French cheesed off as British Cheddar is judged superior to Comté or Camembert
A British Cheddar and an American blue cheese have surpassed French cheeses to take top awards at a prestigious international competition, prompting an outraged French newspaper to describe the results as “sacrilege”.
This year’s World Cheese Awards, held in Bergamo, Italy, have left a sour aftertaste in France, which considers itself the home of fine cheeses.
Rogue River Blue, produced in Oregon in the United States, was judged the world’s best cheese by a panel of 260 international experts this week. In fourth place was Pitchfork Cheddar, made by Trethowan’s Dairy, based in Somerset.
The French cheese that fared best in the contest was an Epoisses, a pungent soft cow’s milk cheese from Burgundy, which took joint 8th place with a Swiss Gruyère.
Ouest-France, one of the country’s largest-circulation newspapers, expressed shock at the results. “Sacrilege: only one of the 15 top-rated cheeses is French,” it commented.
It is not the first time that British and other non-French cheeses have won top international prizes. This year, however, it was particularly humiliating for France that Camembert, Comté and Roquefort were conspicuously absent from the highest rated of 3,804 cheeses from 42 countries.
The Gallic disdain for Cheddar is legendary, although it is one of the world’s most popular and versatile cheeses.
Marc Veyrat, a celebrity French chef, is taking legal action against the Michelin Guide for stripping him of a star on the grounds that he allegedly committed the ultimate faux-pas of making a soufflé with Cheddar. Mr Veyrat denies doing so, saying he only uses local products, though he has stressed that he has nothing against Cheddar.
John Farrand, managing director of the Guild of Fine Food, which organises the World Cheese Awards, said: “We try to celebrate cheeses from around the world, especially those made by smaller artisan cheesemakers. Good cheese is made around the world, not just by the French. I know lots of French people who work in cheese who know that fine cheeses are made in many different countries.”
Gallic pride emerged almost unscathed from last year’s awards, when an Ossau-Iraty sheep’s milk cheese from the French Basque country took second place. A Taupinette goat’s cheese from Charente, in western France, came 8th.
In 2017, however, France fared relatively poorly. Its best entry was a Reblochon from Savoy, but it was only placed 10th.
Cheese connoisseurs say timing is a key factor affecting quality, as many cheeses mature for a few months, reach a peak and then decline, so there is an element of chance depending on when they are assessed.
“Competition is getting stiffer these days with so many different countries producing very high quality cheeses,” Mr Farrand said. “We’ve had two winners from Norway in recent years.”
Many French people seem to find it difficult to grasp that the craft of gourmet cheese-making is spreading across the world, judging by the reaction of Ouest-France, which found it astonishing that “the world’s best cheese is not French.”
Mr Farrand said new cheeses were being produced in the most unlikely countries. “This year, a Japanese cheese was entered for the first time and came 10th. From a country where dairy products are not part of the traditional diet, this is quite an achievement and we were happy to see it.”
Cheese has become more accepted in Japan, he said, because of the growing popularity of pizza topped with Mozzarella.
Comment: France still has the passion, but the UK is not far behind
France is the home of cheese and has an amazing array of cheesemakers, but Britain and the US are definitely catching up.
We have seen a renaissance of cheesemaking in both countries – Pitchfork Cheddar and Gorwydd Caerphilly, another high ranking British cheese in the final, are both made with raw milk on a farm by Trethowan’s Dairy, which is as traditional as you could hope for.
We lost many of our cheesemaking traditions after the Second World War, while France and Italy hung on to theirs, but now we’re seeing a revolution driven by public interest in where food comes from and how it is made.
Pitchfork Cheddar was only launched last year, but it’s made in a really traditional way. Unlike industrial block Cheddar, which is aged in plastic, the cheese is bound in cloth to protect it as it matures, so has a drier, firmer texture.
In terms of flavour it has a lovely grassy acidity and complex savoury notes. Much of this complexity comes from the fact it is made from organic, unpasteurised milk, which means the cheese keeps all of the natural bacteria unique to the farm. It’s an expression of a particular place.
That is something the French have always fought hard for – they are passionate about their cheese and I’d love to see more of this passion from British shoppers.
Pitchfork is from Somerset, the home of Cheddar cheese, and considering there are only a handful of raw milk producers left in the county, its launch and success is really exciting.
The French Epoisses was a little too salty in my book, but the flavour and texture were fantastic – pungent and silky. The Rogue River Blue was an utterly remarkable cheese, I’ve never tasted anything like it.
It was wrapped in vine leaves soaked in pear liqueur which gave the cheese different layers of flavour from fruity to spicy and aromatic – very unusual and a unique American cheese.
Patrick McGuigan is the Telegraph’s cheese writer and was one of the final 16 judges at the World Cheese Awards