Saturday, 3 October 2009

Does that Cheddar need ironing? Pass it over...

I'm back from debuting as a judge at The World Cheese Awards in Gran Canaria where 2,440 pressed curd creations from 34 countries vied for the honours.

Not since the 90s when I globetrotted for BBC TV as a Holiday Programme reporter have I encountered such wistful envy from friends.  The sunshine!  The five-star hotel!  Not to mention all those five-star cheeses!  'Ooo, you are lucky, Bill!", "You get all the best gigs," "Bring a Brie back for me!", they chorused (and: "Huh!  You call that work?" harrumphed one or two of those less imbued with generosity of spirit).

And yes, I am lucky and I do get at least some of the best gigs but, as I used to parrot like a mantra during the Holiday Programme years, it's hard work, not as glamorous as you'd think, and stuff goes wrong......

On this occasion, stuff went wrong from the off.  We British judges were to fly from Heathrow at a very civilised 12.10, change at Madrid (the new, Richard Rogers-designed terminal is every bit as sensational as critics have made out, incidentally) and arrive at Las Palmas at 18.25 in time to shower and change for a judges' welcoming dinner.

Then came a sequence of events, involving a knackered plane, a crashed computer system, no assistance or organisation by Iberia or anyone else, endless queuing, and an attempt to convince a puzzled Heathrow immigration official that my journey had started at Heathrow (resolved when her colleague leant over to gush about how she loves me on the radio).

We finally checked in at our hotel at 3 in the morning.  Oh - and my bag didn't make it until 5 the following afternoon.

After four hours' sleep, we were bused to the Alfredo Kraus conference centre (famous Spanish tenor, Austrian forebears, hence incongruous name).  We dribbled out onto a terrace which overlooked an impossibly perfect bay where, below an azure sky, surfers, swimmers and sunbathers took full advantage of a sparkling sea and golden beach.  Was there one judge so dedicated to fermented milk products that they wouldn't have dashed from the building, ripped off their clothes and, with a mighty 'woohoo!', dived into the Atlantic, given the choice?

Instead, we were ushered into a hall where 20 judging tables groaned with more cheeses than the most ambitious deli ever dreamt of; soft ones, hard ones, tiny ones, some as big as yer 'ead; Goudas and goats', manchegos and mozzarellas, cottages and camemberts.  There were almost as many camera crews, radio reporters and earnestly scribbling print journos, too. 

And, get this: it's a spectator event!  Two tiers of delegates, taking a breather from the accompanying trade festival, hung over the rails to watch our every move.  What entertainment they could possibly have derived from our nibblings, noddings and jottings, I cannot imagine, but then people watch cricket or darts on the telly so I guess there's nothing they won't gawp at.

As a rookie judge with only a layman's knowledge of cheese, I did wonder quite what I was doing there as I changed into my paper white coat (most of the other judges had brought their own cotton jobs, of course, with their names embroidered across the chest, some accessorizing with dinky little white hats).

Luckily, one of my team mates was Cathy Strange whose business card described her as a 'global cheese buyer' as well it might: she supplies no fewer than 280 stores across Canada and the US.  We were also joined by John Axon, a Gruyere consultant with his own shop, The Cheese Hamlet, in Didsbury who has been judging for nearly 20 years.  I felt in safe, Gorgonzola-perfumed hands.

We were to consider appearance, body, flavour, and taste and texture balance in categories with snappy names like 'blue vein, any variety, uncut, natural rind', 'mozzarella, fresh cows' milk in ball (large or small)' and 'hard cheese produced on farm or dairy with a total output not exceeding a weekly average of 2 tonnes'.

Soon, phrases like 'inconsistent piercing', 'uneven rind formation' and 'aging fissures' were tripping from Cathy and John's lips.  I was saying things more like 'Mmm, this one's yummy!', and 'Ooo, you'd definitely have seconds of this at a dinner party!'  Actually, that was pretty much why I was there; to represent the informed customer and bring the experts back to reality should they take an overly specialist view (which they didn't).

Oh, by the way, if ever you need a cheese ironing, I'm your man, thanks to John, who taught me.  You know how cheesemakers stick that curved tool into a great big cheddar and winkle out a thin cylinder of the stuff for tasting, rather as if they were extricating a cork from a bottle of wine?  Well, the implement is called an iron (they cost a fortune and a wide variety of bore width is available, you'll be relieved to hear), and the operation is called ironing (warning - don't get confused and try this at home on your best blouse). 

My big (and, thankfully, unfounded) worry was whether I'd be able to nibble my way through up to 80 varieties without losing my critical faculties at best or losing my breakfast at worst.  As at wine events, containers were provided for spitting out samples (gosh, I bet there's a stampede for the job of emptying and cleaning out those!) but, as Cathy and John didn't spit, neither did I.

Not all the cheeses were ambrosial.  In fact, one or two were downright nasty.  A sweaty, putty-like substance with the addition of about a thousand times too much black pepper will long linger in the memory for all the wrong reasons.  But some were terrific, and it was an experience I wouldn't have missed.

That took us up to lunchtime, and I think the organisers hoped we'd attend some rather specialised lectures during the afternoon on subjects like maximising yield and international marketing.  Having had three and a half hours' sleep through no fault of our own was the perfect get-out for us British judges who would surely have nodded off in any case, so the majority of us opted to sleep, either on the beach, beside the pool or in the cool of our darkened rooms.

I chose the last option and was roused at 5 by a porter with my long lost suitcase.  So pleased was I, and so befuddled by sleep, I blurted out something like: 'Oh my God!  You're wonderful!  I will love you forever!'  This was probably a tad excessive, especially from one clad only a pair of  brightly checked boxers, kindly loaned by Radio 2 food expert Nigel Barden.  I'm guessing the porter may have preferred five euros.

With nightfall came the awards dinner.  After cava cocktails outside to make the most of the balmy, 25-degree night, we ploughed through apple and mango gazpacho (much less weird than it sounds), meltingly moist local pork fillet (although a mixed fruit skewer stuck in the top was a culinary flight of fancy too far) and a biscuity, caramelly concoction with mint ice cream (enticingly named 'typical dessert' on the fancy menu card).  No cheese involved anywhere, you will notice.  What a wise chef....

Part way through, a group wearing medieval monks' attire with just a hint of Baron Hardup from Cinderella took to the stage.  These were the elders of the Guilde de Fromagers, formed in 1969 (so why the Middle Ages costumes?) to big up the cultural and historical importance of cheesemaking.  The surreality of deadly serious Frenchmen processing through a Gran Canarian function in fancy dress was gloriously ramped up by their choice of music, a recording of Land of Hope and Glory.

They inducted several new members, including Cathy, my fellow judge, and Bharat Mistry, Tesco's technical development manager for continental cheese who had leant me a phone battery charger when I was still suitcase-less the night before!  I felt quite emotional to see my newfound mates singled out for this great honour, although it's possible my immoderate enjoyment of various Canary Islands wines was partially responsible for the tears of pride pricking my eyes.

Finally, organiser Bob Farrand announced the supreme champion, a goats' cheese from Canada.  This instantly prompted thoughts of a transatlantic jolly in 12 months' time: we were in Gran Canaria because one of the island's cheeses had triumped in London in 2008 - it's a bit like hosting The Eurovision Song Contest.  However, London is the most likely venue for 2010, I understand.  Oh well, at least that rules out hours of confusion at airports and lost luggage.

Speaking of lost luggage, my bag was the absolute first off the plane back at Heathrow.  I was so astonished, I let it complete two circuits of the carousel before allowing myself to believe it was mine.....

(photo courtesy of


  1. Hello Bill! :-)
    How lovely to catch up with you again, I've been missing you lots. Great to see you have a Blog, very amusing entry indeed! LOL!
    Look forward to hearing you on 94.9 soon.
    Love you lots,
    Huriye xx

  2. It's not fair - I want your job! X

  3. PS. I think you're very brave to wear someone else's knickers!

  4. Bring any back? Post some to Hednesford! If you are unfamilier with cheese terminology,make it up! I do this on purpose for comedic effect when talking about drums to the uninformed, eg "the infidelity of snare drums" or "buttery frequencies dripping off the edges of cymbals" much to the amusement (bewilderment?) of my bandmates!
    Best Wishes,
    Graham, the "Magic" drummer.