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What Makes A Cheese Worthy Of Awards? An Expert Explains

An array of cheeses is displayed at a cheese festival. Many Vermont cheeses have won national and international awards. Dr. Paul Kindstedt tells Vermont Edition why.
Catherine Hays
VPR File
An array of cheeses is displayed at a cheese festival. Many Vermont cheeses have won national and international awards. Dr. Paul Kindstedt tells Vermont Edition why.

Vermont cheesemakers frequently earn prestigious titles in national and international cheese competitions. At the World Cheese Awards last week, Jasper Hill’s “Little Hosmer” garnered the title of Best New Cheese. “Little Hosmer” and Vermont Creamery’s “Cremont” were both awarded Super Gold medals, making it among the top 66 cheeses in the world. 

But while many in enjoy Vermont cheeses, can you describe why?

Dr. Paul Kindstedt, professor at UVM’s department of Nutrition and Food Sciences, tells Vermont Edition what makes a cheese great, from the textures, flavors, and aromas of great cheeses, to what elevates a cheese to award-winning status.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the conversation above.

VPR: Everybody loves cheese, right? Why is it so delicious?

Kindstedt: “Yes - almost everybody. It’s partly culturally informed, but what makes it great is the appearance, the flavor, the texture, the aroma. It’s such a complex food. It has so many variations and nuances of differences that it’s endlessly interesting.”

VPR: Why does Vermont have such a vibrant artisanal cheese movement?

  • Talent: “The primary ingredient in my view is the density or concentration of unbelievably talented cheesemakers. It’s the human element. We talk a lot about the effect of the physical and natural environment on cheese, and nuances of flavor and a taste of place. But I would argue that, in particular for Vermont, it’s a taste of person — these wonderful cheesemakers that we attract and retain here in Vermont.”
  • Culture: “We have a cheesemaker culture that is just unparalleled in terms of collegiality and a sense of community amongst the cheesemakers. You have direct competitors that are good friends with each other and that like to get together. How many businesses can you say that’s characteristic of?”
  • Regulatory environment: “We have a regulatory culture that has been tremendous for four decades. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture and the Secretary of Agriculture have always looked at Vermont cheesemaking and supported innovations and have gone in the opposite direction of the flow for many years. They viewed small as beautiful when small wasn’t viewed as beautiful largely throughout the country.”
  • Political environment: “Vermont has a political culture on top of that. The congressional delegation has been wonderfully supportive of policy development and trying to head-off major problems that can happen at the national level.”

VPR: For people who want to cultivate a greater appreciation, what are some things they can concentrate on next time they consume a fine cheese?

Kindstedt: “Concentrate on the flavor or aroma. If it’s a cheddar, for example, there’s several major aspects of flavor:

  • Sulfur: "The best anchor you can think of there is a boiled egg type of aroma. If it’s excessive it’s a defect but if it’s there in very low levels it can be very positive."
  • Free fatty acids: "This is what causes rancidity. Think about baby vomit, if you’ve ever had children. That same nuance of picante flavor can be very positive."
  • Broth or meat: "These are often background flavors."
  • Cat urine: "In cheddar there’s a nuance of flavor called cat urine. It doesn’t sound appealing, but if you’ve ever cleaned a cat box there’s a particular aroma. That can often be in cheese, and in low levels can be quite pleasant."

Broadcast on Tuesday, Nov. 21, at 12 p.m.; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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