On the following morning, we once more launched into the lactics. Leading us through the vast show tent, a Cathedral City manager produced a leather holster from his inside pocket like a Mafia hit man, and extracted a rather ominous metal probe. "A cheese-iron," he explained, plunging the device into a whopping cheddar and withdrawing a cylindrical plug. "A good cheddar should break like a candle and feel like putty when you knead it in your fingers." Give it a try next time you're assaying the provender in M&S. After fingering the fromage, I surveyed the astonishing range of dairy produce on all sides: row upon row of half stiltons like every full moon you'll ever see gathered together at once; novelties studded with pineapple rings, cherries or slices of orange; 25kg blocks of butter, each in a small, glass-topped coffin like a departed dignitary; smoked cheeses like small leather cushions. Following the judge's sampling, an armada of yoghurt pots were left with a tiny rip in each lid as if a child had raided the fridge in the night. An array of goat's milk logs, rolled in ground pepper, resembled core samples from an oil rig. Despite the show's international title, there were a mere 18 French cheeses on display, including a heroically pongy Liverot, a ruptured square of Pont I'Eveque and several sad, anonymous, oozy splodges.
At a cheese-and-wine tasting, the press pack chomped its way through seven assertive wedges. An oenologist impressed on us a simple lesson: red wine with cheddar or parmesan; sweetish wines with blue cheese. Remember to demand two glasses when you next face a cheeseboard. We then had a nibble of the supreme champion, a mature double Gloucester, which turned out, somewhat surprisingly, to have been made by a leading Lancashire producer.
One of the show's most sought-after prizes is the Cheeselover's Trophy, awarded by a visiting celebrity. Following in the footsteps of such noted gourmets as Una Stubbs (1986), Zoe Ball (1994) and Scorpio of the Gladiators (1995), this year's judge was Floella Benjamin. A former presenter of Playschool, she has now switched her seductive talents to TV food programmes. Unfortunately for British cheese, she selected a soft Italian job ("I can't remember the name," she admitted) as her winner. There can have been few gastronomic judgements quite so arousingly sultry as her critique of the triumphal curd. "You know the feeling when you've really fallen in love, when you're really excited," Ms Benjamin purred. "It's a woman's cheese, soft and gorgeous when it goes down your throat." Phew! I found myself in a muck sweat when seated next to the celebrity at lunch. Born in Trinidad, she explained that cheese was very popular in the West Indies. "Yes, we eat a lot of what-do-you-call-it?" Cheddar? Monterey Jack? "No. Processed cheese." Leaving me starstruck, Ms Benjamin sashayed on for a signing session with her legion of young fans. Unusually for me, I skipped the final course. It was hard to disagree with the blunt-spoken cheesemaker who wearily surveyed the array of crumbling chunks on his plate: "Sometimes, you can have enough bloody cheese."
After spilling the beans about the high spirits displayed on a press trip to Antwerp a few weeks ago, I vowed to keep mum about my fellow hacks. But it would be a shame not to mention the entertainment so generously provided by a colleague on the train to Cheshire. A genial and generous fellow, he attempted to raise the sagging spirits of our fellow passengers in the first-class carriage with a singalong. When his rousing rendition of "Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner" and "If you're feeling happy, clap your hands" failed to elicit much response from the pinstriped execs pecking away at their laptops, he tried another tack. Loping up and down the aisle, his eyes narrowed to malevolent slits, he embarked on a startlingly accurate impression of Olivier's Richard III. However, I believe his rendition of Quasimodo, which gained an additional verisimilitude when he removed his top set of teeth, was even more memorable. I'm sure all who had the good fortune to accompany us on the 2:15 to Crewe would agree.
Half the pleasure of a trip to Kew is spotting the familiar amid the exotic. "Oh, look, we've got that artemisia," trilled Mrs W. Personally, I thought the moribund geranium in a windowsill of the School of Horticulture was more reminiscent of the plant-life at Weasel Villas. But there was scant time for gazing at living genera, since we were heading hotfoot for the Museum of Economic Botany. Since it re-opened three months ago, this haul of vegetable oddities has become Kew's most popular attraction, drawing over a thousand visitors a day.
It is a sort of attic of Empire. There are blow-pipe darts coated with ipoh poison, Cameroon chew-sticks, gramophone needles made from spines of the opuntia cactus, a wooden cannibal dish from Fiji, snow-shoes formed from red maple, rubber dentures and a shirt composed of pineapple fibre. A display of "dangerous jewellery" includes a necklace of castor-oil seeds containing the poison, ricin, which Bulgarian agents used to kill Georgi Markov.
Inevitably, I was drawn to a cabinet of exotic substances labelled "Highs and Lows". Anyone who feels that our repertoire of daily stimulants to be a trifle limited may consider seeking out the caffeine-rich seeds of the Amazonian guarana plant - but bear in mind that you have to grate them using the tongue of the piraruca fish (an example of this organ is on show) before consumption. Similarly, Tibetan stewed tea ("boil for some hours") is no good without rancid yak's butter. Adventurous bods may care to chomp the Polynesian kava root in order to extract a juice which, when fermented, has "sedative and hypnotic properties".
The museum also has an impressive set of equipment for smoking opium, including porcelain braziers and a variety of pipes. Oddly enough, it does not display the familiar, if slightly less elegant paraphernalia to be found in many homes from the late Sixties onwards. I'm sure that many now highly respectable visitors could supply the torn Rizla packet, the ballpoint pen and, most important of all, the correct rolling mat (Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane)Reuse content