This year’s California Artisan Cheese Festival kicked off their ninth annual weekend of education, tours, and tasting with the first-ever Cheesemongers’ Duel – The Best Bite, held Friday evening, March 20 at the Petaluma Sheraton Hotel. Phyllis Heagney, Cheese Department Manager at Oliver’s Market in Cotati, was crowned the winner, competing against twenty-five of the state’s finest cheesemongers to create the best match-up of an assigned cheese paired with a beer, wine, or cider. A team of judges, including Celebrity Chef Ryan Scott from KGO Radio; Author and Educator Laura Werlin; and Executive Chef Danny Mai of Tolay Restaurant at the Sheraton selected the top three bites, and then event guests voted on the winner. In addition to bragging rights, Heagney received a bevy of prizes for her outstanding entry.
What was in the winning “bite”? Heagney’s creation began with homemade German Lebkuchen, a chewy spice cookie, which was topped with Sonoma County Meat Company’s bacon, the assigned cheese, Dairy Goddess’s “Naked” Fromage Blanc, and garnished with candied blood orange peel. Fromage Blanc, meaning “white cheese” in French, is a simple, fresh cheese, which is mild, creamy and has a bit of tanginess in the finish.
“Because I am both a pastry chef and a cheesemonger, I wanted to highlight both crafts in my bite and present something that would be truly unique,” Heagney said. “I worked to create something that no one else would be likely to present that would stand out, even in the crowd of fellow cheese experts.”
For the beverage pairing portion of the challenge, Heagney selected Lagunitas Brewing Company’s IPA. “The citrus notes from the hops played off the lemon zest in the cookie, and the bitterness of the IPA matched the bitterness of the blood orange rind,” Heagney said. “It was a truly successful pairing, if I do say so myself!”
Heagney has worked at Oliver’s Market in Cotati for ten years and is Manager of the store’s outstanding cheese department. An expert on all aspects of cheese and pairing, she is well-known by customers and staff for her mastery of cooking and all things cheese-related. Phyllis and her team enjoy sharing their knowledge with customers daily. The department carries over 200 local, domestic, and international cheeses and traditional accompaniments, and creates custom platters — and even cheese wedding “cakes” — for special events.