IN late November I joined some 250 white-coated cheese assessors from across the globe, assembled at the NEC to officiate at the World Cheese Awards. Nigh on 3,000 cheeses, (2,727 to be exact) spread across 62 judging tables meant approximately 42 cheeses for each judging team to assess within two and a half hours. It’s a whole lot of cheese!
The World Cheese Awards differs from other UK-based cheese events in that it is a truly international event, with both overseas entries and international judges being well represented. Of late, it has been held in the UK, often as part of the BBC Good Food Show in either London or Birmingham, but sometimes abroad – and next year it’ll be based in San Sebastian, European City of Culture 2016.
This year, culture was to be found on and within the cheeses entered by hopeful producers, ranging from smallholder artisans to large creameries. If you recall the TV or movie franchise Highlander, the same system applies here: “There can only be one.” Other award systems work within categories – deciding on the best 15-18 month traditionally-made Cheddar after comparing it with its peers, then putting that “champion” cheese forward for consideration as Supreme Champion or Best in Show.
The WCA works somewhat differently; although a table may have a number of cheeses of the same type, it won’t have ALL of that type for comparison. Judges at the awards need to identify cheeses with a “wow” factor from amongst many different types – those that we would love to share with fellow cheese-lovers.
At the outset my team of three struggled to enjoy many of the cheeses that we tasted and I wondered whether our palates were somehow jaded that day, until we hit on a cheese that really delivered an impact, after which we knew that we were right to trust our instincts and tastebuds. We went back to the first cheeses we had sampled, but remained of the opinion that they weren’t quite up to the required standard.
While each team can allot any number of Gold, Silver and Bronze awards (or no award), it has to choose the best cheese of all it has tasted, designated “Super Gold”. Each of the 62 Super Golds is then tasted by a Super Jury and their favourite 16 go forward as contenders for the big title. The final judgement is made by a panel of 12 from across the four corners of the world (no-one came from Antartica, but I think every other continent was represented!).
The final judgement is broadcast live and healthy debate ensues. But, as we said earlier – there can only be one. The winning Gruyère AOP, from Cremo SA’s von Mühlenen brand, collected 69 points out of a possible 80 from the judging panel, beating two cheeses into joint second place by just one point. They were a Tomme Chevre Brebis, from Onetik in the French Basque country, and a burrata from London-based Italian foods importer La Credenza.
Despite the podium positions going to continental entries, our British cheeses weren’t without plaudits: 16 British cheeses made Super Gold status, with Montgomery Cheddar, Cornish Blue, Wild Garlic Yarg and two Cerney goats’ cheeses, Pepper and Ash, flying the flag for the West Country.
Trophy winners from our manor included Ashley Chase Estate/Ford Farm for their Extra Mature Cave Aged Cheddar, Montgomery in the Mature Traditional Cheddar field, while the special award “For Exceptional Contribution to Cheese” went to Mary Quicke, whose dairy at Newton St. Cyres, outside Exeter, produces some of the best hard cheeses in the region. Her monthly Dairy Diary is available via email and is a fine insight into the challenges and rewards of cheese-making in this part of the world.
A day at the NEC eating lots of cheese, followed by a lavish awards dinner might have been disastrous for my waistline, were it not for one final statistic. According to my smartphone’s health app, walking around the exhibition hall, and going to and from my “on-site” hotel, I recorded more than 12,000 step.
The 7.6km that I trudged compares favourably with the twice daily walking regime I normally enjoy with my dog, Dexter, back home on the West Dorset coast. Phew!
Justin Tunstall, Town Mill Cheesemonger, Lyme Regis DT7 3PU