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Who will be tthe big cheese?
7:00am Saturday 4th August 2012 in Lifestyle
Food writer Diana Pilkington checks out the crème de la crème of cheese, chats to producers and joins the judging panel at one of the biggest events in the industry. Plus some great cheese-based recipes.
By Diana Pilkington
It's the hottest day of the year but I am mercifully cool under a big white tent in a field in Cheshire.
The chill in the air isn't for my benefit, however, but for the blocks of cheese stretching out in meticulous rows all around me.
From the industrial-size slabs of Red Leicester to perfectly smooth wheels of Gouda, the Nantwich International Cheese Awards is a dairy lovers' paradise.
Nearly 4,000 entries from 27 countries are battling it out to win the coveted title of Supreme Champion at the biggest event in the industry's calendar.
As one of 156 white-coated judges, I have a small part to play in deciding their fate. But I'm not quite prepared for how demanding it will be.
I'm sampling the hard-pressed speciality cheeses that have been produced outside the UK. It's a category that runs the gamut from Gruyere to Comte and Cheddar with blueberries, which makes them tricky to compare.
"If you're doing a Stilton class, for example, where all the cheese is the same type, it's always easier," agrees Tim Fisher, who is head cheese maker at Butlers Farmhouse Cheeses, based near Preston in Lancashire, and one of the two other judges in my team.
"We're looking for a cheese that's technically good and what you'd expect from that type," he says.
"But at the end of the day, cheese tasting and grading is very much about personal choice. If there's a flavour you really don't like, it's difficult to put that completely to one side."
To sample the wares, we plunge a cheese iron (a bit like an apple corer) inside each plastic-wrapped block, twist it and pull out a cylindrical section of cheese. A nicely full iron will earn higher marks.
We then snap off a piece each, rub it between our fingers to feel the texture, taste it and mark it out of five before carefully re-plugging the hole in the block.
Some types are an instant turn-off - the Cheddars with seaweed, red wine and Irish Porter are all too wacky for my taste - but halfway through sampling 53 cheeses I am seriously full, and struggling to distinguish one Gruyere from the next.
We plough on regardless and, after selecting our favourites, taste them again to pick our top five. The gold in our class goes to a scrumptious 24-month-old Parmigiano Reggiano.
"It's not too salty - for me it's a perfectly balanced cheese," declares our fellow judge Gert Van Den Hoven, an industry expert from Holland.
It's a lengthy process but one that's worth doing properly, as a prize at Nantwich is a big deal.
Fisher says: "I've worked for Butlers for nearly 20 years and as long as I can remember we've had cheese at Nantwich show.
"A lot of preparation goes into it and it's very important to do well. We've had new products launched in supermarkets as a result of how we do here."
Sean Wilson, still known to many as Coronation Street's Martin Platt but now a dedicated cheese maker in his own right, is among the exhibitors hoping to crown a clutch of recent gongs with a Nantwich title.
He's also lent his expertise to the judging panel, a role he relishes.
"I love judging because I am deeply into food," he enthuses, as I tuck into a piece of the creamy blue Smelly Apeth that he's particularly proud of.
"I am still passionate about turning milk into something that's so gorgeous, just as I love the way people turn grapes into wine. It's like alchemy.
"It means a lot to me so it's nice to taste other people's efforts."
He admits the show can be a "victim of its own success" because there aren't nearly as many knowledgeable judges as there are entries.
"Nonetheless, the Supreme Champion will always deserve it in the end," he adds.
And, after the winning cheeses in each class are taken to the top table and judged again, the all-important main prizes are announced.
This year the top gong goes to a German Montagnolo Affine, while the reserve Supreme Champion is Wookey Hole Cave Aged Cheddar, which was last year's big winner.
Having witnessed the effort that goes into the day, I'm confident they're worthy champs - but I may leave it a few days before I have another cheese sandwich!
Here are some cheesy facts from the British Cheese Board:
:: Cheddar is the UK's favourite cheese, accounting for around 55% of all the cheese we buy.
:: Cheshire is one of the oldest British cheeses. It dates from Roman times and even gets a mention in the Domesday Book.
:: The majority of Shropshire Blue is not actually made in Shropshire, but in Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire.
:: Every spring sees locals in the village of Stilton, Peterborough, race along a course rolling Stilton shaped wheels.
:: Some cheeses, like Mature Cheddar, are stored for one year or longer before they are ready to eat. They are kept in special rooms and sometimes even caves.
:: Cornish Yarg came from a recipe found in a book in a farmer's attic - his name was Mr Gray (Yarg spelt backwards!).
:: Caerphilly was traditionally eaten by Welsh coal miners for their lunch.
Try these cheesy recipes for size...
Superfood Cheshire Salad
200g (7oz) broccoli, broken into florets
2 large oranges
1 small red onion, finely sliced
2 tsp white wine vinegar
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp olive oil
1 x 100g bag spinach, watercress and rocket salad
125g (5oz) Cheshire cheese, cut into cubes
100g (4oz) seedless red grapes, halved
25g (1oz) mixed nuts and seeds
Freshly ground black pepper
Cook the broccoli in boiling water for 3-4 minutes, until just tender. Rinse with cold water to cool quickly, then drain thoroughly.
Meanwhile, peel the oranges with a sharp, serrated knife to remove all the pith. Do this over a large salad bowl to catch the juice. Segment the oranges, removing the pith, then put them into the bowl. Add the red onion, vinegar, mustard and olive oil, stirring gently to mix.
Add the broccoli, salad leaves, Cheshire cheese and grapes to the salad bowl. Toss gently to coat in the dressing, then share between four bowls or plates. Serve at once, sprinkled with mixed nuts and seeds and seasoned with black pepper.
Cook's tips: Choose a different British cheese for a change - Lancashire, Caerphilly, Red Leicester or Cheddar will all work well.
Stilton, Asparagus and Cherry Tomato Tagliatelle
350g (12oz) tagliatelle or linguine
150g (6oz) asparagus, cut into short lengths
2 tsp olive oil
6 spring onions, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
25g (1oz) dried breadcrumbs
12 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
100g (4oz) half fat creme fraiche
100g (4oz) Stilton cheese, broken into small chunks
Freshly ground black pepper
Basil leaves, to garnish
Cook the tagliatelle or linguine in a large saucepan of boiling water for 10-12 minutes, or according to pack instructions, adding the asparagus for the final 2-3 minutes.
At the same time, heat the olive oil in a non-stick frying pan and add the spring onions and garlic. Cook over a low heat, stirring often, for 3-4 minutes. Add the breadcrumbs and stir over the heat for about 30 seconds. Set aside.
When the pasta and asparagus is cooked, drain it well, then return it to the saucepan and add the cherry tomatoes, lemon zest, creme fraiche and Stilton. Heat gently for 2-3 minutes, then share between 4 plates and sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture on top. Serve, seasoned with black pepper and garnished with basil.
Cook's tip: If you like, add 1 tsp of chopped fresh red chilli with the garlic for a spicy hit.
Plaice Fillets with Leek and Cheddar Topping
1 tbsp olive oil
4 large plaice fillets
1 large leek, finely sliced
1 red pepper, deseeded and finely sliced
2 tsp chopped fresh parsley
50g (2oz) white breadcrumbs
75g (3oz) mature Cheddar cheese, finely grated
Freshly ground black pepper
Flat leaf parsley, to garnish
Preheat a medium-high grill. Grease a large baking sheet with a little olive oil.
Arrange the plaice fillets on the baking sheet and grill for 5-6 minutes.
At the same time, heat the remaining olive oil in a non-stick frying pan and stir-fry the leeks and peppers for 5 minutes, until softened. Spoon on top of the fish, season with black pepper and sprinkle with the chopped parsley. Scatter the breadcrumbs and cheese over the top. Grill for a further 3-4 minutes, until golden brown. Serve, garnished with parsley.
Cook's tip: Use other types of fish, such as haddock, halibut, skate wings or cod. When fish is cooked the flesh should be opaque and should flake easily when tested with a fork.
Ham, Leek and Lancashire Bread & Butter Pudding
25g (1oz) butter
1 large leek, thinly sliced
6 thin slices white bread from a large loaf
75g (3oz) cooked ham, chopped
150g (6oz) Lancashire cheese, grated or crumbled
3 eggs, beaten
600ml (1 pint) milk
Freshly ground black pepper
Grease a 1.2 litre (2 pint) baking dish with a little butter. Melt the remaining butter in a frying pan and gently fry the leek for 4-5 minutes.
Cut the bread into triangles, then layer half in the base of the baking dish. Scatter half the leeks and all the ham on top, then sprinkle with half the Lancashire cheese. Arrange the remaining bread triangles over the surface.
Beat the eggs and milk together, then season. Pour evenly over the bread, then scatter the rest of the leeks on top. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Cover and leave to stand for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 190°C (fan oven 170°C / gas mark 5). Remove the cover from the pudding and bake for 30-35 minutes, until puffed-up and golden brown. Serve.
Cooks tip: Try using up slightly stale bread, as its drier texture soaks up more moisture.
:: All recipes are from the British Cheese Board. For more recipes, see www.britishcheese.com