There were a few bleary eyes during the opening breakfast for the American Cheese Society conference at Monona Terrace on Thursday morning. Last night, L'Etoile hosted a triumphant return dinner for former proprietor Odessa Piper, while other conference attendees participated in a cheesemaker pub crawl across Madison.
The world of artisan American cheese has descended on the city, and it's not unlikely to hear a few folks discussing the finer points of goats milk at bars downtown this week.
It is the 30th anniversary year of the American Cheese Society and this is the largest conference to date. There are over a thousand attendees and nearly two thousand cheeses represented.
On Wednesday, a group of cheese professionals sat for the Certified Cheese Professional Exam, a three-hour test for the industry that launched last year.
The conference proper started Thursday, with workshops and panels all day plus a party on the rooftop sponsored by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.
Breakfast included -- you guessed it -- hunks of cheese at each table, and participants nibbled on croissants with cultured Vermont butter while Odessa Piper delivered the keynote address.
Piper, who now lives in Boston with her wine-importing husband, Terry Theise, regaled the audience with stories from the early days of L'Etoile as well as how the artisan food movement has changed over the last three decades.
Top anecdotes: The first farmers to sell around the Capitol Square (at what has become the famous Dane County Farmers' Market) were ticketed for loitering and shooed away; in order to secure local veal for L'Etoile, she once corresponded with an Amish farmer by postcard.
Piper, who was a pioneer of the local and sustainable movement when she opened the restaurant in 1976, was also told by an area food reporter that none of the paper's readers would know what "sustainable" meant when she discussed it in an interview -- and there wasn't room to explain it in print.
"Cheese culture is the poster child for this artisanal food culture in general," Piper argued in her speech, "co-evolving with fermenting and sustainable farming and craft culture."
Piper urged attendees to resist "bullies" who belittle the provenance of food and drink. It's okay to know the name of the cow that made your cheese, she noted: "You have to explain what you're doing, or these words like terroir and sustainable will just become fluff."