Newport, Wales (CNN) — When you collect 4,434 cheeses from 42 countries in one room to find out which one is best, there is inevitably a sense of excitement in the air. Inevitably, there is also a very, very powerful scent.
That intoxicating and almost intoxicating mix of ripening dairy products and friendly competition swirled around a conference center in the United Kingdom on Wednesday, as 250 international judges sniffed, prodded and chewed past tables moaning with cheese to decide who should take the crown at the 2022 edition of the World Cheese Awards.
This year’s winner, a Gruyere from Switzerland, was ultimately chosen by a panel of top judges after the field was first narrowed to 98 “super gold” champions and then to a final 16.
Judges described the Le Gruyère AOP surchoix, imported by Swiss cheesemaker Vorderfultigen and affineur (refinery) Gourmino, as a “truly refined, handcrafted cheese” that melts on the tongue and has notes of spice, fruit and leather. “A cheese with a lot of flavor and bouquet.”
A mature cheese, the Gruyere is slightly crumbly and made from raw cow’s milk.
Coming in second was a Gorgonzola Dolce DOP, a soft, blue buttery cheese made by De’ Magi of Italy.
Le Gruyère AOP surchoix is the world’s new No. 1 cheese.
Pick a winner
So how do you pick a winning cheese from a cast of thousands?
The heavy lifting began shortly after 10 a.m. at the International Conference Center on the outskirts of the Welsh town of Newport, when the judges stormed into the main event hall to the lung-breaking sounds of a Welsh male choir.
After a few minutes of unpacking, unpacking and unleashing, each of the 98 jury tables was transformed into a tantalizing and varied topography.
Giant waxy wheels stood next to small soft goat blocks. There were towering blues, flat creamy medallions and imposing cheddar plates. There were cheeses in the shape of witch hats and flowers, cheeses wrapped in nettle leaves or covered with ashes. There were plain, simple cheeses. There were cheeses that resembled cake, richly topped with fruit.
There were whites, oranges, blues – even purples.
At least one cheese looked as if it had been painted by the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.
The cheeses came in all shapes, sizes and colours.
The cheeses were all blind tasted, although with a jury team selected from an army of cheesemakers, vendors, writers and other diverse experts, many more or less knew what they were getting their teeth into. A few famous big-name commercial cheeses can be seen from miles away.
At Table 14, judges Danielle Bliss and Philippe Dumain started off shaky with a disappointing Brie-esque product.
“It’s very one-dimensional,” Bliss said, punching the scores into an iPad. “It could be good for cooking or baking, but it’s not the best cheese in the world. I’m looking for a cheese that will take me on a journey.”
The judges had to rate each of their approximately 50 cheeses on appearance, smell, taste and mouthfeel. The best were awarded gold, silver or bronze status and each jury selected one as ‘super gold’.
Judges Kazuaki Tomiyama and Tom Chatfield taste the cheeses on table 18.
At table 18, Tom Chatfield and Kazuaki Tomiyama gave a mould-aged goat’s cheese a good jab and braced for more disappointment.
“It seems to have lost some of its integrity,” Chatfield said, before slashing it. “It’s a little overripe. You can smell the ammonia, but given that it had to travel here, I’m going to be charitable.” After consultation with Tomiyama, it is awarded 18 out of a maximum of 35.
“Had we seen it two or three days earlier, it would have been a much better cheese.”
Next up on table 18 is something akin to a moldy fig and described by the producers as an ‘enzymatic coagulation’. Despite that, it tastes fine.
“It’s very young and very clean,” Chatfield says as the two judges score it 29 points. “Some cheeses have a song that goes on and on. This is a 15 second song, but not a full orchestra. Some cheeses will keep on singing.”
A Ukrainian delegation offered samples of Ukrainian cheese.
As the room is filled with cheese and people who love cheese, there is an upbeat mood during the early judging stages that cuts through the sonorous hum emanating from the contest entries.
Yet there is also a serious side to the World Cheese Awards.
John Farrand, director of the Guild of Fine Food which hosted the 34th edition of the annual event in partnership with the Welsh government, says the win could push a small artisan cheesemaker to the top.
He cites the case of Norwegian cheese producer Ostegården, which triumphed a few years ago when the owner was about to retire. The win inspired his son to change his career plans and return to the family farm, eventually growing a small business into a major exporter.
“Commercial success is important,” Farrand told CNN mid-morning tastings. “But it’s also a pat on the back. Winning means something to them and their team that is as good as any commercial advantage.”
Hosting the event is also a big deal, Farrand added, and Wales hopes it will help put the spotlight on homegrown cheeses and the wider food industry.
It’s a spotlight that was originally supposed to fall on Ukraine this year. The country had to postpone hosting because of the Russian invasion.
That did not stop 39 Ukrainian cheeses from entering the competition.
Natali Kahadi of Ukrainian cheese distributor Ardis, who brought in entries and set up a booth on the sidelines of the event, said the conflict is hitting the cheese makers hard.
“But we will continue to work,” she told CNN. “We are not stopping our production. We are waging our war with cheese.”
‘Bite and texture’
The best cheeses were awarded gold, silver and bronze status.
Back on the judges’ tables, potential winners begin to emerge as the morning progresses. At table 61, Keith Kendrick and Shumana Palit have selected two gold winners.
“Everything was nicely balanced,” says Palit, tapping a very plain-looking cow’s milk cheese. “There was a great mouthfeel, it was wonderfully complex — and most importantly, we agreed.”
At Table 95, Emma Young, Ben Ticehurst and Matt Lardie – three experts with more than 30 years of industry experience combined – looked at a pair of textured Spanish cheeses, one of which would be their “super gold” winner.
“This is nice, really fruity and pleasant,” says Young after he drilled out a sample of the first with a cheese iron. “It has a bit of bite and texture. It tastes like strawberry laces.”
It is the second cheese, with imprinted patterns from the basket in which it was matured, that proceeds to the next round. “It’s perfect,” said Young. “It’s an incredible example of a Manchego.”
The cheeses are judged on appearance, smell, taste and mouthfeel.
Meanwhile, at Table 70, where another ammonia-tinged cheese grabs the judges for palate-clearing apple slices, the slog of tasting dozens of dairy products began to take its toll.
“After eating 20 cheeses you start dipping,” said judge Gijs Dankers. Other judges called experiencing a “cheese high” and “sweating.”
Kris Lloyd, an Australian cheesemaker and judge at Table 17, was despondent about the quality of some of the entries. “You can tell when someone starts with really good milk and doesn’t mess with it,” she said. “But we saw a lot of mess this morning.”
Outside the judges’ tables, Jenny Lee, who only recently started producing cheese with her husband in Torpenhow, a farming area in the green hills of the UK’s rural North Cumbrian region, looked on with anticipation.
She hoped 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 supportive, we’re really excited to be here.”