Airy; smoky; velvety; crumbly – these are just some of the adjectives cheese hands employ to describe a cheddar, Gouda or Stilton. It’s certainly difficult to find the mot juste when your taste buds are exploding, and cheese among gastronomes is one source of provender that engenders passion and ardour. To the layman, of course, cheese is cheese – we carelessly toss a slice atop a hamburger patty or sprinkle it unthinkingly over our pasta, not for a moment pondering how that cheese came to be, or that it was a labour of love for a producer toiling day after day, year after year in the creameries of Shropshire or Somerset.
I’m not advancing some grand metaphysical appreciation of cheese, you understand: simply positing that it is, in all its forms, one of the most under-appreciated of foodstuffs occupying the nation’s fridges. Which is why cheese festivals themselves are wonderful events – an excuse for connoisseurs and cheesemongers to mingle with hungry foodies, an opportunity to pick up recipe ideas incorporating the yellow stuff (or orange or white or blue…) and, most importantly, a chance to taste, try and buy the finest cheeses from producers based all over the country.
Unless you have an innate aversion to the stuff (in which case I’d question why you are reading an article about cheese festivals – do you secretly crave it?), a cheese festival promises to be a fun day out. As a bonus, oftentimes such gatherings include beer and cider tents, as well as entertainment for kids. Herein, you’ll learn about five British cheese festivals vying for your interest this year. Which one will you cheese – choose?! Sorry!
Nantwich International Cheese Awards, 29-30 July
Photo: Paul Wilkinson
You haven’t got much time left to snag a ticket for the Nantwich International Cheese Awards, part of the big Nantwich Agricultural Show. Like the World Cheese Awards, this event sees thousands of entrants compete to grab top prize, with day one given over entirely to judging the entries – a record 4,433 of them – before the public descend en masse on the capacious 80,500 sqft cheese complex to sample the goods! Whether you’re in the market for a lovely baked brie from a family-owned artisan cheese producer, or just wish to browse the huge range of stalls, you’ll be in your element.
As a bonus, the awards will host numerous ‘Meet the Experts’ master classes, where you can learn more about how cheese is graded and discover the secret of crafting the ultimate Christmas cheeseboard. Not only that, but there’ll be demos from the likes of James Martin (he of Saturday Kitchen fame) and Michelin star chef Will Holland. While entry to the Nantwich Show as a whole is priced £14 for adults (£10 for senior citizens, £5 for juniors), these are online prices – showing up on a whim and buying on the gate will be a few quid extra. A trip to the Chefs Theatre for one of the aforementioned demos, meanwhile, costs an additional fiver. There’s plenty of bang for your buck, though – get along and see for yourself!
Sturminster Newton Cheese Festival, 13-14 September
Held over two days and attracting some 14,000 visitors, the annual Sturminster Newton Cheese Festival is very much geared towards families – and not just because under 15s go free (£5 admission per adult). Duck into large canvas marquees chock-full of cheese stalls and exhibits, wet your beak in the real ale or cider tents, and listen to the strains of live music as you work up an appetite. There are dozens of craft stalls too. A homegrown vibe exists at Sturminster, as the absence of commercial traders indicates: with the exception of Sparkenhoe Red Leicester, all traders hail from the West Country. Among the abundance of cheeses produced by 17 cheese-makers on site is the popular Dorset Blue Vinny, manufactured five miles down the road from Sturminster.
Emily Davies at Dorset Blue is looking forward to another great outing in 2014. ‘As one of the festival’s original exhibitors, cheese lovers have a fantastic opportunity to try our genuine Dorset Blue Vinny – the most locally-made cheese at the festival. A great atmosphere is always helped by the sun and cider, but keeping the entrance fee sensible is key to the event’s success and happy exhibitors; you haven’t got one without the other!’
The old market town of Sturminster Newton – once affectionately dubbed ‘The Vale of Little Dairies’ by Thomas Hardy – is a terrific venue, quaint and charming, with a museum and series of ancient flour mills, the latter of which can be viewed from the festival site. Why not make a weekend of it at a Dorset holiday home?
Frome Agricultural and Cheese Show, 13 September
If you’re nearer Somerset than Dorset, the Frome Agricultural and Cheese Show is a fantastic day out for all the family on Saturday 13th September. This 153-year-old agricultural show includes a show-ring and livestock village, but its sizeable Cheese Pavilion – and the 1,200 cheeses displayed therein as part of the Global Cheese Awards – is what we’re really interested in. While there’s the requisite tastings and grading demonstrations – not to mention a cider and wine bar – there’s also an afternoon cheese ‘auction’, with visitors bidding for top-notch, prize-winning varieties. Moreover, the site boasts a special local Food Hall, with each vendor producing grub within 25 miles of the showground – an excellent opportunity to sample seasonal produce from some of the region’s finest farmers. For the little ones, a funfair and animal nursery should keep them from getting – ahem – cheesed off. 2013’s event drew 20,000 spectators, so you’ll be in good company should you get involved. It’s inexpensive too, at just £11 a pop for advance adult tickets (senior citizens £9, children £3), which are on sale until 11th September.
The Fine Cheese Co. Cheese Festival, 26 October
Perhaps the least commercial cheese festival on our list, The Fine Cheese Co.’s yearly event doesn’t even have an admission fee: the doors of Milsom Place in Bath are literally flung open to cheese lovers, and there’s a diverse range of artisan brands showcased, from established Stiltons like Colston Bassett to small local farmhouse varieties with names such as Wasabi Pearl, from the Old Cheese Room. 26 cheese producers from all over the region – Cheshire, Hampshire, Ceredigion, New Forest and the West Country – will mingle with visitors, talking Gorgonzola and Gruyère and, invariably, placing palatable platters under curious, wrinkled noses. The medal-winning line-up includes Dorstone goats’ cheese, which claimed the gold medal at the 2013 Mondial du Fromage, the renowned Loire Valley Cheese Tour. An event not to be missed for epicures, especially those with a love of cheese. If you’re in town, why not explore the area from one of our lovely Bath holiday apartments?
World Cheese Awards, 14-16 November
‘The largest gathering of cheeses under one roof’ will take place in London, when the World Cheese Awards invade the Olympia from November 14, part of the BBC’s famous Good Food Show. ‘The World Cheese Awards is all about cheese,’ explains John Farrand, MD of the Guild of Fine Food, organisers of the WCA, ‘not yoghurt, cream or milk – just cheese in all its magnificence.’ Amen to that. On the Friday no fewer than 3,000 entries from over 30 countries will be judged by an international panel of 250 cheese cognoscenti; on Saturday, 30,000 visitors will peregrinate from heaping cheese board to heaping cheese board. When you’re not tasting medal-winning cheeses or confabbing with traders, you can take a ‘tutored tasting tour’ (£5 per ticket) with BBC Radio 2’s Nigel Barden, learning about various European varieties; or why not pick the brains of Charlie Turnbull and Mr. Farrand? Want to know which beer, wine or cider complements your choice of cheddar? These two know the answer. Tickets ain’t cheap – £26.50 for standard admission – but given the scale of the event, that’s hardly surprising. Enjoy.
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