When I casually drop into conversation as I sometimes do that I am a judge in the World Cheese Awards, daggers of envy are usually followed by the question “How did you get into that?!”
I am just a cheese fiend, afficionado, and self proclaimed curd nerd. Having a background in food and travel writing and broadcasting helped me secure my place at the judging table, too. But it is my abiding interest in and love for fromage that keeps me going back year after year.
The World Cheese Awards are organised by Bob Farrand, who is also the chairman of the Guild of Fine Food and organiser of the Great Taste Awards. Bob, supported by his wife Linda and a family team, also publishes Good Cheese magazine, aimed at people who make, sell and are just plain crazy about cheese.
So on a cold Wednesday I got a 7:15am train from London to Birmingham NEC on an empty stomach and with a mind full of purpose. Nearly 3000 cheeses from around the world were divided into 56 judging tables, with 4-5 judges at every table. My team- Table 48- had two and a half hours to taste all this:
Team 48 were diverse in our opinions and backgrounds; the proprietor of The Cheese Hamlet in Didsbury, Manchester; Ross who makes and markets his own potted meats and terrines; Laurie, a dashing chap who is a cheese consultant, and Kate, the founding editor of Culture magazine, a brilliant American publication all about- you guessed it- cheese.
As none of the cheeses we tasted were labelled, we can’t be entirely sure who made them or where they were from- though some things are a dead giveaway- it’s not *that* hard to know what a Manchego looks like. The block cheddars were underwhelming, and some of the pre-grated cheeses floury and bland. The blues had some high points, as did- surprisingly- the reduced fat cheeses. As always, the cheeses with added flavours- in this case, Thai chili sauce and one with curry flavouring- were pretty tough going. We only awarded one GOLD on our table- slim pickings in comparison to years gone by. We did have a very strange looking cheese- in the shape of a gold ingot. Was this meant to inspire us into awarding it gold? Well, we didn’t.
The Supreme Champion prize was awarded to a Manchego DO Gran Reserva, from Dehesa de Los Llanos in the province of Albacete, the first cheese from the Spanish mainland to ever win the accolade. Last year’s winner was a French Ossau Iraty and in 2010 it was a native British Cornish Blue.
Check out your local independent cheesemonger and taste it for yourself- it is, after all, officially the best cheese in the world!
Now, pass me my cholesterol pills….