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The Life of a Cheese Judge

The Life of a Cheese Judge

It’s the International Cheese Awards in Nantwich on Tuesday 30th July and our Head of Wholesale; Ruth Holbrook is one of the judges. We get the inside line from Ruth on cheese judging…


How did you get into cheese tasting/judging?

I’ve worked in the food industry for 13 years and am lucky to taste and handle cheeses every day. In my role for Paxton & Whitfield, I network closely with cheese makers, chefs and cheese experts and am always aiming to refine my cheese knowledge. Cheese judges need considerable tasting experience across a broad variety of cheeses and a good understanding of the cheese making & maturing process. 

What’s your favourite part of the job?

Ironing the cheese is so satisfying! Using a cheese iron to take a ‘candle’ of cheese from the centre of hard cheeses means that the sample is at its most fresh. Plus, you can taste cheese from the heart right the way up to near the rind if you want to, so it gives an accurate profile of the way the whole truckle tastes. Then you put the plug back which allows the remaining cheese to continue its maturation process. It’s also really interesting to taste a wide selection of similar cheeses side-by-side as it’s not something that we normally get to do.     

Many would argue that taste is very subjective, how do the awards take this into consideration?

It’s not as subjective as you might think. Cheese judging always has a set framework to follow; judging specifics on texture, taste, appearance. There’s also always a panel of judges who need to reach a consensus. We all taste the cheese together, voice our opinions and re-taste if needed to reach agreement and grade the cheese. 

What’s most important – the texture, taste or appearance of the cheese?

Taste is the most important to me, but texture is a key part of this - the two go hand-in-hand. Appearance is important because psychologically, people “eat with their eyes”. Deliciously ugly is possible too though – for example, Gorgonzola Dolce is quite sloppy in appearance and difficult to work with, but it is so amazingly delicious that we find a way to work around its short fallings – spooning rather than slicing. 

How do cleanse your palette in between tasting the different cheeses?

Sliced apple is always provided by the organisers. The acidity from the apple scrapes our palette clean in-between tastings. I also drink lots of water while I’m judging because cheese is salty and dry biscuits can help in-between tastings too.  

Approximately how many cheeses do you taste in the judging session?

A rule of thumb is around 30 cheeses. Any more than this and it gets really challenging.  

Do you require a certain skill or training to recognise the full flavours of cheese?

I’d say that the most important skill is the descriptive use of vocabulary to express the unique nuances of each cheese as accurately as possible. Cheese tasting vocabulary is pretty varied – tasting descriptors such as “farm-gate”, “cabbage” and “baby sick” all are terms you might hear, and are not necessarily negatives. Common words to describe texture include “silky”, “fatty” and “bloomy”.

Have you ever tasted a cheese and then instantly bought it because you loved it so much? 

Yes I tasted a Halloumi once which was out of this world. I loved it so much that I tracked down the cheesemaker to buy some for myself.·     

Have you ever had an argument about a cheese as a judge?

It can be a heated process and there have certainly been disagreements, but that’s why we have a panel. There’s sometimes a chief judge and there are always adjudicators available where required to help resolve debates.

If there was only one accompaniment that you could eat or drink with your cheese, what would it be?

Definitely fresh apple. Apple can be used as a vessel to eat the cheese on and it has an accompanying taste which can be sweet or sharp; paired depending on the cheese. I particularly love the first British apples in September time to pair with cheese.