Ron Schmidt, Professor Emeritus (Retired) at the University of Florida in Gainesville is truly an expert in the making of cheese. He is also the first and only judge in cheese competitions we have ever interviewed. He was once a judge for the American Cheese Society Competition, the most prestigious competition in the US. We jumped at the chance to ask him about it:
How was your experience as a judge?
I was a judge for the ACS one time (in Austin, TX). I was asked again, but it conflicted with our trip to China for my son’s wedding, and I got out of the loop. Would love to do it again.
The way it is done is a very interesting process. They partner a “scientific” judge (academics like me) with an “aesthetic” judge (chefs, food writers, etc.). I was told that they went to this format because the scientific judges were a “little too critical.” I sat down at my table and up came Sarah Masoni, the daughter of one of my professors at the University of Minnesota (Ed Zottola). My partner.
Zottola grew up in a family cheese making facility in Oregon and was the founder of the Farmstead Cheese Program in Minnesota, and also has a great UM Cooperative Extension publication “Making Cheese at Home.” Daughter Sarah, with the Oregon State University Food Innovation Center, has carried on his tradition through working with artisan cheese makers in Oregon.
I hadn’t seen Sarah since she was an adolescent. She and I were pretty much in agreement on every cheese we judged. It was especially fun listening to the arguments between aesthetic and scientific judges at other tables. We always finished way before most of the other groups.
Most of the cheeses that are judged are very good, and many are excellent. Some of the categories are tough (think about tasting approximately 50 pepper cheeses including anything from black pepper to habanero pepper). I most remember the blue cheese sample that was so far gone that we deemed it inedible – pretty much running off the table. It was fun on the last night for the big extravaganza (where they bring out all the cheeses in the contest for a big cheese reception). I stood there and watched people eat that demon blue cheese. Some spit it out. Others thought it was delicious and questioned the low rating. That is one of the neat things about cheese. People have vastly different tastes.
I also judged the cheese at the annual Florida Goat Conference (put on by a friend in the Dairy Science Dept). That was a very unique experience. I did that for several years and seemed to get a little stomach flu every year (from the milk I guess). I judged with the ex-director of the American Dairy Goat Association. Not always in agreement.
It was very tough, as they had a broad range of entries and some were really elaborate in their display (with roses, bottle of wine). I tried to get them to give separate prizes for display (not sure if they ever did that). One sample was so bad … so very bad … “extremely goaty,” and she brought the same cheese four years in a row. Each year she would say, “It is developing more character … aging out nicely.” The last year she had baked some in a crock pot. It cleared the room … I tell you … cleared the room.
Would you do it again?
Yes. I would love to do it again. Not only was it a great experience, but I also made some great networking contacts. It is quite grueling. A lot of cheese in 2 days. We worked all day the first day, then went to the reception (and guess what they were serving?). It featured Oregon cheese and beer. I was very uncomfortable that night when I got back to the hotel.
How did you learn to chew and spit?
That part of it can be a little gross. But it is necessary to do. If you swallow, you really saturate yourself and who can eat that much cheese? Actually, there really is no training on that, but should be. Also, making sure you don’t fatigue your sensory system is important. Take breaks, drink water, eat fruit (like pineapple), and crackers.
How did you first get interested in making cheese?
Cheese came into the picture as a college student at Minnesota. I worked in the university pilot plant for four years as an undergrad. They made several different types of cheese, some was sold mail order, some in the sales room.
We sold cheddar, colby, Swiss, Jarlsberg, havarti, port du salut, and some other cheeses. But our big specialty was blue cheese (and NuWorld cheese – made with a white mutant variety of Pennicillium roqueforti which was not blue pigmented – developed there at UM). We also experimented with a lot of cheese-based products (e.g. cheese dressings, dips) – which we sold at the store. Also sold ice cream, yogurt, buttermilk and other dairy products. During the holiday season, we would send our blue cheese all over the country and the world.
In the mid 70s (when I was in grad school – I know a long time ago), the cheese mail order was closed down (departmental decision that I was not privy to- something about competing with industry). The sales room is still open, but it is not what it used to be. Still make some very good ice cream, some cheese.
Back in the day, we would hire about 10 extra students prior to the holidays to help with the mail order sales. The blue cheese was aged in a cave (which UM owned) along the banks of the river near downtown St. Paul. When the cheese maker (an old Minnesota Swede named Al Johnson) got cancer, I (as a senior) had to become plant manager and ran the cheese operation. This was a very good experience. Thankfully, Al did recover and lived for several years-great guy.
After my MS, I became a commissioned officer (yes, military) in the US Public Health Service. My tour of duty was in Chicago, primarily involved in the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipment (NCIMS), the federal/state cooperative program for regulation and inspection for Grade A milk and milk products.
Yes, I spent the Vietnam War era fighting the battle of Chicago. The experience in USPHS provided me very good background which I used in my teaching program years later at UF. I also served as academic representative on the NCIMS Board of Directors for many years, until my retirement in 2008.
While pursuing my MS and PhD degrees at UM, my research projects were both related to cheese. During my MS project, I studied methods for improving the texture of cheese made from lowfat and nonfat milk. My PhD dissertation project related to bitterness defects in Cheddar Cheese.
Thoughout my career at the University of Florida, I taught a variety of Food Science courses. One of these classes was a graduate class in food fermentation, which I co-taught with a colleague, Bob Bates. This is where my connection started with New England Cheesemaking – we were customers for starter cultures and equipment.
Bob was an avid brewer and taught the alcohol fermentation (beer, wine), while I taught the lactic acid fermentation part of the class. This class involved a lot of biochemistry (fascinating, as well as practical, making different cheeses, yogurt, kefir, creme fraiche, cultured buttermilk and some other funky things that students came up with). Each grad student had to do a summer project in the class, and they came up with some doozies.
One year, a grad student did his project on a ‘mixed fermentation’ in which he combined Blue and Limburger cheese. In one batch, he followed the instructions for blue cheese, but also added the culture used in Limburger (Brevibacterium linens). In the second batch, he followed the make sheet for Limburger, but added blue cheese mold (Penicillium roquefortii). The first cheese turned out pretty good, but the second was very, very bad. He got some interesting comments from his peers when we had the tasting.
During my career at UF, I coached the dairy product judging team that competed every year in the national intercollegiate contest. This included the judging of milk, cheddar cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese and butter. While we never won many top awards, we did have a grad student one year who placed second in yogurt judging (something that actually helped her
get a position after graduation). All in all, the students learned a lot and got some great experiences (and memories).
In addition, I was the ice cream judge for the National Ice Cream Retailors (NICRA) each year when they held their meeting in Florida. We would get about 100 samples of vanilla and 75-80 samples of flavored ice cream (either strawberry or chocolate), mostly from smaller “Mom and Pop” ice cream stores from the US and Canada. I would use my judging team to help with the judging. This experience led to teaching an annual Retail Ice Cream Shortcourse at UF, partnering with several NICRA members.
Are you retired?
I retired in 2008. They hired me to teach my classes (paid by the credit), which I did for 3 years. Grading papers was getting in the way of traveling in our small motorhome and doing projects such as wood-working and home repair.
I have been doing HACCP training since the early 90’s with Newslow & Assoc, Orlando (Debby Newslow was a graduate of UF). HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points. It is a system to focus on and control food safety hazards. For years, prior to retirement, the training was a side venture on a consulting basis. Since I retired, we have done a lot more.
With the implementation of new food regulations under the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), there is a strong need for more training. Under the FSMA/Hazard Analysis Risk-based Preventive Controls rule (aka the PC rule), all registered food companies must develop a food safety plan, which includes preventive controls for identified hazards as well as training requirements. The PC rule is very similar but different (aka ‘different but similar’) from HACCP.
I recently did an on-site Preventive Controls Qualified Individual (PCQI) training for a large mail order company in Medford, OR. There were about 50 people in the class. This was the largest one we have ever done. Going in, I thought that it might be a bit unwieldy, as we do team building, etc. However, it worked out great as each departmental function in the company was represented, including supervisors and workers. You may have heard of the company. They do a lot of mail order Christmas stuff including chocolate and candy-covered popcorn and fancy wrapped pears and peaches. Great place. We got a private tour. Their facility was one of the cleanest and most hygienically designed facilities that I have been in.
My wife, (of 3 years) Gail, came with me, so we did some travel after the training.
We stopped at some artisan cheese places (Rogue Creamery, FaceRock Creamery) and, of course, wineries. The year that I was a judge for the American Cheese Society, Rogue River Blue was best of show. I told them that I may have been the judge who pushed them over the mark, but they still didn’t give me a discount (the cheese is about $40 a pound at the store). I bought a quarter pound.
One day we left Medford at 100F. When we got up to Crater Lake, there was still about 10 feet of snow up there (in June). It was the first day that one of the roads was open and the lodge was still covered in snow up by the lake. Gail took this photo:
I am totally enjoying my retirement. I have been playing a lot of music (with different people). You know the plan, “surround yourself with good people.”
Played for several years in the back room of The Yearling Restaurant (http://yearlingrestaurant.net) on Sunday afternoons, a really fun place to play. A swamp blues guy in his 70’s named Willy Green played the front room. It turns out that Willy has played with some of the big blues bands (e.g. Howling Wolf).
One morning on NPR, there was a Terry Gross interview with Donovan (you are too young to remember him). He was talking about how a guy named Willy Green taught him some of his guitar licks. I asked Willy if that was him and he broke into a big smile and said, “yes.” Then, he told us about all the bands he had played with in his younger days. Willy is now in his 80s and still playing at the Yearling.
Much to our dismay, they closed the back room on Sundays (economy down turn). Of course, we thought that was a mistake as we brought in people (a lot of snowbirds have places near Ocala and they would come up for Sunday lunch/dinner and loved our music, of course). Also, a lot of tourists come to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ house. She won a Pulitzer Prize for the book “The Yearling” which was also a movie in the 50’s starring Gregory Peck, and several other books – a real character who lived back in the woods.
Since The Yearling, I have had regular gigs around Gainesville. So far, retirement life is pretty darn good.
*After ACS in Austin, I took a side trip over to Fredericksburg to find Luckenbach (remember the song by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson?) – hard to find because young folks steal the road signs for their dorm room or apartment. A guy named Jay Sims was playing there. He had a guitar identical to mine, and I talked to him about it while he was on his break. When he came back up, he asked if I had brought my guitar. I said, “no” and he yelled at somebody to bring me a guitar. I was so nervous, but he insisted. What a great time. He was the nicest guy (gave me an autographed CD). I looked him up and he had been Texas Vocalist of the Year the year before. Another friend of his joined us later. I played with him from about 7:30 – 10:00 PM. Luckenbach has this old post office and what was once a dance hall. That is it. There were about 50 people in the audience around picnic tables. Residents included several chickens, which came to roost at dusk. One rooster was really obnoxious- came in front of us and let loose with several loud crows before going to bed in the trees above us. Ironically, I was singing the song Gallo del Cielo (a song about a rooster) when it happened. When I finished, I said (very stupid of me in Texas), “This must be one of those Texas Republicans that I have heard so much about.” I got concerned when it didn’t go over. But, one guy in the audience stood up and said, “I don’t care what your politics are-That is funny!” Then everyone clapped. I wish I was wearing a hat instead of a cap for the photo. The saying out there is “Everybody is Somebody in Luckenbach!”