World Cheese Awards – Guild of Fine Food
A sweaty brow, burning palate and a shudder at the thought of another block of clammy cheddar. I’ve just tasted my 45th sample at the World Cheese Awards, an annual extravaganza which has evolved into one of the glitziest specialist food competitions around and which took place this week in Newport, Wales, rather than the originally intended host country Ukraine.
I was lucky enough to be one of 250 judges drawn from 48 countries around the world. Among them producers, mongers, writers and importers – even cheese-loving comedian Marcus Brigstocke – the hallouminati descended on south Wales for an event that resembled a curious marriage between a UN conference (at least one judge was heading to Cop 27) and Eurovision (there was a Welsh choir). This glamorous get-together drew in cheese nerds from as far afield as the US, Brazil, Australia and South Africa, from Japan to India. It was a perfect representation of the ever-growing world of artisan cheese.
But what really happens at the World Cheese Awards? With 4,434 cheeses submitted and shipped in from across the world, many foregoing regular import rules (there was an ominous disclaimer for judges), putting on the event, run by the Guild of Fine Food since 1988, is a mammoth task. The football World Cup is child’s play in comparison.
Judges are split into teams of two or three, each responsible for tasting 40-45 cheeses across a range of styles. My table featured several cottage cheeses, plenty of goat’s and sheep, but sadly not the camel cheese that was entered this year. There were perspiring block cheddars and towers of sweet, nutty Alpine cheese. Some were tightly wrapped in black or red plastic, which I imagine is how a cheese might be served at a fetish club. As far as I could tell there were no Cheesestrings on show, to the disappointment of children across the world.
Judges hard at work at the #WorldCheeseAwards @guildoffinefood @TelegraphFood pic.twitter.com/KYBNGEJntJ
— ToméMS (@tmorrissyswan) November 3, 2022
As much as eating 45 cheeses sounds delightful – and it is, mostly – it is also an assault on the taste buds. “I love cheese but that is too many,” Brigstocke pithily said. Good cheese has a lot going on: a smack of salt, followed by sweet milk or nutty caramel. There might be savoury notes: umami, mushroom, brassica, meat stock. It could have a pleasing freshness, a lactic tang, a peppery hit, or taste of a mountain meadow. Ideally it has all of these and more. After three cheeses, you’re scarfing apples in an attempt to cleanse the palate. With 45 cheeses, you’re guaranteed a rollercoaster. And that’s just the good stuff.
Because, at least on my table, where I judged with Monika Linton, who founded the Brindisa group of restaurants and shops, and Ai Ming Syu of the Cheese Ark shop in Singapore, there were plenty of duds. Tasteless cottage cheese; plasticky red Leicester with no discernible flavour; a brie that may as well have been Play-Doh. Most of it ended up in the spittoon. Needless to say, these didn’t score highly.
Yet there were stand-outs, too. Each cheese is blind tasted and judged on looks, body and texture, aroma and, most importantly, flavour and mouthfeel. To achieve a gold award (those Guild of Fine Food stickers you see on food labels) it must score highly in all four categories. Most do relatively well on the first three; the latter is where the majority stumble. A cottage cheese with chive tasted fermented, and not in a good way. A truffled blue cheese had too many competing powerful flavours, and lingered long in the mouth – perhaps a ploy to jeopardise competitors? Not as much of a stitch-up job as when one table opened a cheese infused with fish roe, to the disgust of nearby judges. To smell too strong in a room of over 4,000 cheeses is an admirable feat.
#WorldCheeseAwards @guildoffinefood pic.twitter.com/XT9jujKZAD
— ToméMS (@tmorrissyswan) November 3, 2022
But there were some stars, too: a beautifully complex manchego; the Alpine cheeses all did well. And not least the two that finished tied at the top of our leaderboard: a delicately piquant blue, and a soft cheese that was half-way between a cottage cheese and ricotta. My fellow judges and I eventually settled on the latter as our super gold – it was incredibly complex for something so fresh, both sweet and lactic, light but packed with umami. Not enough fresh cheeses earn the big scores, to my mind.
Each table’s super gold is sent to an expert panel of 16 international superstars from the cheese world, which this year included Jason Hinds from Neal’s Yard Dairy, La Fromagerie founder Patricia Michelson (who also won the exceptional contribution to cheese award) and local cheese legend Eurwen Richards. After a tense live ceremony, where the judges each put forward a cheese before the rest vote, a Swiss Gruyère was pronounced winner to whoops and hollers from representatives of the Gruyère consortium that, incidentally, sponsored the event.
No doubt a worthy winner (I sadly didn’t get to try any), there were nevertheless rumblings of an anticlimax around the room. It’s the fifth time a Gruyère has been crowned champion. At least my cottage cheese, from Vale da Estrela, was awarded best Portuguese cheese, but where was the home-nation win? Here’s hoping we can cause a shock at next year’s event in Norway – but I can’t promise I’ll eat any cheese until then.