"Great moments are born from great opportunity, and that's what you have here tonight... boys. That's what you've earned here tonight... boys" Herb Brooks, Miracle 2002.
The weekend for the Contest for World's Best Cheesemonger 2015 at the Mondial du Fromage in Tours, Loire Valley was finally here.
Adam and I had taken any chance we could the past few days of the Road Trip to prep the boys for what was to come during the competition. Together with Perry and Justin, we were looking at pictures of breeds of milking animals, learning the rules of AOC regulated cheeses, tasting perfect pairing ideas and of course, sculpting cheese (and soap! As its texture was reminiscent of the texture of cheese and a lot cheaper to play with). Nothing was left to chance and it was exciting to be a part of their preparations. The way they shared their ideas and we all worked together on their prep was awesome to see. Camaraderie that is all too often forgotten in the Australian cheese industry (there's that soapbox wielding its head again!). I have to admit, at this point, the competitive spirit in me was alive and strong!! I secretly wanted someone in the competition to pull out with last minute nerves so I could step up to the plate and challenge for the title that slipped out of my grasp 2 years earlier.
On Saturday, all the competitors were required to meet at the stage where the competition was being held for an induction and media commitments. There was 3 competitors from Belgium, 3 from France, 2 from Japan, 2 from America, 1 Italian and 1 Dutch monger. The same look of wonderment that was in my eyes 2 years ago when I gazed up at the stadium from the stage was present on Justin's and Perry's faces. The magnitude of the event dawned upon my American friends as the 2000 seat theatre and stage was being set up with lights, TV equipment and sound requirements. It was also great to see old friends again especially the Belgians! Luc and Natalie Callebut were my favourite couple in the cheese world. The way they supported each other and the love they shared for each other and for cheese was incredible and infectious. Seeing as Natalie and Pascal Fauville were competing again after placing at the last edition of the Mondial, I had them as favourites to take out this weekend's championship.
After the media commitments and necessary house rules were explained about the competition, the mongers were taken to the local market, Halles de Tours, for a public ceremony followed by the first part of the competition. Each monger was given 150 Euros and was required to purchase the fresh products, condiments, etc that they required for the competition on Sunday. They had 2 hours to make their way around this beautiful market and pick up what they needed for tasks such as the perfect pairing, cold dish preparation and garnishes for their sculptures.
I assisted the boys during these two hours together with their translator, a French girl with an American accent! I was like a kid in a candy store surrounded by the amazing produce, poultry, meats, charcuterie, seafood, etc. I was able to track down the one product that blew my mind two years ago.... White Strawberries!!! If there is one fruit you need to try during a Summer travelling through France, it is white strawberries with their luscious texture and incredibly soft and sweet flavour. 30 Euros and 3 punnets later I was a happy boy! Especially when I purchased a tub each of homemade Chantilly cream and Fontainebleu (whipped double cream & fromage frais) to have with my strawberries. My mind was definitely not on my work at this point and I ended up having a glass of wine and cheeky dozen oysters freshly shucked inside the market at the seafood stall opposite Rodolph's cheese shop. At the conclusion of the allowed time for shopping, Justin was able to pick up some beautiful edible flowers to go with his cheese sculpture and Perry bought some interesting products from the spice shop that had so many luxurious products.
Upon returning to the stage with their produce, each monger was given time to bring their equipment and props and set these up at their tables for the next day. This is where the gamesmanship began... The Belgians had a whole trolley load of equipment and props, Pascal even had an interesting photo of a cheese being blown up to include in his final sculpture for the competition.
Guillaume, a Frenchman who competed in the MOF of 2014 and won the French national cheesemonger competition in January of this year, finally made his presence felt at this very moment. His dad and partner were on hand to help unpack his incredible hand made glass props for his sculpture and his custom knife set he would use to assist in creating the intricate shapes the judges would no doubt be looking for during Sunday's competition. I could see Justin and Perry begin to doubt what they were bringing to the competition, I know I was beginning to have second thoughts and I wasn't even competing! This very moment was why I was a part of Team USA and I quickly reassured the boys that tomorrow was going to be a long day and the competition will be won and lost in the battle of your minds not what equipment your competitor was using.
With that said, we finished for the day and made our way together with the rest of the American contingent who were in Tours for the Mondial and the team from Neal's Yard Dairy of London, to Rodolphe Le Meunier's amazing house down the road from our Chateau for a big BBQ and to watch the Champion's League final between Barcelona and Juventus. This party was a continuation of the first night we arrived in Tours and Dee Dee, Rodolphe's beautiful wife, and Nate, the coolest cheesemonger I know, from Brooklyn's Bedford Cheese Shop, cooked up a storm for the crew. With Barcelona wrapping up another final victory with their dominant display against Juventus, Adam began to get excited for the following day's festivities. We even had a war cry develop from the many funny conversations with our British counterparts from Neal's Yard; "Eyyyy, why you gotta touch my arm like that for?!!", a simple quote from Justin in his strongest New Orleans accent. This quote was used over the following day many times to calm the nerves of the boys and have them concentrate on the tasks at hand during the competition.
The Competition begins...
Sunday arrived and the boys were up early, any sign of nerves were non existent and Perry was even dressed very sharply in a three piece suit! Game faces were on and it was time to play a few Youtube clips of inspiration before we drove to the stadium. Kurt Russel's speech as Herb Brooks in the movie Miracle I mentioned at the start of this post gave us goosebumps, but what gave the boys belief was the next 30 minutes in the car with Adam, to the background sounds of WuTang Clan, giving Justin and Perry a motivational speech I had never experienced in my life. There were war cries, shouting, cursing, freestyle rapping but most importantly he had a contagious energy and spirit he was feeding the boys with his belief and strong will! This man is a mentor to me and in that very moment, he became a hero for the three of us.
It was 9am and with the cameras on and the lights beaming down from the bleachers, the competitors from around the world took their places on stage. Rodolphe arrived and explained the way the day would transpire. First up was a multiple choice test comprising 40 questions split evenly amongst 4 categories; breeds of milking animals, dairy science, AOC regulations and Fresh cheeses. This test was followed by a blind tasting of 4 different cheeses where the monger had to guess the name, region, style and age of each piece of cheese; no mean feat! Up next was the cutting section, where each monger had to cut a perfect 250gm piece off 4 types of cheese (this was a nightmare moment for me as it is the part of the competition that cost me a place in the competition 2 years ago), with the majority of mongers missing the mark, Fabien Degoulet, a Frenchman who has been a cheesemonger in Japan for the past 6 years, scored on all 4 cuts and therefore was leading the competition at this stage. With the completion of these categories, up next was the requirement of each monger to present to the panel of judges their favourite cheese; a taste and why they picked it. Justin, who had been carrying around Jasper Hill's Winnimere everywhere on our roadtrip (and I mean everywhere!!) finally got to let go of this incredible cheese whilst Perry presented Marcel Petite Comte.
After each monger presented their favourite cheese, all the cheesemongers came back on stage and the doors were finally opened to the public. A large contingent of Belgium supporters streamed in and joined Luc who had not taken his eyes off Nathalie on stage all morning and was living her every high and low. It was 12pm and the creative parts of the competition began. The mongers had 4 hours to complete 5 tasks. First up, each monger was required to create a cheese plate for one person from a selection of 8 cheeses. The trick with this component is the fact it is just for one person. Half the competitors plated up a selection of cheeses fit for a party of 10! Each monger was required to demonstrate clean and precise cutting and a creative element with the garnishes. The second component of the afternoon was a perfect pairing of Comte with an ingredient/ingredients of the cheesemonger's choice. They had to make 6 portions for the judges which required precision and clean cutting. Some mongers really excelled with this component with one using dry ice and gold flecks for theatrical effect (smoke and mirrors if you ask me!). One plate up that caught my eye but wasn't executed well was a Japanese competitor plating up an aroma of Comte paired with Whiskey in a perfume bottle that was to be sprayed as an aroma to be paired with the sniff of the comte (very Heston like in theory!). The perfect pairing that I was proud of that worked really well was Justin's use of sesame, floral honey and Jura wine; it worked so harmoniously on the palate and I was glad that I was able to help him with this (no bias of course! This pairing rocked, even if Adam didn't agree with the execution of it ha!). The next part of the competition was to plate up a cold dish, entree if you must, of one cheese however you like. The cheese chosen for this part was fresh St. Maure, an ashed log of Goat's milk cheese that was only 4 days old. Nathalie used freshly shucked oysters for this cheese and for me that was the best tasting pairing.
With the first 3 components completed within the first hour, each monger had 3 hours for the final 2 stages of the competition and in the eyes of the audience, the most exciting. First up was the themed cheese display where the cheesemongers were able to bring in their own props to use. They were given a 1 metre x 1 metre board and a table of cheese that would put most cheese displays to shame to use. The theme was "Cheese as Art".
There is not enough space here to talk about each in detail as there were some amazing creations! The level of competition this year was far superior to the year I competed and the creativity and imagination displayed by some mongers was thoroughly enjoyable!
The highlights included:
- Nathalie from Belgium's use of sound, sight and colour in her display. She had on each corner of her display a 3D view finder and earphones to symbolise 4 different themes of a cheese's life together with a fluro light colour under each cheese board on her display to match. Very creative and very impressive.
- Evert from Holland's recreation of a famous artwork with different shapes and colours of cheese.
- Pascal from Belgium's use of artistic props including the process of squashing a selection of cheeses within a photo frame and stacking different shaped cheeses on each other with a pouring milk urn on top to finish.
- Justin from USA's use of a 4 tier wooden display that he built in America and lugged to the competition was also really impressive and his attention to detail with his cutting and simple garnishes were very effective and successful.
There was also some fantastic cutting on display and high commendations went to Guillaume from France with his very MOF (Medal of France) display which he obviously replicated from his application in that competition earlier this year. Perry from America with his use of lighting effects in his USA sign and Fabien the Frenchman working in Japan's use of Japanese pottery were also very impressive.
The final part of the long day of competition was the cheese sculpture whereby each monger was given 3 cheeses that they could utilise in their sculpture. This final part was an unknown part of the cheese world when I competed 2 years ago and so it was for my American friends this time around. There were a couple of interesting sculptures to say the least and it looks like everyone took the majority of time with their Art as Cheese category, leaving only a short time for their sculpture. The two stand out sculptures were Andrea the Italian's sculpture of a hand and Fabien's stacked cheeses that relied on the natural weight of the cheeses to hold itself together.
At 4pm the contest was declared over. Each monger looked relieved, exhausted and emotional and rightly so; this competition is non stop for 9 hours on a stage surrounded by TV cameras, bright lights and loud music, not to mention the stands of fans watching your every move. We waited a very unusual long time for the results to be revealed and it was too hard to pick a clear favourite at this stage. All I knew was, once the results were announced, the real partying would begin! Finally at about 6pm, Rodolphe appeared on stage and announced the top 3:
- 3rd: Nathalie from Belgium (same place as last competition!!)
- 2nd: Guillaume from France
- 1st: Fabien the Frenchman working in Japan!
I was a little surprised by the results but that's a discussion for another day and another forum, what mattered now was the bond each of these mongers now shared. It is incredibly tough up there on stage and each left nothing in the tank. It was now time to party and with the official Soiree upstairs, it was a short journey to Beer'o'clock and a banquet for the ages where I may or may not have had 4 courses of Foie Gras including a Foie Gras Brulee for dessert!!
Until next time,
Keep it cheesy,
Up next: Weeks 4 - 6 of the Churchill Fellowship at Neal's Yard Dairy in London, England.