Wednesday 16 July 2008
Alex James: The Great Escape
We were hosts to the British Cheese Awards on Friday. And so it was that 910 different varieties of cheese arrived at the farm on Thursday. It doesn't sound that bewildering, but a good delicatessen probably only carries a couple of dozen varieties. Mayhem, it was. A cavalcade of cars and couriers; crates of the stuff pouring up the drive. From every corner of the kingdom they came, from Cornish Yarg to Orkney Cheddar, Lincolnshire Poacher to a highly prized Swiss-style cheese called Desmond from West Cork.
By 8pm on Thursday evening, when the judges' dinner was supposed to be taking place, Juliet, who organises the event, was in a sea of polystyrene packaging with a determined but slightly bewildered look on her face. Everything seemed to be working wonderfully, though. The big shed had been transformed into a walk-in cheese humidor, a bizarre museum of contemporary cheese.
I went along to the Plough as Juliet's emissary, to meet those judges who had arrived the previous night. I did have one conversation that almost got on to another subject, something about cigarettes, but everybody wanted to talk about cheese, really. There was a hairy moment, when I was asked what my favourite cheese was. It suddenly went quiet around the table and all eyes were on me. "Well, I seem to be eating rather a lot of... well, a lot of Gruyère at the moment."
There was a short pause that lasted forever, followed by a genuine rumble of approval and much sage nodding. It seems Gruyère is highly rated among top cheese brass. It's the pasture that does it, apparently, the Swiss flora.
By 9.45am the next day, the full judging panel – 50 cheese nutters from home and abroad – had assembled to put the nation's cheeses in the correct order. The panel included eminent cheesemakers: Tom Calver from Westcombe cheddar, in with a good shot at supreme champion this year; Joe Schneider, the brains behind Stichelton, also in with a shout, alongside food writers Charles Campion of this parish, Prue Leith and Sophie Grigson.
There were buyers, wholesalers and other luminaries in attendance to give a full appraisal of the cheese situation nationwide, as it stood on Friday. The cheeses are judged initially by category, then all the winners go head to head to find the supreme champion. The results aren't revealed until September, and, of course, I can't reveal the results, but there was no doubt about which was the best cheese on the day. There never is with cheese.
I was on the panel for a book prize, and that was one long argument, but cheese seems to generate concord: by 3pm, there was a new champion.
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