The big cheese

Judges at the International Cheese Awards

As tens of thousands are expected to flock to a major cheese fair, why have Britons started taking this once-humble foodstuff very seriously indeed?

Everywhere you look, one yellowing, waxy sight dominates the landscape: cheese, and tonnes of it.

In a marquee the size of one and a half football fields, all you can see - and smell - is great pungent hunks of the stuff: Brie, Wensleydale, Cheddar, Stilton, Yarg.

Slowly, deliberately, teams of stern, white-coated judges purposefully make their way through this array - fingering, sniffing, and finally tasting each sample.

Behind the stalls surrounding this main arena, barely suppressing their anxiety, the producers who have crafted the produce look on.

In sombre, reverent tones, their talk is of curds, creameries and coagulation. Here, cheese is a very serious business indeed.

Welcome to Nantwich, Cheshire, home to the Palme D'Or of the cheese world, the Oscars of the dairy industry: the International Cheese Awards.

Cheese on display at the International Cheese Awards The judges are looking for consistency, texture and balance in a champion cheese

More than 3,000 entrants from 24 countries have submitted their wares for inspection.

But the surge of enthusiasm among the British public for a product forged almost literally in their own back yards has given the event - now in its 113th year - a renewed significance. On Wednesday, when the marquee is opened to the general public, some 30,000 visitors are expected to attend.

It is an astonishing level of interest in a specialist trade fair and a product that, barely a generation ago, would have been regarded by most as a prosaic sandwich filling - associated as much with Kraft slices and rubbery supermarket own-brand fare than haute cuisine.

Start Quote

Liz Sutton

I defy anybody not to love cheese”

End Quote Liz Sutton Cheese producer

But now, following a rise in culinary expectations and with gastronomic language having filtered through to ordinary supermarket shoppers via TV chefs, it appears that the British are prepared to approach this staple artisan dish with the reverence of, say, the French or the Italians.

Just as real ale went from being a neglected, minority interest to a mainstream enthusiasm within barely 30 years, so too are the dairy equivalents of microbreweries benefiting from the boom in farmers' markets.

The UK, after all, is a major cheese-producing country: 700 varieties are produced within these shores, 14 of which are subject to protected designation of origin in the same manner as champagne or Parma ham.

As a consumer of the product, however, the country remains resolutely mid-table in European terms. According to the British Cheese Board (BCB), the British consume some 600,000 tonnes of the product (excluding fromage frais and cottage cheese) each year, or 10kg per person - but this is still only about half as much as consumers in Germany, France, Italy and Greece manage to put away.

Wensleydale, West Country Cheddar, Somerset Brie and Cornish Blue Wensleydale, West Country Cheddar, Somerset Brie and Cornish Blue

The industry is confident that the UK market can catch up. But right now, most producers are focused chiefly on how their own cheeses fare in the awards' 320 categories. They eye each other nervously in the manner of international rock stars at the Grammys ceremony.

As the clock ticks down and the judges continue their ruminations, Ian Coggin, 51, sales director of Dewlay, a Lancashire-based cheese firm, admits he is nervous.

"We were Supreme Champion here in 1990," he recalls, wistfully. "It's a generation ago, but I'll always remember it because - well, it's a lifetime achievement, really.

His eyes narrow. "This competition is huge. To us, to win a medal at Nantwich, it's absolutely massive."

International Cheese Awards, Nantwich Cheese enthusiasts hope the product can take off in the same way as real ale

Liz Sutton, 52, has been coming here for 25 years representing goat's cheese dairy Delamere in Knutsford, Cheshire. She acknowledges that few casual cheese fans will engage with the awards on quite the same level as her fellow professionals, but is adamant that the many rewards of cheese appreciation are open to everyone.

"I don't think people outside the industry really understand why we get so excited," she laughs.

"But you can tell from walking round here today the passion that goes into cheese. Everybody's got their favourite and there's so much variety. I defy anybody not to love cheese."

One of those tasked with evaluating the samples on display is Sean Wilson, who may be better known to most for having played Gail Tilsley's former husband Martin Platt in Coronation Street. Wilson is a food enthusiast who produces three farmhouse varieties at Saddleworth Cheeses in Lancashire.

Start Quote

Sean Wilson

The British cheese counter is quite a big counter now”

End Quote Sean Wilson Cheesemaker, judge and ex-Coronation Street actor

He talks airily and authoritatively about the crucial components that a judge looks for in a winning cheese - consistency, good texture, an even balance of flavours. But while Wilson acknowledges that few high street consumers will apply quite this level of connoisseurship on their weekly shop, he believes that more and more are taking the product with the seriousness it deserves.

"There are, for me, two different styles of cheeses - the cheese that you just pick up wrapped in plastic at your supermarket, but you've also got the people who will choose a proper farmhouse cheese at a farmer's market or a deli," he says.

"And the style that buys the proper cheese, the movement's definitely growing. The British cheese counter is quite a big counter now, wherever you go. The public is starting to appreciate it."

So can Wilson's proper cheese follow the example of real ale - neglected and taken for granted a generation ago, but now boasting an array of hand pumps and self-proclaimed experts in pubs across the country?

Key winners

  • Supreme Champion: Ferrari Organic Parmesan, from Lodi, Italy
  • UK Supreme Champion: Red Leicester by Taw Valley Creamery, Devon

Nigel White, secretary of the BCB, believes it is already there. To him, the surge of interest in more challenging varieties is a side-effect of broader social change.

"Over the last 30 years, there has been a revolution in cheese-making in this country," he insists. "In the 70s, we had a period where a lot of the cheese out there was very bland.

"But consumers have changed their palates - they've become more adventurous because we travel more. They're taking food more seriously and they're looking for more interesting flavours."

The tens of thousands who are flocking into this marquee, at the very least, would concur.

And if they, too, go forth and evangelise for the wonders of cheese, perhaps this very British culinary revolution will continue.

British cheese map

Below is a selection of your comments

Good job I'm not there - my mum once told me if ate anymore cheese I would squeak.

Ann, Canterbury

In the same way that Friends was partly responsible for the surge in coffee shops on the British high street, can we accord the increase in popularity for cheese to Wallace? "More cheese, Gromit?"

Jo, Milton Keynes

There are many people who do not like cheese, including myself. In fact I absolutely detest it in all it's forms. It is smelly and unhealthy. Some varieties are so smelly that I find the eating of them in public to be quite anti-social.

Gau Lun Cho, Hong Kong

God, cheese. The loveliest of all the foods. I am delighted to see it is once again being embraced by the people of this fine country. There is no dish that cheese cannot improve.

Vicky, London

Has people's desire for good cheese really ever diminished? I don't think so - it's just that the majority of us are presented with "cheese" which has a taste and texture which very closely resembles the plastic it's wrapped in. Whilst farmer's markets are great, if producers really want to increase cheese consumption then the supermarkets need to be on board and the price has got to be right - otherwise we end up just buying a little as a treat. Am I really going to buy a big hunk of cheese for the same price as a T-bone? I doubt it.

Jonathan Whitham, York

How come supermarket own label cheese sells for more than branded cheese? Power and greed of the supermarkets. What chance does this give the producer of a quality product to break into the mass market, or are they to be limited to delis and farmers' markets?

Farmer, Cheshire

If we took a lesson from the French with regard to cheese we'd protect and create British jobs AND have something to be genuinely proud of. Contrary to stereotype, we have a rich and varied kitchen, something we can export with pride and more importantly to share with friends as a prelude to good conversation.

Patrick, Sheffield, Yorkshire

Calling the French cheese connoisseurs is something of a lie based on my time in France. The way they treat cheese can be likened to smothering everything you eat in lashings of ketchup and claiming you are a connoisseur of tomatoes.

Nina, Peterborough, UK

Surely the Monty Python team got it right: "Blessed are the cheesemakers"!

Fred Huckle, London, UK

Let's be fair to the supermarkets. They sell what people want to buy and, in any case, most of their own brand premium cheese is very good indeed. If you don't agree then they also sell many excellent branded cheeses.

John, Worksop, Notts

A pot of black tea, Hovis digestive biscuits with extra-mature cheddar cheese and Midsomer Murders on the TV. There may be better ways of spending a Sunday evening after a long drive, but maybe not that many.

Miland Joshi,

I love cheese, particularly Red Leicester and decent Cheddar, but cheese snobs make me sick. Most of them know nothing about cheese, but are leaping on the bandwagon. As you say it is just like real ale, which a good friend of mine hates, but drinks because he "likes to fit in". As far as I can see, this is just another scam to make money from the gullible.

Granville Weir, London, UK

Shropshire Blue...mmmm. Heaven on a plate. Although not made in Shropshire, and invented by the Scots. Amazing!

Michael Drew, Wallingford, UK

I'm afraid I'm allergic to cheese, particularly goat and blue. Living in France for 14 years and now in Cornwall it's torture not being able to go near the stuff. I just have to believe you all when you say how nice it is!

Auntie Sue, Cornwall, UK

This article has just made me swoon a little. Honestly.

Jo, Manchester

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