The 120th International Cheese Awards

By Jo Cooksey

If you love cheese and frankly who doesn’t, there is an event that happens in Nantwich every year that will have you drooling in anticipation. The International Cheese Awards is one of the highlights of the cheesemakers and fromage lovers calendar and the event attracts thousands of entrants from over fifty countries.

This year, the 120th International Cheese Awards, took place on 25th and 26th July and we bobbed along to see what goes on at the much-lauded occasion. Obviously, there was going to be a lot of cheese involved.

The first day is a trade day, when all the judging takes place and with nearly 5,700 entries in 480 classes this year, that is a lot of judging. There are cheeses from micro dairies, cheeses from artisan cheese makers and cheeses from the large players in the market, such as Arla and Dairy Crest. On the second day, the event welcomes the public, as part of the Nantwich Show, who can peruse the wares of over 60 exhibitors and watch cookery demos from the likes of James Martin, Will Holland, Jonathan Harrison and, Sean Wilson.

The weather on trade day was beautiful, making the drive down Nantwich a pleasure. Winding through country lanes and through chocolate box villages, this was England at its most bucolic and verdant. Once parked, I walked over to the showground and in to the huge tent. But where to start? With so many trade stands there was a lot of choice. I wandered about for a few minutes before spotting a favourite from my previous visit, two years ago. The Isle of Man Creamery , makes the most gorgeous Garlic and Chive Mature Cheddar, which is hand blended. The only criticism I have of the trade day is that most stalls won’t sell you any cheese. I think they save it up for the public day but fortunately the nice man from the Isle of Man had no such qualms and I departed with two blocks of the Garlic and Chive and one of the Vintage Cheddar.

A really eye-catching stall was that of Lithuanian Dairy producers, Markomilk. They had a magnificent display, which included cheesecake bars. Cheesecake in a handy, chocolate covered single serve bar. What could be better? The fact that they are lactose free perhaps? They come in Cherry, Condensed Milk, Ice Cream and Crème Brülée flavours and they are flipping delish. Keep your eyes on the chiller cabinets of your local supermarket because they are heading our way.

On the Galbani stall, chef Joe Herd, was making a fresh pasta dish; Pici with mint, tomatoes, basil almonds and their small mozzarella balls. Joe is a very good looking young man, so it was difficult to get near enough to watch the demo for all the excited females gathered round. However, further down the stand they did have some canapes of mozzarella balls, cherry tomatoes and basil leaves drizzled with basil oil. Yum.

Speaking of small balls, a visit to the Delamere Dairy stand revealed a new product, or new to me anyway. Honey pearls of goat’s cheese. I love goats cheese and these honey flavoured tiny balls are a new favourite. Just perfect for scattering on a salad.

As it was now nearly noon, I made my way to the trophy stage to watch the induction ceremony of this year’s new members of the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers, the international society of cheesemakers. To be inducted is a huge honour and something many cheesemakers aspire to. It is a fascinating ceremony to watch, ii just for the robes the members wear. They look quite medieval, with a bit of Professor Quirell from Harry Potter thrown in for good measure. The first inductee this year was Sean Wilson, the ex-Coronation Street actor turned cheese maker, who owns and runs The Saddleworth Cheese Company. He looked genuinely moved as his guild medal was hung around his neck. Don’t suppose we’ll see him back on the cobbles anytime soon.

After a hard morning of cheese nibbling it was time for lunch. I don’t know how they do but the caterers manage to feed around 1,200 people in one sitting. There is a fizz and canape reception first and this year’s canapés were excellent. Then everyone sits down to lunch of cold cuts, poached salmon and salads, before moving on to a large choice of desserts. If you still had room after that and being the International Cheese Awards, the world’s largest cheese board is on offer. Whilst lunch is being enjoyed, all the category winners are announced. I was pleased to see that my friend’s at Dewlay won Best in Class for their Beacon Fell Traditional Lancashire Cheese plus 18 other awards. If you’re ever passing their dairy in Garstang around 11.30 in the morning you can bob in and watch them making cheese, visit their cheese museum and pop in to their lovely shop.

The big winners this year were both blue cheeses. The Supreme Champion and winner of the Westminster Cup for 2017 was a blue Roquefort Papillon from Bradbury’s Cheese and the Reserve Supreme Champion went to a blue Stilton from Arla Food’s Tuxford and Tebbutt. The Cheese Retailer of the year was Waitrose, with Morrison’s coming in second.

I was stuffed and could quite happily have had a nap but there was just time for one more whizz around the tent. There were a couple of cheesemakers that I had missed earlier in the day including The Cheshire Cheese Company. As well as making a beautiful, traditional creamy Cheshire, they also add the most amazing flavours to their Cheddars, such as Irish Whiskey and Stem Ginger and Caramelized Onion and Rioja. My favourite is their new, award winning Gin and Lemon Cheshire Cheese. You must try this, it is amazing.

Another one I’d missed was the Treur Dutch cheese stand. I love a bit of Gouda, with its creamy, nutty sweetness and excellent melting abilities. Treur have developed lots of varieties of Gouda, including red and green pesto, organic truffle, Gouda goat with fenugreek and my favourite, their smoky cheese. Often smoked cheeses have a very synthetic taste because the smokiness is an added flavouring. However, Treur’s is naturally smoked and the taste is much subtler and pleasing to the palette.

At this point, I was in danger of lapsing into a dairy induced coma, so me and my big bag of assorted cheeses headed back to the car. This event is one of the highlights of my food year and I’m already looking forward to next year.

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Photos: © Taste Today