Affineur of the Year 2024: The Art of Cheese Maturation Comes Of Age

Cutting of Blue Stiltons

Affineur of the Year is perhaps the most extraordinary of all cheese awards (notwithstanding rolling a Double Gloucester down a hill).  It is certainly the most unique.  Not only do competitors hail from both sides of the cheesemaking and mongering worlds, but competitors are invited to innovate and experiment with someone else’s cheese. 

More Cheese Categories

Now in its third year, Affineur of the Year has expanded the number of cheese categories to include different varieties of cheese, allowing more competitors the opportunity to highlight and showcase their full range of affinage techniques, specific to hard, soft, crumbly and washed rind cheeses, based on the Academy’s Make Post-Make categorisation.  Back in 2022, when we launched the competition with just 10 Quicke’s clothbound cheddars, little did we know that the concept would be received with such fervour and positivity.

Tables full of cheeses at a cheese competition
Judges making their visual assessments of the cheeses prior to cutting

Blue Stilton, Baron Bigod and Solstices

So, this year, as well as the additional categories from 2023 of a “Crumbly” Cropwell Bishop Blue Stilton, and a “Soft” Fen Farm’s Baron Bigod, we also saw the addition of that notoriously tricky beast, the “Washed Rind”, in the form of White Lake Cheese’s Solstice.

And boy did our competitors rise to the challenge once again. The affineurs (competitors) used their time, knowledge and skills and applied a little magic, innovation and nerve to tease out the moulds, yeasts and friendly microbes, to create their own, new variations of these well-known, best-selling originals.

Various Baron Bigods at Affineur of the Year
Guests and competitors viewing the Baron Bigods

This Year’s Finals

And so, it was on Wednesday 12th June at the finals event in London, that we got to witness the ingenuity and craftsmanship of the 13 competitors, and taste their unique, never-seen-before cheeses.  Each of the 147 cheeses (including five each of Baron Bigod and 15 Solstice) were brought before and blind tasted by a panel of eight expert cheeses judges, before being sampled out to leading figures in the industry as well as cheese enthusiasts.   We would see four category winners, a People’s Choice winner and the overall winner, our Affineur of the Year 2024 announced before the day was out.

Cheese Judges at Affineur of the Year
The Judging Panel from L-R: Sue Sturman, Tracey Colley (not judging), Patrick McGuigan, Patricia Michelson, Mathew Carver, Kanako Mathys, Svein-Erik Backlund, Catherine Mead, Perry-James Wakeman, Iain Mellis

Cheddar: where it all began

Let’s rewind the clock; this wasn’t a one-day event.  The countdown to the finals day actually started on 13th July 2023, in the Quickes dairy.  It was here where the cheesemaking team pumped their rich Devonshire milk and skilfully turned it into 8kg truckles of cheddar.  Clothbound, they were sent out to competitors at one week old. Over the coming months, the Stiltons, Barons and Solstices were dispatched and the affineurs got down to business. 

So, if each cheese was made on the same day, from the same vat of milk, by the same people, how different could they get?

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Guide to Maturing, Affinage & Grading

What does it mean to be an Affineur and why is it important?

Read our Guide to Affinage

Considered Jiggery Pokery

Another point of difference with this competition is that one of the conditions of entry is the submission of a Statement of Intent for each cheese entered; a document that details each Affineur’s plans and, essentially, sets out their expectations.   These documents form part of the judges’ considerations: had they stuck to their original plan? Had they met their self-imposed brief?  This not only held them accountable, but also helped the judges to understand the finished cheeses.

The Courtyard Dairy’s Cheddar with their Statement of Intent

We read each submission with awe and intrigue.  So many, varied techniques were adopted – some were, honestly, rather bonkers whilst others, on the other hand, perhaps overly conservative.  We didn’t care – the industry seemed to be bursting with anticipation as we approached finals day.  So how did they fare, these intrepid affineurs?

The Cheddars

So well considered, and with plenty of time to play with, the affineurs planned for the long game and hoped for big flavours.  From pimento oil and leaf wrapping, to beer washing and hay-rubbing. One competitor entered all four categories and infused the “celebration of apples” theme into each of their treatments.  I do like a theme.

Cheddar in Hay
The Fine Cheese Co’s “Hay-L Mary” Cheddar

The winner of this category however, Owen Davies from Cardiff-based mongers, Tŷ Caws, took inspiration from the local mining heritage of South Wales and applied it by maturing his cheddar in a “coal cave”. His aim was to create an environment for the cheese to age naturally, with consistent humidity and temperature, which he achieved by pumping a constant flow of running water over the coal walls.  The result, which is what Owen was aiming for in his Statement of Intent was a cheese that retained the buttery-smoothness reminiscent of a much younger Quicke’s, whilst boasting complex, smoky and umami flavours, picked up from the unique microflora of the cave.

Owen’s full Statement of Intent is available to view here.

The Blue Stiltons

The variation of the Stilton affinage between competitors was, understandably, not quite so pronounced: temperature and humidity levels were played around with, similarly the timings and frequency of the piercings.  One competitor was brave enough to wash in mead, whilst another went all out and inverted a bottle of ice-cider to soak into the paste.  It was the combined technique of piercing from the top, bottom and sides, washing in cider and wrapping in cider-soaked vine leaves that delivered us our winner. Claire Burt and Tom Partridge of Burt’s Cheese, in Cheshire, provided us with a beautifully soft and yielding paste with rich, biscuity flavours with just the right amount of blueing throughout.

Cheesemakers with Blue Stilton
Claire and Tom from Burt’s Cheese with their winning Blue Stilton

The Baron Bigods

As with the Blue Stiltons, temperature and humidity were key players, as was the turning regime, with eyes eagerly trained ready to slow down or hasten their ripening.  But creativity was abound with these Suffolk-born cheeses and some affineurs decided to go bold, stepping out of the comfort zone of a bloomy rind. 

Baron Bigods at Affineur of the Year

We saw one competitor wash theirs in a solution of alcohol and kombu (a form of kelp native to Japan that is used to impart umami flavours). On a similar Asian theme, one coated theirs in a “Furikake” (a savoury Japanese condiment that’s sprinkled on rice, fish and vegetables) mixture of sesame, seaweed and chilli. One covered theirs in foraged herbs and flowers, whilst the winner, Roger Longman of White Lake Cheese, using the same technique as his own goats’ milk “Eve”, washed his in Cider Brandy, covered them in vine leaves and befittingly named it “Adam”.

Baron Bigod wrapped in vine leaf

The Solstices

The placement in the maturation rooms of these, the smallest of the four cheeses, was a key variable in the competitors’ strategies, as was the actual washing.  Varying strengths of cider, beer and cider lees (natural apple yeasts that are left in the sediment after fermentation) were brushed on, but it was the 10-year-old single malt Laphroaig whisky that provided the complexity to come out top.  The Fine Cheese Co’s statement of intent skilfully planned for and perfectly prophesised “the unmistakable smoky, leathery peat of Islay’s most famous single malt to the balanced funk of the Solstice rind”.  It was this cheese, from The Fine Cheese Co. that also won the People’s Choice Award for the best cheese of the day.

Solstice Washed Rind Cheeses
Solstices from The Fine Cheese Co. Winners of the Washed Rind and People’s Choice categories

“The room was buzzing and it’s great to have a reason to chat about nothing but cheese, and this is the event for that, when lots of the Big Cheese’s in the industry are all gathered together, it’s like the BAFTAs of Cheese, without the frocks.   This year I was in agreement with the Judges.  Ty Caws’ coal dust treatment of the Quickes was delicate but distinctive and I wanted to keep on eating it, and the washed rind ‘For Peat’s Sake’ from The Fine Cheese Co was a cheese I loved and would be happy to sell.” 

Vicky Dunthorne, Victoria’s Cheese
Guests Enjoying Cheese

The Results Are In

Once the four category winners were decided, the judges had the unenviable task of choosing the overall winner, or Affineur of the Year.  

And at 6.30pm, with crowds gathered in front of the main stage, Patrick Spinazza, the original architect of the competition, handed this accolade to Owen Davies from Tŷ Caws for his Quicke’s cheddar.  Owen had wanted to create something inspired by the rich coal mining history of his hometown and was helped by his dad to design and build the cave. 

It was Owen’s innovative method that resonated with category judge Patricia Michelson.  In her assessment of the winning cheese, Patricia acknowledged the coal-mining heritage of Wales and its impact on the terroir.

Winner of Affineur of the Year
Tŷ Caws’ Owen Davies receives the trophy from Mary Quicke MBE and Patrick Spinazza

Here was a cheddar that we all know and whose taste is a simple enjoyment of a West Country cheddar … What transpired by affinage was a complex and fruity cheese, with elements of toasty nut and crisp bacon…. if it had been further matured it would just deepen.  Here was a Welsh cheese that could not be replicated in any other place and that in my mind, made it special.

Patricia Michelson, Category Judge and Proprietor of La Fromagerie

Affinage in the UK: What Comes Next?

After the excitement of the day receded, and the affineurs returned home to towns and village across the UK, with lessons learnt and new techniques to try, some of the competition cheeses travelled onwards to unfamiliar destinations for further sampling.  The harder, more resilient cheddars travelled West to be sampled at the monthly Chiswick Cheese Market, whilst little wedges of Tŷ Caws’ winning cheddar were bootlegged to interested parties across the country. 

The overriding enthusiasm for these cheeses, led many to question whether any of the affineurs would consider making their winning efforts a permanent ‘new’ cheese that would become available to the public? 

Man sniffing cheese
Guests taking part in The People’s Choice award

Limited Edition Cheeses

With this in mind, I asked cheddar cheesemaker Mary Quicke MBE what the likelihood was of cheese lovers ever seeing Owen’s, or indeed any of these new varieties for sale on cheese counters.

Enthused by the competition, Mary confirmed that Quicke’s would be open to the prospect of working with affineurs to take their cheeses forward.  Mary and her daughter Jane, see the initiative as a partnership, to ensure both brand integrity and food safety compliance.

Of the other cheeses, perhaps we can hope to see ‘guest labels’ or ‘limited edition’ specials, in the same way as beer companies do.

Two Blue Stiltons at Affineur of the Year
Two very different affinage techniques of the Blue Stilton

The Speciality Cheese Industry

But perhaps the bigger question is not just whether we will be seeing new variations of these cheeses, but more importantly, what affinage as a metier, can do for the UK speciality cheese industry, and specifically its makers, wholesalers and, essentially, its customers?

Patricia Michelson’s response, when asked about her expectations as a judge, is perhaps where UK affinage is heading:

“I was wanting to see how we, as British cheese maturers, can look at ways to enhance, refine and engage with our cheeses and define them.” Referring to the highly regarded profession in France, she went on to say “there is very defined regionality which hopefully, as we go on it will be evident in the UK and Ireland.  The winner this year showed just how we can move forward, taking their ‘terroir’ in the manner of coal with all its minerals.”

Patricia Michelson

Cheese Competitions

With plans already afoot for Affineur of the Year 2025, it is, perhaps, timely to ask of the necessity of this, another cheese competition?  And what does Affineur of the Year bring that others don’t?  Most awards are designed to shine a spotlight on producers, provide cheesemakers with recognition and give confidence to consumers when buying.

Cheese Judges Sniffing Cheese
Catherine Mead and Iain Mellis assessing the Baron Bigods

So, what is the purpose of a competition such as Affineur of the Year, when the entered cheeses are neither made, nor sold, so have no need for promotion?

In the pursuit of knowledge, inspiration acts as a guiding light

This unique, most extraordinary competition is, evidently, a real celebration of the cheese community’s technical and creative skills. Each year we see our competitors, judges and guests thrive on the pursuit of knowledge and innovation within this speciality craft competition.

Cheese monger holding their Blue Stilton

When asked how the competition has helped them with their affinage, Ruth Raskin from The Fine Cheese Co. summed it up nicely:

We love taking part in the Affineur of the Year because it allows us the opportunity to demonstrate the skills that we already have but more importantly, the chance to develop new ones. It frees us from commercial constraints and allows us to think outside the box, (or inside the box, in the case of this year’s hay buried Cheddar), to research and try out historical techniques or develop new ones that would usually be hard to justify in our day-to-day lives. The competitive nature adds drama and tension to the day, but the true win is the learning that we glean from the process and can take forward into the future.

Ruth Raskin, The Fine Cheese Co.

Ultimately, I believe this competition seeks to extol the role of the affineur in the UK, augment the existing distribution channels and grow the total number of cheese varieties.  Now that is the long game.

Cheese Judges Laughing
Kanako Mathys, Catherine Mead and Mathew Carver discuss leaf-wrapping technique

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.