By Jo Cooksey
For the past few years, I have attended the International Cheese Awards on judging day and frankly it is one of the highlights of the Taste Today calendar. A huge marquee in a field in Nantwich that holds over 5000 blocks of cheese, from all over the world, all vying for a category win and ultimately to be named as Supreme Champion. There are also over 60 exhibitor stalls where you can sample all manner of dairy goodness. It is cheese heaven.
This year I was particularly excited because I was actually invited to be a judge. An actual, white coat wearing, cheese iron wielding judge. I set off to Nantwich particularly early and as is sod’s law, got stuck in every possible traffic jam on the way, arriving hot and flustered 10 minutes after the judging had started. I thought they might not let me judge because I was late but a lovely lady thrust a competition pack in to my hands and hurried me to my table.
Up until this point I had no idea which categories I had been roped in for but my fellow judges, Rob a cheese buyer for Morrison’s and Sam, a goat’s cheesemaker from Fielding Cottage in Norfolk, quickly explained that our first one was Mild Cheddars – white or coloured. They were 3 cheeses in and we had a total of 26 to taste. Rob pushed his sampling iron in to each block and extracted a round column of cheese. We each broke a small piece off and first we tested the texture by rolling it between our fingers. As mild cheddar is a young cheese it should still be pliable because it still contains a lot of moisture. The more a cheddar matures the drier it becomes.
Then we smelt it and finally we tasted it. Squishing it against the roof of my mouth and then rolling it round my mouth to let all my taste buds get a chance at it. Obviously mild cheddar hasn’t got as much instant flavour as say a mature cheddar, but it’s surprising when you are comparing, just how different they taste to each other. We were looking for an all-rounder; creamy, buttery and with a slight sharpness. Some were very bland. Some had a taste of farmyard about them and some were very definitely in the wrong class, as they were too ‘mature’ to be considered mild. After tasting and marking them all, we revisited the four that had stood out. We made our choice but as the samples are anonymous we had no idea until the results were announced who our mild cheddar winner was. It was Ornua, an Irish company who has consumer brands such as Kerrygold and Pilgrims Choice.
Now it was time to move on to our next group, processed cheeses. That’s cheese slices, cheese spread, cream cheese, cheese snacks, all sorts but what constitutes a processed cheese? Surely all cheeses are processed? Well the definition is that a natural cheese will have all the whey pressed out of it whereas a processed cheese won’t. Also processed cheeses contain emulsifiers, which help to stop the solids and the added vegetable oils from separating when the cheese is cooked. This classification accounts for 8.7% of sales in the UK cheese market. The market as a whole, in monetary terms is worth in the region of £2.8 billion per annum. I can’t say I am a regular consumer of the processed cheeses, not since my daughter had packed lunches at school and regularly took Baby Bels with her but there were some interesting ones among the 14 entries. For instance, sliced cheeses in goat, Brie and blue cheese flavours. There is obviously some innovation going on in this category.
After judging I had a wander round the trade stalls and tasted quite a few more cheeses. My favourites this year included my usual Isle of Man Creamery Chive & Garlic Mature Cheddar. I love this straight from the pack. I visited fellow judge, Sam’s stall and bought some of his Norfolk Mardler goat’s cheese, which is rather marvelous. A few others caught my eye, or rather my palate, including the Northumberland Cheese Company’s Kielder, which is made with full fat Jersey cow’s milk and based on a Gouda recipe. It is fantastically creamy, as you would expect, with a little fruity sharpness that balances it out. Apparently, it is a great melting cheese.
There was also an incredible smoked Mozzarella type cheese, Granarolo Scamorza Affumicata, which is available from Waitrose. If you have never tried this then you are seriously missing out. The team from Granarolo also introduced me to their new Oven Baked Cheesy Snack, which are incredibly moreish and come in 3 flavours. You know if you do cheese on toast and some of the cheese oozes out onto the grill pan and becomes all crispy and caramelised? The best bits really. Well think that, in a bag. Amazing and also available at Waitrose.
Over lunch the 2018 Supreme Champion was announced. Belton Farm’s coloured Cheshire. Basically, this is now the best cheese in the world and I have tried it and I can tell you that it is damn good. The runner-up this year was a surprise in that it went to a reduced fat Cheddar for the first time ever. Also, the Supreme Cheese Retailer of the Year went to Morrisons, who had won an amazing 26 Golds this year.
The day after judging the marquee opens to the public, as part of the Nantwich Show. So it is certainly worth a visit. I came home very full of cheese, plus I now have rather a lot in the fridge but I’ll be back next year. Who can resist cheese? Not me.