Unique competition moulds its place in the Cheese Calendar
The British cheese community came together on 14th June for the finals of Affineur of the Year 2023. Despite being in its second year, it was marvellous to feel the same excitement and ebullience in the room as last year’s event, which was held in April 2022. I’m not sure if the buzz was due to the addition of blue and soft cheeses to the competition (this year competitors had the option of maturing a Blue Stilton from Cropwell Bishop and a Baron Bigod from Fen Farm Dairy, as well as the original Quicke’s Cheddar), or whether it’s the nature of the cheese industry: everyone is just very jolly and pleased to see each other!
Cheese Maturation Competition Returns Bigger & Better
Due to the amplification of the competition, we spread ourselves over the three floors of The China Exchange: a fantastic space in the centre of London, which, with a floor for judging, a floor for all the mingling and a floor for the newly introduced masterclasses (more on that later), could almost have been designed just for this very event!
The Royal Cheeses
The rows of cheeses were a sight to behold: such variances within each category. Whilst the cheddars’ stood regally in their rich cloths; the seasoned veterans overlooking the newbies. The magisterial Stiltons were a sight to be seen, with their gnarly rinds – some almost luminous with their Sporandonema casei (the harmless orange/red mould often found on certain cheeses), whilst the Baron Bigods, tempting the odd “wow” out of any onlooker: there were sticky ones, dark ones, ones trying to escape and then the pristine, velvety ones, more akin to those we’re used to seeing on cheese counters.
With the judges in place and fully briefed, the first round of scoring commenced. Meanwhile, two floors below, the first masterclass kicked off to a packed room of amateur affineurs and keen cheese enthusiasts. With standing room only, Roger Longman educated his audience on the maturation tips and techniques his team at White Lake Cheese use on their range of award-winning washed rind cheeses.
Having scrutinised the rinds and examined the structural integrity of the 56 cheeses in play, the judges stepped away to let the real fun begin: with the competitors actually cutting into their cheeses in front of the adroit eyes of the trade professionals and the just-as-equally eager ones of the public. It is this moment that differentiates Affineur of the Year from every other cheese awards and the very moment that I truly appreciate the skill of the affineur; the hours of care and attention, the turning, the brushing, the tweaking of humidity and temperature: this is what it all comes down to.
The moment of truth
One mustn’t forget that this was the first time the competitors got to behold the interior of their creations. Like being reunited with a long lost friend, there was a moment of hesitation, apprehension, perhaps even reluctance to cut into their cheeses. Because this is the point of no return: is the finished cheese all that they hoped and dreamed of in those weeks and months before. Will it have length, will it hold together, will it be blue enough, what if…?
Cheese Masterclass with the Masterminds
Meanwhile, the second masterclass, with industry legends, Mary Quicke, Robin Skailes of Cropwell Bishop, Ruth Raskin of The Fine Cheese Co. and Katy Fenwick from the Academy of Cheese was in full flow. A lively session on the intricacies of maturation, taking the theory and science behind affinage and placing it firmly in the practicality of the day-to-day work from the perspective of the cheese maker and monger. Both masterclasses had been a valuable addition to the day: the appetite to learn about this exciting realm of cheesemaking clearly mushrooming.
Power to the People!
Whilst the judges took their positions for the second time, this time to score the cheeses on flavour, length and mouthfeel, the guests downstairs got to do the very same, tasting and voting for their favourite – The People’s Choice – another feature of this competition that makes it so unique. And, whereas last year, we had just 10 cheddars to choose from, this year, it was 10 cheddars, six Stiltons and eight Baron Bigods. Who said the job of a cheese writer was tough?
And when all the nail-biting, tasting, judging and learning was over, everyone assembled again, a little wiser, to hear the judges’ conclusions.
Want to taste like a Cheese Judge? See our Tasting Toolkit
What is Affineur of the Year?
If you’ve fallen across this blog out of chance and decided it was good enough to carry on reading to this point, but don’t know the history of the competition, or indeed about the craft of affinage (cheese maturation), let me fill you in.
The mastery of affinage has gained deserved recognition within the British cheese industry over the last few years, but there is still a way to go in understanding the full impact of maturing cheeses in the myriad of micro-climates and varying levels of humidity and temperature within a maturing room.
The “Affineur of the Year” competition was launched in 2021 by the Academy of Cheese and Quicke’s, as a unique opportunity for cheese mongers and cheesemakers to showcase, across the world, the skill and artistry involved in guiding a cheese to its full potential. The first year’s competition focused solely on the maturation of a cheddar, with the title being awarded to Perry Wakeman of Rennet & Rind. Building upon the success of last year’s competition, the organisers decided to extend it out to different Make Post-Make categories to include mould ripened and crumbly cheeses, allowing the competitors to highlight and showcase a full range of affinage techniques. And that they certainly did.
Affineur of the Year 2023 – the results
With much anticipation, the judges (headed up by all-round cheese guru Patrick McGuigan) took to the stage, sharing their wisdom with Academy of Cheese Director and expert compere, Charlie Turnbull. Each category, quite rightly, had its own winner, as each cheese requires very specific techniques of affinage.
Nothing like a cliffhanger. If you want to know the winners, then you need to click here.
“The maturing room is the secret weapon of cheesemakers and mongers. It’s here that affineurs (cheese maturers) can make a huge difference to a cheese by using time, temperature, humidity and airflow, plus specialist techniques, to coax different flavours and textures from the cheese. The Affineur of the Year competition shines a light on this hugely important part of the cheese process and is helping to raise standards in British cheese, while also being a great fun event. Long live the dark arts of the affineur!“
The Cheese Geeky Part
You can hear what the competitors got up to with their competition cheeses and learn about their affinage techniques, in our series of Meet The Competitor webinars aired in the weeks leading up to the Finals event.
Are you new to Affinage and want to know more? Read our Beginner’s Guide to Affinage here.
With thanks to the judges, sponsors and producers on the day for making this event run smoothly and so enjoyable:
Patrick McGuigan, Food Journalist & Cheese Writer
Svein-Erik Backlund, Sales Manager – Oluf Lorentzen
Adrian Boswell, Senior Food Buyer – Selfridges
Mathew Carver, Owner/Proprietor – The Cheese Bar Restaurants, London
James Golding, Group Chef Director – The Pig Hotels
Emma Young, “The Cheese Explorer“, Cheese Consultant & Author
RACHEL HOLDING – ACADEMY OF CHEESE WRITER
Rachel loves a good cheese and wine session. Her love of all cheeses, artisanal or otherwise, has grown from her early years of working on the cheese counter at Fortnum & Mason. She has a personal mission to taste as many cheeses as possible and to encourage this passion in others.