Northern Ireland cheesemakers will have an opportunity to benchmark the quality and taste of their original products against the world’s very best in November.
Seven cheese producers, including six artisans, are being urged to enter the influential World Cheese Awards (WCA) organised by the Guild of Fine Food as a key feature of the International Cheese Festival in Oviedo, capital of Spain’s Asturias region and the country’s main dairy producer.
The 33rd edition of the competition forms part of the Asturias Paraíso Natural International Cheese Festival 2021, run by the Instituto del Queso, in partnership with the Principality of Asturias and the City Council of Oviedo.
This will be an opportunity for the global cheese community to come together after a year of unprecedented challenges for cheesemakers and the industry as a whole as the WCA will be at the heart of a four-day festival dedicated to cheese.
The competition is set to be bigger and more international than ever before, following the record-breaking 3,804 entries from 42 different countries judged in Bergamo, Italy, in 2019.
Asturias is home to around 50 different varieties of cheeses. According to latest reports, Spain exported upwards of £450 million of dairy products, including cheese, in 2020, mainly to Europe but around 20 per cent went to other countries and, with some 100 different types of cheese produced throughout the country, the industry uses up around 28 per cent of Spain’s milk production.
Cows are the biggest providers of milk for cheese in Asturias. In fact, of the 50 cheeses that are currently made there, over 65 per cent exclusively use cow milk, 20 per cent mix it with small percentages of goat and sheep milk and only 15 per cent of the existing cheeses opt for goat or sheep milk.
The region’s best known cheeses include Cabrales, a blue aged for up to six months in nearby caves, Gamoneu del Valle, a three milk cheese also matured naturally in caves, and Beyos GP, a small cheese from cow’s milk
Taramundi, produced in a rich pasture area, tastes of walnut and hazelnut and is matured from matured goat and cow milk. One of the varieties is the only one in Spain containing dried fruit.
John Farrard, managing director of the Guild of Fine Food, describes the colourful and popular WCA as “a truly global cheese event that brings together cheesemakers, retailers, buyers, consumers and food commentators worldwide to judge nearly 4,000 cheeses from over 40 countries”.
“We’d welcome participation from Northern Ireland at the event. A number of Northern Irish producers have won UK Great Taste Awards for their creativity over the years. There’s every reason for them to take part in this genuinely global event,” he adds.
Michele Shirlow, chief executive of Food NI, the local food and drink promotion body, is another who would “love to see our cheesemakers taking part in such an influential gathering”.
“We have a growing cadre of fine cheesemakers in Northern Ireland who produce a range of varieties, including blues, bries, Italian style mozzarella, Dutch gouda and edam, emmental, beer washed semi hard, goats, and, of course, classic cheddar. Many have won national awards and could do well on such a significant global stage,” she adds.
Dale Farm, Northern Ireland’s biggest dairy co-operative and a major producer of cheddars at its production plant in Cookstown, was the most recent local company to win a national award for quality and taste.
Dale Farm gained first place in the Virtual Cheese Awards 2021 with its Dromona mild cheddar. Dromona cheddar is now well-established in the UK and Republic of Ireland. It has also exported cheese as far as Asia and Russia.
In addition to Dromona, Northern Ireland’s high volume cheese brand, there is a strong group of artisan cheesemakers, some selling in Britain, Ireland and further afield.
They are: Mike Thomson of Mike’s Fancy Cheese in Newtownards, an award-winning producer of Young Buck Blue; Ballylisk of Armagh, a crafter of bries; Kearney Blue from Castlereagh; Dart Mountain, near Claudy in County Derry, a venture by Kevin and Julie Hickey producing Sperrin Blue and others, including our only goat’s cheese, as well as craft beer washed and ash rind semi hard cheeses; Velocheese in Belfast, a business run by Italian David Tani who produces mozzarellas; and Carol and Olav Kloster of Carrickfergus Cheese making Dutch style edam and gouda.
Cheeses are sent from all round the world to be judged in a single day by carefully assembled teams of technical experts, buyers, retailers and food writers.
Judges work in teams of three to identify any cheeses worthy of a gold, silver or bronze award. They look at the rind and the body of the cheese, its colour, texture, consistency and, above all, its taste. Each of the teams then nominates one exceptional cheese as the Super Gold from their table.
The Super Jury, representing all four corners of the globe, then considers the final cheeses in front of a live consumer and trade audience, before choosing the World Champion Cheese.
As well as striving for bronze, silver, gold and super gold, there are country and cheese specific trophies.