“Seeing stars”

28 August 2018, 08:00 am
Town Crier by Justin Tunstall

I love food awards. I enjoy helping organise them and judging at them; I spend about 30 days a year on awards-related activity

I’ve also enjoyed receiving a few awards. I’ve benefited from using cheesemakers’ hard-won medals and stars to sell and promote their achievements. Nonetheless, I felt a little uneasy on hearing that a multiple was considering using receipt of awards as its sole criterion for stocking cheeses.

When I consider a cheese to stock, the prime consideration is whether I can sell it and whether it will delight my customers once they’ve taken it home. An award is just part of the sales pitch, adding to provenance and indicating that this cheese CAN be fantastic. Whether this particular cheese delivers the same ‘wow!’ that wooed the judges is partly dependent on the consistency achieved by the cheesemaker.

Large ‘factory’ producers strive to take out the variations in final product that some of us find so beguiling. Smaller makers may show marked variation in their cheeses from batch to batch, with changes of fodder, weather and the invisible agents in the maturing rooms all working their magic. Thus, the cheese that I sell in November may be slightly, yet discernibly different to the one that stole the judges’ hearts six months earlier. Some may prefer it, some may not, and still others won’t notice any difference!

Variations aren’t entirely down to production; our champion cheese may have had particular conditions in transit and for its staging at the competition table, which have now made it different from other cheeses in the same batch. At larger cheese awards, consolidation of cheeses at a central point, together with chilled custody and delivery, will minimise sudden temperature changes. Nonetheless, the cheese will have been staged and judged in conditions warmer than a sample straight out of a cheesemonger’s display cabinet.

There’s also a human aspect, as judges and judging teams vary – class specialists can find faults in a cheese which others find charming. The context in which cheeses are judged may come into play; an outstanding cheese after a slew of so-so offerings may gain greater praise than were it presented amidst other great cheeses.

There’s an old adage that if Picasso and Monet were to have shared an apartment, both artists’ works would have been lessened. Does any of this invalidate judging processes and awards schemes? Certainly not, but it does testify to the subjectivity at the heart of the tasting experience and to the many variables at play. I view an award as a high-water mark of what the cheese can be, not how it always is.

Awards are a fantastic way to celebrate the science, craft and art that goes into cheesemaking, they attract attention and can give a cheese a successful future, encouraging interest from media, consumers and retailers. The future for a champion cheese should certainly be bright if the maker is able to achieve consistency in delivering the product’s key characteristics and regular supply.

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