Justin Tunstall: “If you are invited to judge, seize the opportunity”

13 May 2021, 07:30 AM
  • Justin Tunstall, cheese consultant, reflects on his cheese judging experiences, from battling through imposter syndrome to judging alongside specialist cheesemakers, buyers for retail chains, chefs and food writers
Justin Tunstall: “If you are invited to judge, seize the opportunity”

Unsurprisingly, last year’s diary became a mess. At first there were postponements, then ultimately cancellations of the events and gatherings that have become hardy annuals in my ‘deli life’.

A normal year sees me spending up to 20 days participating in food competitions, as organiser, presenter or as a judge. Last year? Two days, I think. Last summer I was one of a number of judges who received couriered chill boxes of cheese to evaluate for a competition. Remaining within government guidelines, I was able to assemble a group of judges who enjoyed a summer’s day on our garden furniture conjuring up comments on the attributes of 30 or so cheeses. A lockdown memory to treasure.

I got involved in competition judging as a benefit of joining the Guild of Fine Food trade organisation and also through winning the retailer class of the British Cheese Awards. As a newcomer to the deli business, I had a thirst for knowledge – and a huge case of imposter syndrome as I donned a judge’s white coat for the first time. I was encouraged to approach the role with two things in mind: to trust my own sense of taste, and to listen and learn.

I’ve been fortunate to judge alongside specialist cheesemakers, buyers for formidable retail chains, chefs and food writers, as well as deli owners like me. Hearing other people explain why they like or dislike a product was really helpful, and I’ve used a lot of those insights in my descriptions of the cheeses that I sold. My palate developed; I learned to spot the nuances between the different makers of the famous Continental classics as well as the British Territorials. I was always encouraged to proffer my own opinion, and I learned not to apologise when I believed that Emperor’s new clothes were on display.

Along the way I built a network of colleagues and contacts, of great use when I needed information or advice. I sampled more cheeses than I would normally have been able. I found some that became real winners in my shop, even though they may not have won a medal in the competition. I observed the development of a cheese, from an inconsistent ‘newcomer’ to becoming an assured classic, as the cheesemaker’s skill and recipe matured – perhaps on the basis of feedback received from a competition.

I get bound up in the excitement of the results of competitions – eager to discover this year’s Supreme Champion and the winners in each class, particularly if they come from my home area in the South West. I would always promote medal winners in the shop, with point-of-sale stickers, results boards and verbal promotion. I believe that judging helped grow my stock as a reliable and informed cheesemonger, as shoppers thought my taste must be good if I was invited to judge awards.

This year, the diary is filling up nicely with ‘Save The Date’ entries. There are some changes – The International Cheese and Dairy Awards (“Nantwich”, in short) will move to Stafford and take place in late October rather than high summer. The British Cheese Awards are now slated for early October. Challenges for this year may include social distancing for judges – although not for the innovative Virtual Cheese Awards which sprang up last year to fill the void of competitions and which may well become a staple in the calendar.

I dearly hope that cheesemakers will find money in the marketing budget to enter competitions this year, and that sponsors will continue to underwrite them. I trust that we’ll be able to feel confident to mingle at such events, and above all, that none of my peers have succumbed to the virus or are suffering from a frightening symptom of long Covid, whereby ‘nice’ tastes ‘nasty’ and vice versa. That could make for very confusing debate.

As a deli owner, if you are invited to judge at a competition, seize the opportunity; it’ll amply repay your time. The Academy of Cheese now runs training in Cheese Judging, which would have made me better qualified when I started out. Stay safe, have fun!

more like this
Speciality Food Daily Briefing

Stay connected and receive the latest news, analysis and insights from our industry's top commentators