When you collect 4,434 cheeses from 42 countries in one room to find out which is the best, there’s inevitably a sense of excitement in the air. There is, of course, inevitably also a very, very powerful smell.
This heady, almost heady mix of ripening dairy and friendly competition swirled around a UK conference center on Wednesday as 250 international judges sniffed, nudged and nibbled along groaning tables of cheese to decide who should win the crowned at the 2022 Edition of the World Cheese Awards.
This year’s winner, a Gruyere cheese from Switzerland, was finally chosen by a top panel of judges after the field was whittled down to first 98 “super gold” champions and then to the final 16.
The judges described the Le Gruyère AOP over-choice, presented by Swiss cheesemaker Vorderfultigen and affineur (affineur) Gourmino, as a “truly refined artisanal cheese” that melts on the tongue and has notes of herbs, fruits and leather. “A cheese with lots of flavor and bouquet.”
A ripened cheese, Gruyère is slightly crumbly and made from raw cow’s milk.
In second place was a Gorgonzola Dolce DOP, a soft blue butter cheese made by De’ Magi of Italy.
Choose a winner
So how do you choose a winning cheese from thousands of people?
The arduous work began shortly after 10am at the International Conference Center on the outskirts of the Welsh town of Newport when the judges gathered in the main event hall to the sound of lung strains from a Welsh male choir .
After a few minutes of unboxing, unboxing and unboxing, each of the 98 judging tables transformed into a piquant and varied topography.
Gigantic waxy wheels sat next to tiny soft goat logs. There were towering blues, creamy flat medallions and towering slabs of cheddar cheese. There were cheeses shaped like witch hats and flowers, cheeses wrapped in nettle leaves or covered in ashes. There were plain and simple cheeses. There were cake-like cheeses, elaborately topped with fruit.
There were whites, oranges, blues – even purples.
At least one cheese appears to have been painted by Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock.
The cheeses were all tasted blind, although with a team of judges selected from an army of various cheesemakers, vendors, writers and other experts, many more or less knew what they were biting into. A few famous commercial cheeses of great renown could be spotted a mile and a half away.
At table 14, judges Danielle Bliss and Philippe Dumain got off to a shaky start with a disappointing Brie-style product.
“It’s very one-dimensional,” Bliss said, punching the sheet music into an iPad. “It could be good for cooking or baking, but it’s not the best cheese in the world. I’m looking for a cheese that takes me on a journey.”
Judges were tasked with scoring each of their approximately 50 cheeses based on visual appearance, aroma, flavor and mouthfeel. The best were awarded gold, silver or bronze status and each judging table selected one as “super gold”.
At table 18, Tom Chatfield and Kazuaki Tomiyama were kicking a moldy ripened goat cheese and bracing for more disappointment.
“He seems to have lost some of his integrity,” Chatfield said, before slicing him. “It’s a little overripe, it smells like ammonia, but since it had to travel all the way here, I’ll be charitable.” After talking with Tomiyama, he gets 18 out of a maximum of 35.
“If we had seen it two or three days earlier, it would have been a much better cheese.”
Next, on Table 18, something resembling a moldy fig and described by its growers as “enzymatic coagulation.” Despite that, it tastes good.
“It’s very young and very clean,” Chatfield said as the pair of judges scored 29 points. “Some cheeses have a song that goes on. It’s a 15-second song, but not a full orchestra. Some cheeses will keep singing.”
Because the room is filled with cheese and cheese-loving people, there’s an upbeat vibe during the early judging stages that cuts through the sonic buzz emanating from the contest entries.
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Yet there is a serious side to the World Cheese Awards.
John Farrand, chief executive of the Guild of Fine Food which organized the 34th edition of the annual event in partnership with the Welsh Government, says victory can push a small artisan cheesemaker to the big time.
He cites the case of Norwegian cheese producer Ostegården, which triumphed a few years ago when the owner was about to retire. The victory inspired his son to change his career plans and return to the family farm, eventually transforming a small operation into a major exporter.
“Commercial success is important,” Farrand told CNN amid the morning tasting sessions. “But it’s also a big pat on the back. Winning means something to them and their team that’s as good as any commercial advantage.”
Hosting the event is also a big deal, added Farrand, with Wales hoping it will help shine the spotlight on its local cheeses and wider food industry.
It’s a spotlight that was originally supposed to fall on Ukraine this year. The country had to postpone its hosting tour due to the Russian invasion.
This did not prevent 39 Ukrainian cheeses from being entered into the competition.
Natali Kahadi of Ukrainian cheese distributor Ardis, which brought starters and set up a stand on the sidelines of the event, said the dispute was hitting cheesemakers hard.
“But we keep working,” she told CNN. “We are not stopping our production. We are waging our war on cheese.”
“bite and texture”
Back on the judges’ tables, potential winners begin to emerge as the morning progresses. On table 61, Keith Kendrick and Shumana Palit identified two gold winners.
“Everything was beautifully balanced,” says Palit, patting down a very simple cow’s milk cheese. “It had a good mouthfeel, it was wonderfully complex – and most importantly, we agreed on that.”
On table 95, Emma Young, Ben Ticehurst and Matt Lardie – three experts with over 30 years of industry experience between them – were looking at some textured Spanish cheeses, one of which would be their “super gold” winner.
“It’s beautiful, really fruity and nice,” Young says after using an iron to punch out a sample of the former. “It has a bit of bite and texture. It tastes like strawberry lace.”
It is the second cheese, bearing the printed patterns of the basket in which it was matured, which passes to the next round. “It’s perfect,” Young said. “It’s an incredible example of Manchego.”
Meanwhile, on Table 70, where another ammonia-tinged cheese has the judges reaching for palate-cleansing apple slices, the drudgery of tasting dozens of dairy products was starting to take its toll.
“After eating 20 cheeses you start to soak,” said Dutch judge Gijs Dankers. Other judges mentioned having a “cheese high” and “the sweats”.
Kris Lloyd, an Australian cheesemaker and judge on Table 17, despaired of the quality of some starters. “You can tell when someone starts off with really good milk and doesn’t bother them,” she said. “But we saw a lot of mess this morning.”
Beyond the judging tables, Jenny Lee, who only recently started producing cheese with her husband in Torpenhow, a farming area in the rolling green hills of rural North Cumbria in the UK, watched impatiently.
She hoped her cheeses had done justice to the milk produced by her “hybrid” herd of Jersey, Frisian and Norwegian Red cows.
“It’s awesome,” she said. “We think this world of cheese is so friendly and supportive, we’re really excited to be here.”
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