For as long as I can remember, cheese has been my absolute, undisputed favorite food. Sometimes, when I confess this to others, they appear confused, and I've often wondered why.
For starters, cheese has such a range of flavors, textures and consistencies. A bite of brie is very different than a bite of gorgonzola, which is wildly different than cave-aged Gruyère or fresh, salty mozzarella.
I love eating cheese straight out of the fridge, when it's at room temperature, when it's melty and ooey gooey or when it's melted and uber-crispy. From edam and Fontina to Manchego and taleggio, the world of cheese has so much to offer. I love cheese.
Cheese has such a range of flavors, textures and consistencies.
If cheese isn't your favorite food, maybe the reason is because it feels intimidating to shop for or work with at home. Sometimes, it's hard to know where to start when putting together a cheese platter for a group of friends. Picking up some shredded mozzarella for a lasagna isn't a huge effort, but identifying the best complexities and varieties of quality cheeses for a cheese board is a little more of an undertaking.
To demystify all things cheese, Salon Food spoke via email with Craig Gile, the northwest regional sales manager at Cabot Creamery Co-operative. Gile is a former Cabot cheese grader who tasted up to 200 cheese samples a day. He now judges cheese competitions and presents "sensory presentations" on how to pick the best cheeses to retailers.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What got you started in the "cheese world?"
Having grown up on a small dairy farm in northern Vermont, I have always had a passion for dairy products. I started working at Cabot soon after I finished my undergrad. After spending years as a cheese grader (taster), I started getting involved in the wider cheese world when I began doing trainings related to cheese, presenting at cheese conferences and serving as a cheese judge.
Tell us about your experiences at Cabot Creamery.
It's been incredible working for farmers who are focused on long-term success and working with coworkers that are often very long-tenured. It's an incredible resource working for a company that has such low turnover and passionate employees. You always know exactly who to turn to when you need advice and help on a project.
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Having farmer owners as my bosses ensures that we're always making decisions that are in the long-term interest of the company, the consumers and the environment — rather than ones that appease short-term interests. It's also great to work for such a socially and environmentally-conscious company. We're the first dairy co-op to achieve B Corp status, a certification that signals the highest levels of environmental and social responsibility.
Do you have any stand-out experiences from your cheese-tasting background, memorable moments or top cheeses?
". . . an artist making a sculpture out of a 700-pound block of cheese."
One of my most memorable moments came from my first judging experience with the United States Championship Cheese Contest. The venue was the phenomenal Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisc. On the first day, I was able to explore the top floor of the stadium and overlook the atrium full of cheese experts in white lab coats, thousands of cheeses and an artist making a sculpture out of a 700-pound block of cheese.
Do you prefer the nuances and complexities of cheese on its own accord? Or do you often enjoy it as a cooked component in dishes?
I typically prefer tasting cheese on its own. I usually actively like to think about what I'm tasting and how I'm experiencing the body of the cheese. There's always a little bit of detective work where I think about what is causing positive or defective flavors. Having jumped on board with more pandemic cooking in the past three years, I have a deeper appreciation for trying to cook with cheese.
Do you find that the "best cheeses" tend to come from particular countries or regions?
In the U.K. and Europe, legal cheese definitions tend to be tied to regions and very specific make practices. I think this results in more consistent quality, but there is a lack of creativity. In the U.S., legal cheese definitions are not tied to regions, and the make requirements are not as restrictive. This results in having a wider range of quality, but you do have the opportunity to develop new cheese recipes and it opens the gates for new passionate people to get involved in the industry since cheeses are not region locked.
Vermont, for example, is a premier cheesemaking region ripe for innovation. In 2003, we developed a cheese recipe with the Cellars at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vt., to age a special batch of our cheddar. The result? A delicious collaborative cheese with a nutty aroma and caramel sweetness. While the U.S. has pockets full of tremendous artisan makers (Vermont, Wisconsin, New York, California, Oregon, Washington), it's still worth exploring outside these regions. The main regional issue is likely going to be how the climate affects the animals. The added stress from extremely hot areas does not usually result in the best cheeses.
What does a typical "sensory presentation" look like in terms of selecting the best cheeses? What are the standout components of the top cheeses?
I like to get people thinking about what they are tasting first. The vast majority of the time, we're not treating eating like a cognitive exercise. I get people to look at the cheese, feel the body of the cheese, chew slowly, think about what they are tasting. Just focusing on the basic tastes is a great place to start. How salty do I think this cheese is? How sour or acidic do I think it is? From there, it's understanding what a typical flavor profile for a specific cheese is and which additional flavors may be present in some samples and what are the common defects.
Just how competitive is the world of cheese competitions? What cheeses do you recall as being especially noteworthy in terms of taste, consistency and aroma?
The most successful cheese competitions in the world are typically the ones that are most open to the producers when it comes to who the judges are, how scoring is handled and in giving cheesemakers feedback. In almost every cheese competition I have been a part of, the message to all stakeholders involved is that we are assembling experts who want to grade cheese and offer feedback. The actual awards are secondary. Cheesemakers want to know that a contest is being run by an open and honest organization.
Do you have a favorite all-time cheese?
Luckily, I have been fortunate enough to sample amazing cheeses from all over the world. I'm partial to Cabot Alpine Cheddar, but I do not have a specific favorite cheese. I more have favorite cheese experiences. Some of my favorite experiences are when I am invited to visit a cheesemaker and engage with them while sampling their product.