Cheese Judging

Next week I will be carrying out my first judging of 2024 at the prestigious British Cheese Awards at the Bath & West Showground in Somerset. This will be the first of three major awards that I will be judging this year. The other two are The Artisan Cheese Awards and The International Cheese and Dairy Awards (more of them to follow in later blogs).

So what does being a cheese judge involve? Firstly one has to properly attired and equipped for the role. Either a white coat (lab coat style) or an apron – essential from a hygiene point of view (and also to stop cheese being spilled on clothes). Some judges also opt to wear a hat – a white trilby style is favoured, similar to that worn by traditional butchers – again a hygiene factor. In terms of equipment, the key bit of kit is a cheese iron. No, not for taking the creases out of the cheese but for taking samples of the cheese.

It is a T-shaped tool with the longer upright piece being a half curve profile similar to a gutter at the edge of a roof. This is used by inserting the pointed end into a large cheese and then using the T-bar, turning and pushing firmly so that it slides into the cheese. Once the ion has gone sufficiently deep into the cheese then the action is reversed, still turning slowly but no pulling it out. The iron now contains a long pipe or cheese with the pointed end having a sample from the centre of the cheese. Using a knife, the pipe of cheese is cut into small pieces for each judge in the team to have a sample.

Judging is usually carried out in teams of two, three or four judges, with one as the head judge to be the arbiter if consensus can’t be reached. Judging involves assessing the appearance, texture, aroma, taste and finish. The back of the cheese iron is examined to see how much fat is present – should be a light film but no more. The small pieces for each judge are taken between the fingers, squashed to check the texture, smelled to check the aroma before deciding whether to taste it. Very occasionally there will be a cheese that has spoiled in transit (sometimes they have come from all over the world) or otherwise become less than ideal to eat. The taste assessment, like all the other elements, is to check how it compares to the optimum for the class in which it is being judged. (a super strong tangy cheese would not score well, no matter how tasty, in a category for mild delicate cheeses). Finally the ‘finish’ – how long does the flavour linger, is it still pleasant tasting after a few minutes?

All of the elements are considered and depending on the particular competition, scores are given for each cheese and a decision made which cheese to award gold, silver or bronze to. In most competitions, there are a number of tables each with about 30 cheeses to be judged. The highest scoring cheese on the table (either a gold or a super-gold) is elevated to the super judging of the table winners. Super-judges then assess these top cheeses to decide upon a supreme champion cheese. Often there are trophies given for the best in certain classes (soft goat, blue sheep, traditional cheddar, etc)

Finally, to give an idea of scale, there can be anything up to 4000 cheeses to be judged in a major competition and it takes all days with hundreds of judges drawn from the world of cheesemakers, cheesemongers, cheese buyers, food journalists and writers.

If you fancy a great day out for the family or with fellow cheese lovers (turophiles), most awards are part of a larger food and drink festival where you can see the vast range of cheeses that were judged as well as visit stalls of cheesemongers, cheesemakers and other food and drink makers.

The first is The Bath & West Food and Drink Festival on 23/24 March 2024 at the showground in Shepton Mallett, Somerset – see you there

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