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While – if you don’t already host them – organising cheese events may seem like an extracurricular activity you have little to no time to implement, they’re well worth adding into your schedule. As we all know, people connect with cheese through flavour and story, so by running cheese tasting events you could attract a raft of new clientele.
We also know that people who love cheese, really love cheese. Vickie Rogerson, co-founder of Homage2Fromage, a cheese events business, explains, “They love eating it, sharing it, sniffing it, spooning a dollop of chutney on it, agreeing and disagreeing about it and discovering something new about it. Cheese brings people together and sparks a passion I’ve not seen for any other food group.”
Having said that, cheese tasting events can feel exclusive – in an off-putting way. “Don’t be tempted to follow the well-worn path of holding a cheese and wine-matching event where you serve small slivers of cheese paired with obscure wines,” says Vickie. “It can feel a bit cliched and inaccessible. Run events where you show off the cheese in all its glory and rejoice in the rich tapestry of cheese stories. Who made it and where? Is it new or is it a recipe passed down through generations? Has it won awards? What makes it interesting and special?”
The way you present the cheeses can make a difference in terms of customer connection, with formally perfect layouts potentially causing attendees to feel uncomfortable to ‘damage’ the display. “Serve the cheese whole so people can see its natural state,” recommends Vickie. Don’t forget the accompaniments! Offer a varied selection, and allow attendees to try out some partnerships themselves. “Let people try the cheeses with different accompaniments; drizzle some honey on a spicy blue cheese, pair some Wensleydale or Lancashire with fruit cake or serve up some quince jelly with a robust Cheddar.”
When it comes to formatting the events, theming each one has worked well for Homage2Fromage. “We theme each of our monthly events and showcase eight great examples of that theme,” explains Vickie. “Some of our recent themes have been Italian, Welsh, Lancashire versus Yorkshire, British, unpasteurised and extreme cheese.” Beware hosting sessions on singular cheese types, though. “We tend not to theme events around types of cheese like Cheddar or blue because it can be very overwhelming on your taste buds,” she continues. “No one wants to try eight blue cheeses in one go as they’d all end up tasting the same!”
“Choosing the cheese is the hardest part, says Juliet Harbutt. “I use the general rule of no more than 12 items, say eight cheeses and four wines. For cheese virgins or beginners, distinguishing more than 16 cheeses is too much. I love combinations like three hard cheese from different milks, three styles of blue and then one soft white (Brie- style if you must call it that), served with a white and a red wine to see how they change its texture and taste.” She recommends avoiding too many “soft, squishy cheeses – they run, stick and spread over everything, whereas hard and blues can be cut up in advance, stored on wax paper in small boxes and laid out in moments.”
Whatever you do, keep an eye on the weather. “Heatwaves and cheeses on the move, I was cruelly reminded recently, are an extremely bad combination,” she continues. “As someone who can’t go to the supermarket without a checklist, sending cheeses to Italy for a serious Cheese & Wine Masters Programme deserves the same attention to detail as a picnic at Glynebourne. So imagine my horror when the overnight delivery spent an unscheduled 12 hours at Charles de Gaul with temperatures around 40°C. No matter how I looked at it, the 19 cheese fondue was never again going to be a cheeseboard or teach anyone the nuances of artisan British cheese!
“This can happen even in the UK,” she reminds us, “so make sure its cool enough that the cheese doesn’t get up a sweat.” When it comes to tools, “assume nothing,” she advises, “from having running water to sharp knives.” After years of running cheese events, Juliet has developed a failsafe strategy: “Always take your own knives, a two litre water bottle (I even take a Thermos of hot water on occasions), three or four small, thin plastic chopping boards and rolls of kitchen paper.”
Juliet’s toolkit includes materials for attendees, too. “Make tasting sheets for everyone with your logo, contact details and the names of the cheeses etc they will taste,” she says, “as they won’t remember the names more than few hours, let alone long enough to order them for their next cheeseboard. I print A5 postcards with a gorgeous photo on the front (and the back blank so they can be used for anything) in the optimistic hope they will keep it on their fridge for a few weeks or at the very least remember what to look for.
“Remember,” advises Juliet, “the ultimate aim in any tasting or cheese event should be to change their perception of cheese and ensure they buy more cheese – preferably from you! Ultimately you want to give them something to think about, something to test or challenge their tastebuds. That’s what helps them learn, forces them to try something outside their comfort zone and inspires them.”
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