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As a child, I had many career ambitions. I wanted to be a gardener, a vet, a perfume maker (a strange moment of confusion) and many other choice phases. Later, I became highly interested in languages and food, two career paths which I pursued in later life. My family would go on holiday to France several times a year from before I was even thought about. Also whilst I was being thought about, it turns out. At the request of my ‘joker’ of a father, I told my school teacher that I was “fabriqué en France”. Years later I was mortified when I realised what that meant. Now I think it is completely brilliant and EXACTLY the type of thing I would do to my children. I digress.
Going to France a lot meant that I was surrounded by a lot of cheese. Thank you Francophile family. I ate cheese from a young age and there was no easing in for me, I went immediately into the realms of Roquefort and Epoisses. ‘Cheese Grader’ sounds like a job that I would have made up as a child. The opportunity to taste and eat lots of different styles of cheese and holding up a score like a judge at the Olympics.
I assure you that it is a real profession. This is not a drill. Cheese grading really is a job. Perhaps it was made up by a child. Perhaps it wasn’t. It wasn’t. As you can expect, cheese grading is a little more complicated than this. Grading involves a lot of skill and is performed by many different people.
Grading cheese can be done by professional graders within large companies, external graders who visit dairies, buyers sourcing their cheese and cheese judges at competitions. It is a quality check and beyond as it can determine whether the cheese has any faults, whether it will be suitable for longer aging and to have a check on flavour profiles. Note here that grading and judging are not interchangeable terms.
Graders have trained superpowers in tasting – some are even ‘supertasters’ (real term) who can detect trace amounts of bitter – and their job is to taste through batches of the same cheeses, be that in a large scale dairy where they are employed, or a freelance visit to a smaller dairy who outsource them. They are tasting predominantly for faults. Grading happens according to the dairy’s schedules. Judging happens at competitions when the cheesemakers or their affiliates have entered them to try for an award.
So – do you just eat the cheese and say whether you like it or not? No, although ultimately that is a part of it in competitions, especially when the finalists are too close to decide. Competitions such as the International Cheese Awards and Virtual Cheese Awards take judges from varying parts of the Cheese World to make sure that all entries are judged fairly and from a broad range of backgrounds including professional graders. Judging encompasses the tasting of cheeses across several different categories and styles.
Competition judging panels taste and give feedback on all elements from the technical, sensorial, and even in some competitions, the general public’s palate. I have judged with graders, cheesemakers, chefs, journalists, celebrity cheese lovers, distributors, mongers… the list goes on.
Cheese graders, however, are used at a couple of stages in the cheese’s life (early on before it’s ready for sale and then later in its aging) which make sure that the finished product is fault-free and ready to head to your counters. There are several benefits for these.
As buyers and counter staff you know that the cheese you are selling has had a seal of approval through one form of grading. When buying through your approved suppliers, this assurance means that you do not have to taste through every batch for faults as they come to you.
I would still recommend tasting through every cheese that comes into your counter with a different motive of finding their flavours and to use those descriptors as strong selling techniques for your customers. The more you are excited about a cheese, the more your customers will want to join you in said excitement. You are also the important final stage between the cheese and its customer to make sure that you are matching the correct cheese to the correct person. Like a cheesy Cilla Black.
Awards and badges give an assurance to the shy customer who perhaps does not want to engage in nerdy conversations about cheese for 75 hours like we do. Grading, an essential yet often overlooked or even unknown stage of a cheese’s lifecycle is of paramount importance to make sure that all of your glorious counters are graced with beautiful, fault-free cheeses. I hope your inner child will forever capture the image of a cheese grader as a child with swinging legs far from the ground on a judging panel holding up a score paddle. Which is how cheese grading was created.*
*This is not true.