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Backstory: Cheese whizzes

At the 'Olympics' of cheese, judges sniff, poke, and chew to determine the world's best variety.

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The task for Mark Johnson and Jean-François Chamba this morning is simple: sample 23 different kinds of soft goat's-milk cheese. Not some havartis, some Swiss, some cheddar. Just soft goat's milk. Twenty-three kinds.

The two men are judges in what is billed as the "Olympics" of cheesemaking at a convention center here in the heart of Wisconsin. Donning white hats and smocks, they sit at a small table, with clipboards and laconic looks. The men sniff, pinch, flex, poke, chew, and then - important - spit out each sample. They examine the cheese for everything from flavor to texture to the amount of liquid in the packaging - an obvious defect.

"You have to have good sensory memory," says Dr. Johnson, a dairy scientist at the University of Wisconsin here.

It doesn't hurt to remember to discard each sample, too. At his first cheese-judging contest, Johnson swallowed every piece. By noon, he couldn't take another bite.

The competition along Lake Monona will last three days. During that time, the judges will jot notes, exchange nods, and mumble comments to their partners about cheese that comes in blocks the size of ottomans. In all, they will anoint 47 types of cheese, two types of butter, and "retail packaging" as best in the world in their class. One cheese will be decreed "best of show."

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This is the largest cheese competition in the world. It has attracted 1,792 entries from 19 countries, including the usual cast of European and American suspects, plus Japan, South Africa, and New Zealand. It's an increase of 480 entries over 2004. In 1980, there were just 212 competitors.

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