By Mike Baess
I have an admission to make. I’m a cheese-aholic.
It’s one of my favourite foods and like a fine wine or quality ale I love the complex tastes and many different varieties that can be found.
For that reason I’ve always wanted to visit the renowned International Cheese Awards which are held at Nantwich, Cheshire each year so when I was asked if I wanted to join Tesco’s cheese team who were judging at the event recently, I jumped at the chance.
The event at Nantwich, which is in its 116th year, is the biggest cheese festival in the world. To give some idea of its magnitude this year it attracted a record 4286 entries from more than 25 different countries.
It takes place in a giant, army sized tent and on arriving you can’t help being overwhelmed by the sheer size of the event with long rows of just about every type of cheese imaginable.
So what makes a cheese a champion and what are the qualities judges look for to deem it worthy of gold cup success? I was about to find out.
As you’ll see in our film below, Neil Olley, category technical director for Tesco’s dairy department was there to show me the basics of testing a cheese for quality.
Neil presides over a team of technical managers who check that every cheese sold by the supermarket is up to a rigorous standard.
I learnt that the most important tool used by graders to check quality is a cheese iron – a kind of hollowed out t-shaped bar that helps graders assess quality without the need to open it.
It’s gently pushed into the block and after a couple of turns a plug of cheese is slowly withdrawn. This action allows graders to:
- Check the smell and maturity
- Make sure it looks good and that are no defects such as dirt contamination or graininess
- Check that it has the right moisture level
A piece from the plug is then broken off and rolled to give a further indication on the condition of the cheese and can also be tasted. Finally the plug is returned to the cheese and the grader knows if it is ready to be sold or needs further ripening.
The 190 judges – armed with cheese irons plus apples and water to cleanse their palates after each tasting - went around in groups of around three to compare and even argue the merits of each cheese entered into the 283 categories.
It was fascinating to eavesdrop on the judges as they went about their work and to hear some of the language used to describe the cheeses. There were some passionate discussions as the cheeses were prodded and poked; morsels were rolled, squeezed and tasted and then awarded marks.
About Mike Baess
Mike has been a food writer for many years. He started as a journalist on a local paper in his home area in north London and also in east London and Essex.
After working in commercial journalism for a few years, Mike came to Tesco 13 years ago and has since spent most of that time using his journalistic skills to find interesting stories about new products, trends, suppliers and our people.
Other than writing and his family Mike’s main passions are music, sport and of course food and he considers himself fortunate to be able to make a living combining two of those.
Mike lives in Hertfordshire and is married with a five year old daughter who is equally interested in food!