at the same time. Choose wisely. Pockets are good.
- Don’t be afraid to skip an exhibit and come back later if they’re super busy. Go with the ebb and flow. It’s OK to do several loops. In fact, I recommend it. You can even come back to your favourites to buy and take home.
- Chat to the cheese makers. They might be a little shy but they are incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about their craft.
- Taste the winning cheeses. Compare the judges’ palate to your palate. Find out if you have good taste.
- Don’t be afraid to try something new. You might be surprised.