Southern cheesemakers were shut out of the Good Food Awards, a new initiative to recognize the best-tasting artisan edibles made in accordance with sustainable principles. In a weekend ceremony hosted by Alice Waters, eight awards were given in the cheese category to producers from Oregon, Vermont, California and Wisconsin.
"The Southern cheeses we got didn't score as well," Sarah King, outreach and development coordinator for sponsoring organization Seedling Projects, explains. "The cheese committee set a minimum score, and the Southern cheeses weren't above it."
Southern producers fared far better in the charcuterie, coffee, pickles and preserves categories; Austin's Confituras, the lone Texas winner, took home an award for its fig preserves. There were no Southern entries in the beer category, or winners in the chocolate division, although two Southern chocolatiers were named finalists.
Virginia's Meadow Creek Dairy, an Appalachian outfit that's been farming Jersey cows since 1980, was also named a finalist for its Grayson cheese.
King attributes the South's poor showing to a paucity of entries: The cheese committee had trouble drumming up excitement for a brand new award, and few of its Bay Area-based members had contacts in the Southern cheese community.
"Roasters here know roasters everywhere," King says. "With cheese, it's a little bit more difficult."
King says some Southern cheesemakers may also have been put off by a rule requiring submissions to be made with milk from animals fed pesticide-free feed. Southern cheese makers e-mailed the committee to complain they couldn't get pesticide-free feed in their region.
"We encouraged them to participate anyway," says King, adding the unforeseen problem would likely be listed in a planned book about the competition "illustrating all of the challenges facing food producers."
Those entries didn't meet the judges' standards, but King readily acknowledges the committee missed out on many of the South's very best cheeses -- or so the Southerners at the awards ceremony told her.
"They were like, 'We have tons more producers doing amazing things,'" King says.
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But Tim Gaddis, the celebrated cheese monger at Star Provisions in Atlanta -- who last year announced plans to form a Southern Cheese Council -- says many of those producers aren't moved by the prospect of blue ribbons. According to Gaddis, many of the talented cheese makers in North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia are enjoying the simplicity of their post-dot com lives with their goats, and don't want to be bothered with cross-country shipping and marketing campaigns. That's also true in North Texas, where many educated eaters don't know about the region's dozen or more accomplished dairies.
"They don't care," Gaddis says. "They make their stuff and sell it down the road."
What they do care about is the quality of their cheeses, some of which Gaddis characterizes as "outstanding."
"We're trying to push it as much as we can," says Gaddis, noting a new Southern cheese video produced by the American Cheese Society. "I'd say the number of dairies has doubled in the last 10 years, and it will probably double again in the next 10. That's when people will start noticing."