Champion of the world for third time: a cheese made in heaven

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It is a hard task to describe the cheese that has thrice been voted best in the world. One judge at the World Cheese Awardscame up with"simply outstanding". Another tried "absolutely superb".

It is a hard task to describe the cheese that has thrice been voted best in the world. One judge at the World Cheese Awardscame up with"simply outstanding". Another tried "absolutely superb".

A third mysteriously suggested "it draws out your taste buds". Combining elements of fruitiness, nuttiness and saltiness, the winner at yesterday's awards was a Swiss Gruyère that reduced the competition's 12-strong judging panel to cheesy inarticulateness.

I can sympathise with their plight. A few years ago, I was a judge at the World Cheese Awards. I was awarded the honour not for any great professional experience of cheese but because I have frequently expressed my enthusiasm for the subject in print

On the morning of the competition, I tasted maybe two dozen cheeses in a particular category. Following a cheese-heavy lunch, I was invited to join the judging panel and spent the afternoon assessing the winners in umpteen categories. I now forget what won but I know that my lifelong appetite for cheese diminished radically by about 3pm.

My arteries choked with lipids, I felt wretched for days afterwards. For any cheese to prompt enthusiasm after such an onslaught, it must be remarkable in its potency. To win three times on the trot, it must be the cheese course served in heaven.

This year, Von Muhlenen's Le Gruyère Premier Cru once again nosed ahead of 1,600 international cheeses in the competition. The manufacturer, who also happens to be a sponsor of the World Cheese Awards, is based in the village of Dudingen, about 25 miles from the town of Gruyère which gave its name to the cheese. The precipitous nature of the local terrain, fissured by deep Alpine valleys, was instrumental in the creation of this intense, waxy cheese.

Because transportation was hard or impossible for much of the year, the farmers determined to make a very firm cheese, strong in both form and flavour, that could be matured for long periods.

Made from the milk of cattle that graze on high mountain pastures, Gruyère is made by both Swiss and French farmers, though the two types are somewhat different. "The Swiss style is more aggressive, full-on and much stronger," explains Patricia Michelson, who sells "loads of both Swiss and French Gruyère" from her specialist London shops, La Fromagerie. "The French style is a little bit lighter and fruitier, not as intense as the Swiss version."

Curiously, our supermarkets tend to stock the French style of Gruyère. Although this can be excellent, as in the case of the Beaufort sold by Waitrose, it seems a shame that the full-on version from the cantons is not more widely available. Von Muhlenen's Le Gruyère Premier Cru is only available from independent delicatessens. Ms Michelson insists: "If you want cheese that really shows off the Gruyère character, you should go for Swiss."

Unlike English cow's milk cheeses such as Cheddar and Lancashire, Gruyère is a "cooked" cheese, which means the milk is boiled for a certain period. This results in a much denser pate which can be aged well. "The sweetness of the cheese comes through as it ages," says Ms Michelson. "A distinct crunch of salt also emerges. The fruit and hazelnut tang of an aged Gruyère complements dry white wines and champagnes perfectly."

The cheese also works well in fondue and croque-monsieur, the French snack eaten as an "en cas" (in case you don't get anything to eat later).

But it would be a shame to melt the world's greatest cheese over some humble toast and ham. If you manage to get your hands on a slab, nibble it with a drop of Krug.


World Champion 2005: Von Muhlenen's Le Gruyere Premier Cru

Description: An aged Swiss Gruyere 15-16 months old.

Why it won: "Scored 116 out of 120 possible points for depth of flavour and wide international appeal."

Best British Cheese: Gorwydd Caerphilly from Trethowan's Dairy Ltd

Description: Light, crumbly, slightly fruity cheese with a hint of salt on the finish.

Why it won: "Wonderful balanced taste and texture."

Best Cheddar: Keen's of Wincanton

Description: Mature, unpasteurised Cheddar made from the milk of cattle grazing on clay pastures.

Why it won: "Combines earthiness and creaminess in superb depth of flavour."

Best Blue from a PDO (Place of Designated Origin): Gorgonzola Erborinato by Galbani

Description: Delicate, creamy cow's milk cheese streaked with piquant blue culture.

Why it won: "Harmonious match of creamy cheese with sharpness of blue."

Best Irish cheese: Kerry Gold medium cheddar

Description: "Full-flavoured, creamy and satisfying with an excellent nutty tang."

Why it won: Value for money.