On the morning of Saturday September 29, Marion Conisbee-Smith woke up a happy woman. The head cheesemaker at Chapel Farm, North Cerney, Cirencester, Gloucestershire, she had learnt, the night before, that her Aged Cerney had been elected Supreme Champion and Best Soft White Cheese at the British Cheese Awards 2001. By pure chance, Aged Cerney was the first cheese I tasted when I visited the event, held, for the second time in a row, in the picturesque Cotswold village of Stow-on-the Wold. Ab initio, a defining moment! Made from unpasteurized goat’s milk, Cerney consists of an elegant truncated pyramid with an oak ash/sea salt-dusted rind and a pure white interior. The judging panel, which included the likes of f&w journalists and Sloweek contributors such as Tamasin Day-Lewis and Matthew Fort and the prominent food stylist and consultant Clare Ferguson, described it as ‘delicate, almost mousse-like, with a subtle aromatic hint of goat’s milk. A magnificent example of a raw milk cheese’ – a judgment I go along with. It’s also worth adding that Aged Cerney isn’t new to success, having won a Gold Medal at the Awards last year, too. Not at the festival itself but in the course of a fact-finding mission round Britain a few days later, I had the chance to taste more prize-winning cheeses: Swinzie by the Dunlop Dairy near Kilmarnock in the Scottish Lowlands and Califer, a goat’s cheese made by intrepid producers Pam and Nick Rodway in Forres on the Moray Coast in the Scottish Highlands.
My life was invaded by cheese at the end of September, having come to Stow fresh from Slow Food’s Cheese 2001, in Bra, Italy, the world’s largest cheese fair. The difference between the two events resides precisely in their respective dimensions. Though the streets of Stow were crowded with people – with what seemed to me a preponderance of senior citizens – I can’t imagine its attendance figures are in any way comparable to those of Cheese 2001, which attracted over 130,000 people to Bra in just four days. The best epithet to describe the British festival is ‘bucolic’. Even the car park was set in a lush hillside meadow. Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ came to mind as I sat on a bench there, writing up my notes, as sunshine turned to showers and showers to sunshine. Yes, the setting was that evocative.
In just 10 years, figures show that the number of British cheesemakers has doubled and there are now over 400 unique British cheeses made from cow, goat, ewe and even buffalo milk. The boom in the national interest for cheese was reflected at Stow by the sheer range and variety of events within the event. Following much the same formula as Cheese 2001 in Bra, the British festival combined a market (where, under a huge marquee, 125 cheesemakers offered more than 350 cheeses to taste and buy) with a series of lectures, demonstrations and taste workshops featuring every possible aspect of British cheese. Especially interesting was the Saturday afternoon workshop ‘Raw Milk Cheese – Unplugged’ in which Juliet Harbutt, very much the brains behind the British Cheese Awards themselves and a passionate supporter of Slow Food, asked fundamental questions such as ‘Does pasteurization really make a difference to final flavor?’ and ‘Can you taste the difference?’. Renato Sardo, head of the Slow Food International Office, was also on hand to present the ‘Manifesto in defense of raw milk cheese’.
The day came to an end with a special ‘Best of British’ gala dinner in a marquee on the outskirts of the village. The event was sponsored by Food from Britain and Waitrose and presented by food writer Rosemary Moon and Juliet Harbutt herself. It was refreshing, at last, to savor a selection of all the raw materials Britain has to offer – if and when it wants to. It’s not that I want to disparage cheese, but, please understand, I had been eating the stuff for a week and more. Anyway, here goes with the full list of the products up for eating that evening: a platter of lobster, crab, langoustines ands smoked trout from Scotland and potted Morecambe Bay shrimps; a hot buffet of Aberdeen Angus beef braised in ale, smoked salmon and quail’s egg kedgeree, mushroom barley casserole with chestnuts and specialty sausages with mustard mash; a cold buffet of hand-carved hams, dressed salad leaves, white Lincolnshire celery, specialty breads and tracklements; sweets such as sticky toffee pudding and pavlova of seasonal fruit and cream; more British cheeses (including Stinking Bishop, ‘Best Other Export Cheese’ and Gloucester Blue, ‘Best Traditional British Cheese’), and tree-ripened apples. We washed that little lot down with beer (Newcastle Brown Ale, Nyewood Gold Ale, Waitrose Perry, Aspall’s Organic Cider and Artesian Cumbrian Water, wines (Three Choirs Premium Selection 2000, Sharpham Estate Selection 2000, Ruscombe Red, Thames Valley Vineyard), Plum Wine by the Cornish Cyder Company, Plymouth Damson Gin, apple juice and, of course, coffee.
John Irving is the editor of the Slow Food www.slowfood.com website
In the photo: Stilton Cheese