FOOD & DRINK / How a button became a big cheese: At the first ever British Cheese Awards, the overall winner was the smallest entry - the tiny Innes Button, produced by some very cultured goats. Michael Bateman reports

HUGH LILLINGSTON loves his herd of 200 Saanen and Toggenburg goats. He takes the view that they are sensitive and intelligent beasts who respond best to tender loving care. When it's cold and wet he brings them in from the paddock. But they soon get bored indoors, so he plays them classical music, Monteverdi and Mozart. They absolutely love it.

'People thought I was lunatic,' he says, 'especially the herdsman. When the loudspeakers broke down for a while, though, the milk yield dropped. And when we restored it, it went up 10 per cent.'

Now the goats have repaid Hugh Lillingston for his concern for their welfare, by producing a cheese that has won him Supreme Champion Cheese in the first ever British Cheese Awards. It was the best of some 300 which had been entered in a dozen different categories.

The cheese, quite the smallest in the show (some of them were 40lb blocks), is called the Innes Button and it also won the 'Best Fresh Young Cheese' category. It measures little more than an inch and a half across and stands only one inch high - a Tom Thumb of cheeses, weighing in at only an ounce and a half - but its impact was profound. 'What was so nice about it winning,' commented the senior awards judge, Randolph Hodgson, 'was that it doesn't knock the socks off you; it doesn't come and grab you. It's very plain, it has a very gentle flavour, but it goes on and on.'

'I feel vindicated,' says Lillingston. 'Our attitude to cheesemaking is religious; it's an obsession. We make the cheese twice a day with the raw milk that's still warm from the goats - when the milk is protected by its own natural anti-bacterial agents. We are obsessive about rigorous hygiene and attention to detail.'

Hugh Lillingston took over a farm on the family estate, Highfields, in Tamworth, Staffordshire, in 1986, vowing to produce quality food to counter the 'fancy' French imports of the day (his wife, Catherine, is French). His first move was to learn about cheesemaking. 'I decided I wanted a French style of goat's cheese; I liked the texture and flavour. A French family in Angouleme taught me how to do it and got me started. I came back and found a cheesemaker a mile up the road in the village - Stella Bennet, a mother of four. It's really her triumph.'

Four years ago, unable to buy bread worthy of his cheese, he decided to bake his own sourdough loaves, made the French way. It was a step back in time, since the dough for an Innes loaf requires no fewer than five days to mature and the only raising agent is the natural yeast in the wheat grain itself. By comparison, the modern factory loaf is given 20 minutes of mechanical agitation with a great lump of bakers' yeast.

Lillingston sent his baker, Hannah Bennet (daughter of cheesemaker Stella), to train in France. He provided her with a French oven he bought in France, from St Tropez of all places, shipped to England and rebuilt stone by stone in Highfields. Never has a story of bread and cheese been so moving.

Cheesemaking in Britain is enjoying a joyful revival. Twenty years ago we could recite the names of fewer than 10 'territorial' cheeses: Cheddar, Cheshire, Caerphilly, Derby, Wensleydale, Gloucester, Leicester, Lancashire, Stilton. That was it. Supermarkets didn't even stock Brie or Camembert. And things got worse before they got better, the blocks of factory cheese arousing no more interest than spongy white bread and fizzy keg beer which often accompanied it. Today, not only do we have some inspired farmhouse cheesemakers producing mature Cheddar, Cheshire, Lancashire and Caerphilly, but specialists have sprung up all over the British Isles.

Yet until Veronica Steele made Milleens in west Cork 17 years ago - it's a buttery, soft-textured, rind- washed cheese of the kind that is common in France - we assumed there was some accident of geography that made it impossible for such cheeses to be made in these islands.

At the British Cheese Awards judging, conducted at the Naval and Military Club in Piccadilly, the range of modern British cheeses was astonishing. Alongside the familiar orange slabs of Cheddar and round blue Stiltons were all kinds of soft cow's milk cheeses, hard and soft goat's milk cheeses, blue sheep's milk cheeses and even, amazing to relate, a huge British-made 'parmesan', from Twineham in Sussex (passably good on the palate, if a bit immature). There was also a British feta called Shepherd's Purse, which was made in Yorkshire, proving we can do it as well as - or perhaps even better than - the Greeks, for the French are so impressed they have placed an order for some.

A small corner of the judging tables, it's true, devoted to experimental cheeses, hit almost as many wrong notes as right ones. There was a delicious Cornish Yarg, wrapped in charcoal-coloured nettle leaves - one of the the great 'new generation' cheeses. There was Devon Garland, a large round cheese, quite tart, with a layer of spring onions chopped into it, a huge success. But beside them there were some oddities, with herbs, pickles, pineapple, even crystallised fruit. Boland, which arrived too late to be judged, was a cake-shaped Lancashire studded with walnuts, raisins and diced apples, and finally dusted with cinnamon. Judge Michael Raffael said it was the wittiest exhibit by far. Others were speechless.

'Purists may gasp,' said Randolph Hodgson, 'but there's no one to say you can't do it.' He even found some praise for the better smoked cheeses, though somewhat mystified that anyone would feel the need to improve on the simple goodness of a well-made cheese. He did draw the line at a category of novelty cheeses shaped like apples and pears, with coloured rinds flavoured with the fruit essence. 'I didn't taste them,' he said diplomatically.

Another of the judges, however, Henrietta Green, compiler of the Foodlovers' Guide to Britain, had no hesitation in condemning them: 'An insult to cheese,' she pronounced. 'Incredibly offensive.' She gathered up a lump between forefinger and thumb. 'It's milled cheese, cheap block Cheddar the texture of paste, flavoured with apple or pear. In their rush to add value some producers lose sight of the real priority - the taste of the cheese.'

The show was impressive, she agreed, and it was wonderful to be able to admire so many of the recent stars in the cheese galaxy: Wellington and its sister Golden Saye (like a French Munster); Beenleigh Blue and Lanark Blue; Anne Wigmore's Spenwood, a dense sheep's cheese; James Aldridge's Tornegus (made by rind-washing with cider a Chris Duckett Caerphilly); the Scottish Bonchester (like a French coulommiers); the hard Jouvenet, made from a herd of Gedi goats in north London.

But while we can clearly make good cheeses, Green wonders if we know how to sell them. There are probably fewer than 50 good cheese shops in the country, though there must be 5,000 retail outlets for speciality cheeses - delicatessens, butchers, bakers and fishmongers - and that's discounting the supermarkets.

'Few cheesemongers know how to ripen cheeses,' says Green. 'In France you have the affineur who buys cheese from the maker, matures it at the right humidity, and sells it on when it is ready to eat. Most of the cheese sold in Britain is bunged into chill cabinets. It doesn't have a chance.'

The British Awards are sponsored by Tesco, whose chief cheese buyer, Simon Clarke, a former farmer, says that they are still trying to nurse their customers out of the habit of buying only Cheddar - 85 per cent of all their cheese sales. He believes Tesco is breaking new ground by making a commitment to some of the smaller producers, selling local regional cheeses in local stores.

Clarke cites his own county. 'We asked staff in our Clifton Moor branch in York if any of them would like to be taken to see Shepherd's Purse - the local cheese - being made. We thought one or two might be interested, but 30 of the staff asked if they could go. They were so enthused that the next day Shepherd's Purse was outselling Cheddar.'

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