Wales, Nov 3 (CNN) — When you gather 4,434 cheeses from 42 countries in one room to find out which is best, there’s inevitably a sense of excitement in the air. There is, of course, inevitably also a very, very powerful smell.
That heady and almost intoxicating mix of ripening dairy produce and friendly competition was swirling around a conference center in the United Kingdom on Wednesday as 250 international judges sniffed, prodded and chomped their way along tables groaning with cheese to decide which should take the crown at the 2022 edition of the World Cheese Awards.
This year’s winner, a gruyère from Switzerland, was eventually chosen by a panel of top judges after the field had been whittled down first to 98 “super gold” champions and then to a final 16.
Judges described the Le Gruyère AOP surchoix, entered by Swiss cheese maker Vorderfultigen and affineur (refiner) Gourmino, as a “really refined, hand-crafted cheese” that melts on the tongue and has notes of herbs, fruits and leather. “A cheese with a lot of taste and bouquet.”
A matured cheese, the gruyère is slightly crumbly and made from raw cow’s milk.
Coming in second place was a Gorgonzola Dolce DOP, a soft, blue buttery cheese made by De’ Magi from Italy.
Choosing a winner
So how do you pick a winning cheese out of a cast of thousands?
The arduous work began shortly after 10 a.m. in the International Conference Centre on the outskirts of the Welsh city of Newport when the judges trooped into the main event hall to the lung-busting strains of a Welsh male voice choir.
After a few minutes spent unpacking, unwrapping and unleashing, each of the 98 judging tables was transformed into a pungent and varied topography.
Gigantic waxy wheels sat next to tiny soft goat logs. There were towering blues, flat creamy medallions and imposing cheddar slabs. There were cheeses the shape of witch hats and flowers, cheeses wrapped in nettle leaves or covered in ash. There were plain, simple cheeses. There were cheeses resembling cakes, elaborately garnished in fruit.
There were whites, oranges, blues — even purples.
At least one cheese looked like it was painted by abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.
The cheeses were all blind-tasted, although with a judging team selected from an army of cheese makers, sellers, writers and other assorted experts, many knew more or less what they were sinking their teeth into. A few famous big name commercial cheeses could be spotted a mile off.
On table 14, judges Danielle Bliss and Philippe Dumain got off to a shaky start with a disappointing Brie-style product.
“It’s very one dimensional,” said Bliss, punching the scores into an iPad. “It could be good for cooking or baking, but it isn’t the best cheese in the world. I’m looking for a cheese that takes me on a journey.”
The judges were tasked with grading each of their 50 or so cheeses by visual appearance, aroma, flavor and the feel of it in the mouth. The best were awarded gold, silver or bronze status and each judging table selected one as a “super gold.”
On table 18, Tom Chatfield and Kazuaki Tomiyama were giving a mold-ripened goat cheese a good prod and bracing for more disappointment.
“It seems to have lost some of its integrity,” said Chatfield, before slicing into it. “It’s a bit overripe, you can smell the ammonia, but considering it’s had to travel here, I’m going to be charitable.” After conferring with Tomiyama, it’s awarded 18 out of a maximum 35.
“If we’d seen it two or three days sooner, it would’ve been a much better cheese.”
Next up on table 18 is something resembling a moldy fig and described by its producers as an “enzymatic coagulation.” Despite that, it tastes great.
“It’s very young and very clean,” says Chatfield as the pair of judges score it with 29 points. “Some cheeses have a song that keeps on going. This is a 15 second one, but not a full orchestra. Some cheeses will keep singing.”
Because the room is filled with cheese and people who love cheese, there’s an upbeat mood during the early judging stages that cuts through the sonorous hum emanating from the competition entries.
Yet there’s a serious side to the World Cheese Awards.
John Farrand, managing director of the Guild of Fine Food that organized the 34th edition of the annual event in partnership with the Welsh government, says victory can push a tiny artisan cheese maker into the big time.
He cites the case of Norwegian cheese producer Ostegården, which triumphed a few years ago when the owner was on the point of retirement. The victory inspired his son to switch his career plans and return to the family farm, eventually building a tiny operation into a major exporter.
“Commercial success is important,” Farrand told CNN midway through the morning’s tasting sessions. “But it’s also a big pat on the back. Winning means something to them and their team that’s as good as any commercial benefit.”
Hosting the event is also a big deal, Farrand added, with Wales hoping it’ll help spotlight its homegrown cheeses and its wider food industry.
It’s a spotlight that had originally been due to fall on Ukraine this year. The country had to postpone its hosting turn because of the Russian invasion.
That didn’t stop 39 Ukrainian cheeses being entered into the contest.
Natali Kahadi of Ukrainian cheese distributor Ardis, which brought entries and set up a stall on the sidelines of the event, said the conflict was hitting cheese makers hard.
“But we continue to work,” she told CNN. “We do not stop our production. We are fighting our war with cheese.”
‘Bite and texture’
Back on the judging tables, potential winners are beginning to emerge as the morning wears on. On table 61, Keith Kendrick and Shumana Palit have identified two gold winners.
“Everything was beautifully in balance,” says Palit, tapping a very plain-looking cow milk cheese. “There was a good mouthfeel, it was wonderfully complex — and most importantly, we agreed on it.”
On table 95, Emma Young, Ben Ticehurst and Matt Lardie — three experts with more than 30 years’ industry experience between them — were eyeing up a couple of textured Spanish cheeses, one of which would be their “super gold” winner.
“This is beautiful, really fruity and pleasant,” says Young after using a cheese iron to bore out a sample of the first. “It’s got a bit of a bite and texture. It tastes like strawberry laces.”
It’s the second cheese, bearing imprinted patterns of the basket in which it was ripened, that goes through to the next round. “It’s perfect,” said Young. “It’s an incredible example of a Manchego.”
Meanwhile on table 70, where another ammonia-tinged cheese has the judges reaching for palate-cleansing slices of apple, the slog of sampling dozens of dairy products was starting to take its toll.
“After eating 20 cheeses, you do start to dip,” said Dutch judge Gijs Dankers. Other judges mentioned experiencing a “cheese high” and “the sweats.”
Kris Lloyd, an Australian cheese maker and judge on table 17, despaired at the quality of some entries. “You can tell when someone starts off with really good milk and doesn’t mess with it,” she said. “But we’ve seen a lot of messing this morning.”
Beyond the judging tables, Jenny Lee, who only recently began producing cheese with her husband at Torpenhow, a farming area in the green hills of the UK’s rural northern Cumbrian region, was looking on in anticipation.
She was hoping her cheeses had done justice to the milk produced by her “hybrid” herd of Jersey, Friesian and Norwegian Red cows.
“It’s brilliant,” she said. “We feel this cheese world is so friendly and so supportive, we’re really excited to be here.”