Cheesy Convention A Mouthful


UT The Daily Texan
Francisco Marin
Daily Texan Columnist

Cheese lovers attend the 2009 Festival of Cheese sponsored by the
American Cheese Society on Saturday in the Governor’s Ball room of
the Hilton Austin.

Dozens of cheese-heaped tables filled the Governor’s Ballroom at the
downtown Hilton on Saturday night, where the American Cheese Society
held its annual Festival of Cheese. Gruyères and goudas, Muensters and
mozzarellas, pepperjacks and provolones – about 1,100 varieties of the
delicious delicacy were put on display for hundreds of guests to eat.

"Cheese creates a humanity in us, and it creates a spirit and
love of life," said John Greeley, co-chair of the event’s tasting
competition. "I think cheese can make us happier and can spark
creativity in us."

While there were nearly limitless opportunities to indulge in cheese,
there were also plenty of other treats to go around. Mouth-watering
varieties of Leinenkugel craft beers – including Honey Weiss, my
favorite – were chilled to perfection, in addition to old Texas
favorites Shiner Bock and Firemans #4.

A table, hosted by Gracious Gourmet founder Nancy Wekselbaum, held
about 15 small glass containers of tapenades – a typically Provencal
sauce that consists of finely chopped olives, capers, anchovies and
olive oil – as well as chutneys, spreads and pestos.

Nancy’s husband Natan, an elderly, hunched-over man, waved at me from
across the table.

"You, you come here."

He took a delicate cracker and meticulously spread soft goat cheese
on it, hands shaking, and topped it off with a small dab of fennel
blood orange tapenade, made with carmelized fennel and red onions,
chopped kalamata olives and smashed blood oranges.

I took the cracker and scarfed it.

"Mmm, that’s good." Natan lit up and shook my hand.

People from all over the nation came to enjoy the cheese festival, and
each had their own stories to tell. Daniel Utano and Grace Coughlin,
a young couple from a hip neighborhood in Brooklyn, were smartly
dressed in matching black outfits and sampling soft chevres on wheat
toast. Jessica Hughes and Nick Wagner, who have resided in Austin for
a year, were recently married. Their friends Becky and Mike got them
the expensive passes to the cheese festival as a wedding gift.

"I’m a total cheese slut," Nick said.

"Stop it!" Jessica said, laughing and slapping Nick’s chest. "Cheese
can bring out the aggression in a woman."

Whitney Tyler, a UT nutrition junior and self-described "cheese-monger"
and cheese-buyer for the Wheatsville Co-op, said there are
misconceptions when it comes to cheese’s nutritional value.

"Cheese is so good for you! It’s got calcium, it’s got protein –
everybody needs a little cheese," Tyler said, adding that the
Wheatsville’s "Hopelessly Bleu" cheese was especially popular at
the festival.

Three recent UT graduates, Dominique Tremino, Becca Aiello and Katie
Gannon, were huddled around a fresh mozzarella table and giggling as
they watched me try "cocoa cheddar" and a cheddar aged for 10 years,
which they affirmed were the "nastiest" cheeses at the festival.

A young, dark-haired Armenian woman standing alone by her table
looked around at the festival participants, smiling. Sylvia Tirakian,
co-founder of preserves company Harvest Song, offered me a spoon
of her rose petal preserves – soft, floral, almost overwhelmingly
sweet – as well as a small plate of fresh walnut preserves in a dark,
bittersweet syrup.

"You know Noah’s Ark? That ark landed in the volcanic soils of the
Ararat Valley, which is where we grow our preserves," Tirakian said,
proffering a spoon for me and motioning toward a jar of apricot-white
cherry preserves. She wrapped her lips around a spoon of her own,
holding wild strawberry preserves, and smiled in satisfaction.

Local food blogger Erin Krenek, a UT government graduate, perused a
table of aged cheddars, which she said are her favorite.

"Not a fan of the bleus, though – way too strong-tasting," she said,
grimacing in mock disgust.

At the end of the evening, festival-goers stumbled around the ballroom
in drunken revelry, glasses of complimentary merlot finally empty,
bottles of Dos Equis lying atop filled trash cans – and yet there
still seemed to be limitless amounts of cheese left on each table.

The festival-goers poured out of the downtown Hilton around 10 p.m.,
some laughing, some bloated and tired, some too drunk to drive –
but all left with a smile and the barbed, sharp smell of cheese on
their breath.

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