NEWPORT, WALES (CNN) – When you gather 4,434 cheeses from 42 countries in a room to find out which is the best, there’s an inevitable sense of excitement in the air. In addition, of course, there is inevitably a very, very strong smell.
This heady and almost intoxicating mix of aging dairy and friendly competition swirled around a UK conference center on Wednesday as 250 international judges sniffed, poked and munched their way past cheese-groaning tables to decide who would take the crown should be the 2022 edition of the World Cheese Awards.
This year’s winner, a Gruyère from Switzerland, was eventually selected by a senior jury after the field was first narrowed down to 98 “Super Gold” champions and then to 16 finalists.
The jury described Surchoix Le Gruyère AOP, submitted by Swiss cheesemaker Vorderfultigen and affineur (refiner) Gourmino, as a “really refined, artisanal cheese”, which melts in the mouth and has notes of herbs, fruits and leather. “A cheese with a lot of taste and bouquet.”
Gruyère is an aged cheese, slightly crumbly and made from raw cow’s milk.
Second place went to a Gorgonzola Dolce DOP, a soft buttery blue cheese from De’ Magi in Italy.
Le Gruyère AOP Surchoix is the new No. 1 cheese in the world.
Guild of Fine Food
selection of a winner
So how do you choose a winning cheese from a selection of thousands?
The grueling work began just after 10am at the International Conference Center on the outskirts of the Welsh town of Newport, when the judges poured into the main venue to the lung-rending strains of a Welsh male choir.
After a few minutes of unwrapping, unwrapping and unleashing, each of the 98 judges’ tables transformed into a sharp and varied topography.
Huge wax wheels stood next to tiny soft goat trunks. There were towering blues, flat creamy medallions and imposing slabs of cheddar. There were cheeses shaped like witch hats and flowers, cheeses wrapped in nettle leaves, or cheeses covered in ash. There was plain, plain cheese. There were cake-like cheeses artfully topped with fruit.
There were whites, oranges, blues – even purples.
At least one cheese looked like it was painted by abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.
The cheeses came in all shapes, sizes and colors.
The cheeses were all tasted blind, although with a panel of judges chosen from an army of cheesemakers, vendors, writers and other experts, many knew more or less what they were sinking their teeth into. A couple of famous big name commercial cheeses could be seen a mile away.
At Table 14, judges Danielle Bliss and Philippe Dumain got off to a shaky start with a disappointing Brie-style product.
“It’s very one-dimensional,” Bliss said, entering the scores into an iPad. “It might 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 jury had the task of evaluating each of their approximately 50 types of cheese according to appearance, aroma, taste and mouthfeel. The best were awarded Gold, Silver or Bronze status and each judges table selected one as “Super Gold”.
Judges Kazuaki Tomiyama and Tom Chatfield tasting the cheeses on Table 18.
At Table 18, Tom Chatfield and Kazuaki Tomiyama gave a good nudge to a mold-ripened goat’s cheese and braced themselves for further disappointment.
“It seems to have lost some of its integrity,” Chatfield said before cutting into it. “It’s a bit overripe, you can smell the ammonia, but considering it had to travel here, I’ll be charitable.” After consultation with Tomiyama, it receives 18 out of a maximum of 35 points.
“If we had seen it two or three days earlier, it would have been a much better cheese.”
Next on Table 18 is something resembling a moldy fig, described by its makers as “enzymatic coagulation”. Still tastes great.
“It’s very young and very clean,” says Chatfield as the judges rate it 29 points. “Some cheeses have a song that goes on. This is a 15-second song, but it’s not a full orchestra. Some cheeses keep singing.”
A Ukrainian delegation offered samples of Ukrainian cheese.
With the room packed with cheese and people who love cheese, there is a good vibe in the early stages of judging that permeates the sonorous hum of the contest entries.
But the World Cheese Awards also have a serious side.
John Farrand, chief executive of the Guild of Fine Food, which organized the 34th edition of the annual event in partnership with the Welsh Government, says victory can propel a small artisan cheesemaker into the big time.
He cites the case of Norwegian cheesemaker 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 from a tiny operation into a major exporter.
“Commercial success is important,” Farrand told CNN mid-morning tasting sessions. “But it’s also a big pat on the back. The win means as much to them and their team as any commercial advantage.”
Hosting the event is also a big deal, Farrand added, and Wales hopes this will help shine the spotlight on its homegrown cheese and broader food industry.
It’s a spotlight that was originally supposed to fall on Ukraine this year. Because of the Russian invasion, the country had to shift its alignment.
That didn’t stop 39 Ukrainian cheeses from entering the competition.
Natali Kahadi of Ukraine’s cheese retailer Ardis, who submitted entries and set up a booth on the sidelines of the event, said the conflict is hitting cheesemakers hard.
“But we keep working,” she told CNN. “We are not stopping our production. We are fighting our war with cheese.”
‘Bite and Texture’
The best cheeses were awarded gold, silver and bronze.
Back at the evaluation tables, potential winners crystallize as the morning progresses. At table 61, Keith Kendrick and Shumana Palit identified two gold winners.
“Everything was wonderfully balanced,” says Palit, patting a very plain-looking cow’s milk cheese. “It was a good 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 combined industry experience – eyed a couple of textured Spanish cheeses, one of which would become their “Super Gold” winner.
“This is gorgeous, really fruity and enjoyable,” Young says after using a cheese iron to pierce a sample of the first. “It has a bit of bite and texture. It tastes like strawberry tops.”
It is the second cheese imprinted with the pattern of the basket it was aged in that advances to the next round. “It’s perfect,” said Young. “It’s an incredible example of a manchego.”
The cheeses were judged on appearance, aroma, taste and mouthfeel.
At Table 70, where the judges reach for palate-cleansing slices of apple over another ammonia-flavored cheese, the travail of sampling dozens of dairy products began to take its toll.
“After you’ve eaten 20 types of cheese, you start dipping,” said Dutch judge Gijs Dankers. Other judges mentioned experiencing a “cheese high” and “the sweats.”
Kris Lloyd, an Australian cheesemaker and a judge at Table 17, despaired of the quality of some of the entries. “You can tell when someone is starting out with really good milk and not messing with it,” she said. “But we saw a lot of confusion this morning.”
Across the judges’ tables, Jenny Lee, who has just started making cheese with her husband in Torpenhow, a farming area in the green hills of rural northern Cumbria in the UK, watched with anticipation.
She hoped her cheese would do justice to the milk her “hybrid” herd of Jersey, Friesian and Norwegian red cows produced.
“It’s brilliant,” she said. “We find this cheese world to be so friendly and supportive, we’re really happy to be here.”