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.Reuse content