Northern Soul loves cheese. In fact, it’s safe to say that Northern Soul might be unhealthily obsessed with cheese in all of its beautiful forms.
Soft, hard, Italian, French, British, goat’s, cow’s, veggie. We’ll snaffle it all. So when we were invited to the International Cheese Awards 2017 in Nantwich, Cheshire, naturally we planned a road trip to this mighty Mecca of dairy. Excited emails pinged back and forth between the editorial team, full of wistful daydreams about Camembert and Gruyère and, when the day finally arrived, off we toddled to our very own Field of Dreams (translation: drove very fast).
After a slightly shaky start, where Northern Soul relied on a sat-nav app to navigate the journey and ended up driving through more country roads than in a John Denver song (Cheshire, you are beautiful, though), a great deal of uncertainty regarding the car park (an empty field) and some trepidation over the location of the festival (we arrived at Nantwich canal, couldn’t figure out how to cross the water, and became a little spooked by a swan and her signets), we eventually reached the entrance.
It’s Press and Exhibitors day, so setting-up for the public tomorrow is in full swing. There are marquees galore spread across the 55-acre field with cute wooden signposts (like those on country walk paths) pointing towards various parts of the festival the following day – vintage cars, cattle, shows and, most importantly, cheese. There’ll also be James Martin (swoon), Will Holland, Jonathan Harrison and Sean Wilson performing throughout the day in the Le Gruyère Cookery Theatre.
After a brief chat with the stewards in the secretary’s tent, and a quick scout of the Cheese Hospitality Pavilion where we’ll be scoffing our lunch, we head off in search of all the cheese with enthusiasm akin to small children on an Easter Egg hunt.
In accordance with British summertime, the weather is unpredictable. We’re both dressed for naffer weather but the blistering sun has other ideas. Today, when I don’t have any sun cream, am wearing a thermal vest and there’s a shed load of cheese on display, is the day the sun chooses to shine. But the organisers have it covered. As soon as we enter the Cheshire East Pavilion (now affectionately dubbed The Cheese Tent) we’re met with a much cooler temperature and a truly glorious sight – row upon row of cheese.
In short, it’s heaven. There’s a soft cheese marquee – perfectly chilled to keep your Camembert at the optimum consistency (gooey but still firm) – a blue cheese section, and more cheddar than you can shake a cracker at. The dairy machinery makers are all out in force too.
We dive straight in with the tasting, explaining that we’re from a magazine and complete cheese fanatics while trying not to salivate on the goods. I don’t have anything inspiring to say other than “it’s so good” because it is. It’s all so good that I seem to have left my willpower at home, so I continue to give in to the part of me that wants to sample every single cheese on offer. And there’s a lot.
Northern Soul’s favourites include Paneer from Everest Dairies (“I never know how to cook paneer without making it soggy,” I confess to the lady behind the stand after shoving the tastiest butter paneer in my mouth. She hands me a booklet of recipes and we both head back to purchase a bag before we leave. I am determined to perfect my Indian cooking skills.) Then there’s the most delicate, sweet goat’s cheese from Delamere Dairy (which also stocks milk alternatives like almond and coconut milk for food giant M&S), uber tangy cheddar with the most beautiful packaging from Devon cheese makers, Quicke’s, proper good Lancashire cheese from The Cheese Shop at Dewlay, and – my personal favourite – artisan cheese from the Northumberland Cheese Company which makes the tastiest nettle cheese.
There are too many wonderful cheese makers to mention. The International Cheese Awards 2017 attracted 5,000 entries with an incredible total of 5,685 (up 13.5 per cent from 2016) from more than 50 different countries, including the UK, Europe, the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
“This is really a big deal in the cheese world,” I note, as we snake our way through the stands.
And it is. The awards are now in their 120th year and the cheesemakers are preparing their cheeses for judging with a chance to win gold, silver and bronze medals, as well as the opportunity to be crowned Supreme Champion. This year, there’s over 250 judges, and 135 categories will be scored on presentation, texture, aroma, flavour and balance.
The awards take place the following day. But we pass by the stage where there’s a whole host of gleaming trophies all waiting to be won, and witness a peculiar ceremony of people in brown hats which I later learn to be La Guilde Internationale des Fromages inducting six new members under the supervision of its Prevot, Roland Barthlemy.
As we head over for lunch, already feeling the cheese-shame, we’re offered a glass of fizz and take our seats. After a quick bit of conversation with the judges on our table, proceedings begin with the Chairman of the International Cheese awards, Chris Chisnall, giving a welcome speech. The awards are a registered charity, with all proceeds going to the facilitation and promotion of the event which is the biggest of its kind in the world. Impressive stuff.
Due to our earlier overindulgence, we manage to eat a little bit of the lovely spread (a tasty quiche for the veggies and fish and sliced meats for the meat-eaters) and decide to veto the impressive-sounding cheese board. After all, we’d had our very own smorgasbord of dairy products as a starter.
I’m waxing lyrical about the merits of using extra-mature Cathedral Cheddar for the optimum cheese on toast (add a splash of Worcestershire sauce, grill until slightly burnt, and then serve with brown sauce), when a fella pipes up from one of the stalls.
“If you like cheese on toast,” he says, like a man who’s got a secret that might just blow your mind, “you should try these.” He waves his hand over a couple of bowls of cheesy snacks with all the spectacle of a magician. “They taste just like the burnt corners on cheese on toast.”
This really shouldn’t be a selling-point for a snack, but as we both pop cheese crispies in our mouths, we realise that he’s right. That’s exactly how it tastes and it’s amazing. I’ve been known to scrape the overcooked bits from my lasagne dish with relish so, clearly, there’s a gap in the market for singed cheese nibbles.
Supreme Champion and winner of the Westminster Cup for 2017 – Bradburys Cheese for their lovely blue Roquefort Papillon
Reserve Supreme Champion – Arla Food’s Tuxford and Tebbutt for their blue Stilton
Supreme Retailer for 2017 was presented to the retailer gaining most Gold Awards in the show and once again went to Waitrose, with the Bracknell-based supermarket picking up 24 Gold awards across all classes as well as winning Speciality Cheese Retailer of the year.
Morrisons came in second with 18 golds, and also triumphed as Cheddar Cheese Retailer of the year. In the remaining individual retail awards, Tesco was awarded Healthy Cheese Retailer of the year and Marks and Spencer won Cheese Board Retailer of the year.
The British Cheese Board industry award was presented to Brenda Davies, recently retired from Arla Foods, and Young Person of the Year went to John Clarke, also of Arla Foods, for his important project on adding vitamin D to milk.