British Cheese Awards: The big cheeses and the people judging them

Tim Walker enjoys a cheddar or a blue as much as the next man, but is his palate honed enough for the exalted panel of the prestigious awards?

The Cotswolds are well known as the weekend haunt of politicians, press barons and Top Gear presenters. But it's also the power centre of British cheese. As I approach Kingham station on the train from London, I pass the farm where the Blur bassist and cheesemaker Alex James is setting up his latest food and music festival with the help of the nation's most famous chef, "Jamie Oliver Presents The Big Feastival With Alex James".

My destination, however, is Churchill, one village and 1.7 miles closer to Chipping Norton, where I'm due to be a judge at the 2012 British Cheese Awards, despite having no qualifications besides a layman's love of quality dairy products. The founder and boss of the awards is Juliet Harbutt: fearsome Kiwi, international cheese expert and author of a number of cheese-based books. She and James used to make cheeses together, including the award-winning Little Wallop, a goat cheese wrapped in vine leaf and washed in Somerset cider brandy. Nowadays, I'm told, they're not quite so close. It might have something to do with the tomato ketchup- flavoured cheese that James developed for Asda. I resolve not to mention him.

Harbutt founded Jeroboams Wine and Cheese Shop in 1985, after emigrating to the UK. She created the British Cheese Awards in 1994. When I first interviewed her a couple of years ago, she told me that the New Zealand of her childhood was "overrun by cheddar and a very aggressive blue cheese called 'blue vein'. That was it. So when I came to Europe and discovered cheese properly, I had an epiphany and thought, 'My God! If this is cheese, then I want to sell it!'"

She went on: "Some people wouldn't dream of eating British cheeses because they think of themselves as Francophiles… [but] British cheeses are fantastic. Most people, however, couldn't name 10 British cheeses. If I tell them there are 700 different British cheeses, they say, 'You mean 700 cheddars?'" That, though, is slowly changing, thanks in no small part to her cheese awards, and the gold, silver and bronze medals they bestow on cheeses from all over the country each year.

The judging takes place in a refrigerated marquee on the village green in Churchill, where the day begins with a strict briefing from Juliet. There are about 60 judges and, fortunately, I'm to spend the morning partnered with Gill Draycott, the proprietor of Wells Stores in Abingdon, who boasts significantly more cheese expertise than me. Before we begin judging our first category, Gill hands me a bag full of goodies from her shop. The bag says "Jeremy" on the side. Who's Jeremy? Jeremy Paxman, she replies. It seems he was a judge last year, but wasn't invited (or hasn't turned up) this time. So I'm to have his brownies and jam instead. Hard luck, Jeremy.

Our first category is "Goat Cheese Aged Up To Three Months". This is a blind judging process, so the cheeses are numbered, not named, to avoid any bias or prejudice. Some of the more esoteric rinds are rather easy to recognise, though, says Gill. For example, the delightfully named Sharpham Ticklemore, a distinctive ribbed white disc. It's creamy with a slight lemon zing, and we award it points enough for a bronze medal.

Goats' cheese, it turns out, is very versatile, even when it's as young as three months; there are also some harder cheeses in our category, such as the Killeen, a caramel-sweet, Gouda-like cheese from Galway. In a neighbouring category is its more mature sibling, Killeen goat extra mature, which will go on to win the award for "Best Irish Cheese".

Our second category is somewhat less varied, however. "Cow Cheese, Flavour Added" yields a succession of cottage cheeses, each with a different added ingredient: chives, salmon, peppers, pineapple and so on. I've never understood the appeal of cottage cheese, and these do no more to convince me of its merits. Gill, too, is underwhelmed. Not a lot of medals in this category, then.

The judges are drawn from across the country's cheese community, and when we sit down for a cheese-free ploughman's lunch, we're joined by Tim Jones, one of the brothers behind Lincolnshire Poacher, a wonderful hard cheese from the East Midlands; and Mark Hindle, the owner of Mousetrap Cheese, which has celebrated shops in Hereford, Ludlow and Leominster, and also makes its own cheese, Little Hereford. They both commiserate with us about the cottage cheese.

In the afternoon, as the categories are winnowed down to winners, I'm sent to judge blue cheeses with veteran cheese technologist Val Bines, who teaches at Reading University and at the School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire, and is one of the most knowledgeable cheese minds in the business. The judging process is straightforward. First, aesthetics: how does the cheese look from the outside? Next, we plunge in a cheese iron and draw it out. In the case of blue cheese, how evenly are the blue veins dispersed through the cheese? How does it smell: pungent or perfumed? Next, texture: we break off a small chunk and check its consistency and feel between our fingers. Finally, we find out how it tastes. In the case of one blue Wensleydale in particular, Val and I discover, it tastes spectacular: butter-like, but with a spicy punch and a deep, lingering aftertaste.

A little later, as I'm skulking around on the green waiting for a lift back to the train station, Juliet rushes out to scold me – a terrifying experience – because I'm supposed to be judging the final category: "Supreme Champion". Luckily, I'm the passenger in a judging panel that includes Daniel Hammer, from the US retailer HEB; Jonathan Archer, from speciality food suppliers Cheese Cellar; and John Pearson, a cheese expert whose business card features a Monty Python quote ("Blessed are the cheesemakers"), and who helped to develop Cornish Cruncher cheddar for Marks & Spencer, one of my favourite supermarket cheeses. Which no doubt marks me out as a charlatan.

Traditional cheddar, Pearson explains, has a savoury tang, not the sweetness that's popular in modern varieties. One mission of the awards is to maintain British cheese traditions, which is why some of today's cheddar winners might taste strange to supermarket cheese-eaters: the cave-aged vintage cheddar from Ashley Chase (Winner: Best Cheddar); the traditional unpasteurised cheddar from Quickes Traditional (Winner: Best Traditional British Cheese); the mature cheddar from Llandyrnog Creamery (Winner: Best Creamery Cheese). All of them come highly recommended.

The "Supreme Champion", meanwhile, is that remarkable blue Wensleydale that Val and I tasted earlier. Though we judges won't know its true identity for weeks (specifically, until the awards dinner, which has just taken place) it is in fact Real Yorkshire Wensleydale blue, from the Hawes Creamery in Wensleydale, where cheese has been made for more than a century, and where the "Real Yorkshire Wensleydale" brand was created to protect the provenance of true Wensleydale. Even a cheese amateur like me can tell that it's a worthy winner.

Brendan Rodgers is confident that Sterling will put pen to paper on a new deal at Anfield
footballLIVE: Follow all the latest from tonight's Capital One semi-finals
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Life and Style
Not quite what they were expecting

When teaching the meaning of Christmas backfires

Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal at the Golden Globes in 2011
Life and Style
Thorsten Heins, and Alicia Keys (BlackBerry 10, 2013)
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Recruitment Genius: HGV Class 2 Lorry Driver / CPC and HIAB Training Provider

    £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A HGV Class 2 Lorry Driver is required t...

    Day In a Page

    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
    'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

    Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

    Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
    Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

    Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

    New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Rebranding Christmas: More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence

    Rebranding Christmas

    More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence. They are missing the point, and we all need to grow up
    A Greek island - yours for the price of a London flat

    A sun-kissed island - yours for the price of a London flat

    Cash-strapped Greeks are selling off their slices of paradise
    Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

    Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

    New system means that evergreen songs could top the festive charts
    Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence

    Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys

    He is a musician of wondrous oddity. He is on a perpetual quest to seek the lost tribes of the Welsh diaspora. Just don't ask Gruff Rhys if he's a national treasure...