As I sat down to breakfast on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I wasn’t going over a check-list of ingredients for a Turkey dinner. Nor was I making preparations for a last-minute flight to join my family on the West Coast. Instead, I was trying to decide whether to have a light breakfast, so that I would have room enough for about 60 samples of cheese, or a heartier breakfast, so I wouldn’t be too hungry and eat too much cheese. I was about to be a judge at the World Cheese Awards for the first time, and I wasn’t sure which was the better strategy. In the end I did both: a little fruit and orange juice, followed by eggs, bacon, black pudding and some toast.
After breakfast, I headed over to the Birmingham National Exhibition Center (NEC), where the judging was to take place. I registered, drank more coffee, and mingled with the other judges. The judges came from all over the world and from all areas related to cheese. I met a fellow alumnus from Murray’s, Svetlana Redpath, who now owns The Guid Cheese Shop in Scotland, the cheddar-cheese makers Mary Quicke and Jamie Montgomery, as well as Cathy Strange, the Whole Foods Market Global Cheese Buyer. After listening attentively to the welcome speech and instructions from Bob Farrand, Director of the Guild of Fine Food, I headed down to the main hall where the cheeses were waiting to be tasted.
The NEC is an immense venue, with the main floor shaped like a huge “L.” The BBC Fine Food Show had divided the space into islands of booths, each island specializing in a certain kind of food, and each booth dedicated to a certain vendor. There were goods and products of just about anything you could imagine related to fine food from all over the UK and Europe. There were also a number of stages set up with different cooking demonstrations and other events going on throughout the day. The World Cheese Awards venue was just off to one side, designated by a huge banner and conspicuous for the huge amount of cheese in plain view and yet inaccessible to the general public (for now).
My pass let me in to the judging area where over 2700 cheeses were laid out on 46 different tables. I was given a white coat and assigned to Table 40. By about 9:30 am, the other three members of my judging team were ready and the tasting began.
Each cheese is judged on its own merit. Cheeses with perfect scores are awarded a Gold, high scores receive a Silver or Bronze. All gold-medal cheeses are then tasted again and a ‘Super Gold’ medal can be awarded to any deemed worthy to advance to the next round. The team tastes cheeses together and comes to a mutual agreement as to what the overall score is for that cheese. There is a form where all scores are recorded, with a space for comments which provide feedback to the cheesemakers.
We started with the “Reduced fat cheese hard pressed,” moved on to “Any other mould ripened, soft or unpressed cows’ milk — plain,” then “Cheese made with the milk of more than one animal,” “Wensleydale,” “Semi-hard ewe’s milk cheese plain,” “Specialist Cheesemakers Association (SCA), one cheese per member,” and ended with “New cheese — with additives.” Most of the time, we were in general agreement about the merits of the cheese, but there would be some debate about whether a gold or silver were to be awarded or not. Only once did we have to call in “The Arbitrator,” a roaming judge with the authority to settle disputes or transfer the cheese in question to another table for added input. We were in disagreement regarding two of the brie-style cheeses we had tasted. Two of us thought one deserved a gold, and the other a silver, whereas the other two thought the opposite. The Arbitrator came in, tasted both cheeses and suggested that although both were very good, they were not a perfect example of that style of cheese, mainly due to a lack of complexity in the flavor and a short finish. He suggested they both get a silver, and neither one get a gold. Despite that little hiccup, we were able to get through all 60 cheeses, plus select our Super Gold, in a little over 3 hours.
At that point, my task as a judge was over. Of the 2700+ cheeses in the first round, 52 were awarded Super Gold medals and advanced to the second round. Of the 150+ judges, 16 would then take part in the Supreme Panel that afternoon. Each member of the Supreme Panel picks out one cheese to champion and then presents their case to the other judges live on TV (you can see the video below). The judges taste the cheese again and score it from 1-5, holding up large cards to be counted. After the last round, scores are tallied, and the three cheeses with the highest scores are the winners.
The top three for 2011 were:
Ossau-Iraty, 10-month, from Fromagerie Agour, France
Cornish Blue, Cornish Blue Cheese Co., England
Sartori Limited Edition Cognac BellaVitano, Sartori Company, USA
Overall it was a fun and entertaining event and I hope to be invited to be a judge again next year.
Video: 2011 World Cheese Awards