The 2010 World Cheese Awards have just been announced with Cornish Blue bringing the World Champion Award back to the UK. I was among the judges this year and this is my tale of wearing the white coat for the first time.
When, even after three years at the helm of your own cheese emporium, you still think of yourself as a relative novice it can be a bit daunting to march into a 1000m2 arena alongside 200 experts from around the world to begin the task of judging almost 2,700 cheeses. Not that I’d be tasting all of them of course. 45 teams of four judges would each be presented with between 40 and 50 cheeses laid out on a total of 180 trestle tables. And we’d be working under the gaze of literally thousands of visitors to the BBC Good Food Show at the NEC in Birmingham. So, no pressure then!
The World Cheese Awards is a massive event in the cheese calendar and has run for over 20 years, this year attracting entries from 29 countries. The judges – producers, buyers, retailers and writers from 19 countries – between them share more than a millennium of experience. My own team members put my experience well and truly in the shade; Catherine from Denmark and speaking six languages, fellow Brit Giles who not only makes famous cheeses but also starter cultures for some of the world’s best cheddars, and Louis from Canada whose expertise is so considerable as to have secured him a place on the grand jury who would award the major prizes that afternoon.
But before there’s really time to be too fazed by the stellar company and the massive scale we’re off! Tapping, squeezing, poking, sniffing, stroking and tasting… Was the balance of rind to paste right here? Did the saltiness overpower the taste of the milk there? Too much barnyard? Not enough pasture? Is that texture right for this style of cheese? Or, in mercifully few cases, what the hell were they thinking of? Even though we’d only just met the love and language of cheese quickly moulded us into a pretty harmonious unit. There is an adjudicator available for when a team of judges can’t agree and we needed him only once. He’ll make a decision or refer a cheese to another team for a second opinion, which is only fair to the cheese and its hopeful maker, sweating it out somewhere on the other side of the velvet rope as their baby is made to jump through our judgely hoops.
I’ve judged food awards before and what you tend to forget between events is how much you actually eat – there are no spittoons here! It’s only one or two small pieces per cheese but with this many to taste it all adds up. So after two and a half hours I can’t honestly say I was sorry to see the last cheese, but it’s important to approach the last as open minded as the first. However I also steeled myself and revisited each of the three gold medals we had awarded to remind myself of what this was all about i.e. finding the world’s best cheeses. When cheese is this good, there’s really nothing better. And the makers of any award winners here should be very proud indeed of their cheese.
Details of all the winners can be found at World Cheese Awards website and when I found that my own shop already stocks more than half of them I began to wonder if maybe that white coat wasn’t deserved after all, but I think it’ll be roughly another ten or twenty years before I’m properly convinced of the fact. And a few more days yet before I fancy a full cheeseboard.
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