For three consecutive years, the Supreme Champions at the Virtual Cheese Awards have come from within five miles of each other. Rachael Rowe reports
Cheese producers in a small corner of South Somerset are celebrating. The Supreme Champion of Cheeses at the Virtual Cheese Awards (VCA) has come from the Templecombe and Wincanton area for the last three years. In fact, all the winners are based within five miles of each other and, to celebrate, have just launched a Supreme Champion Hamper containing all those award-winning cheeses (perfect gift for a cheese fan?). The winning cheeses are Feltham’s Farm’s Renegade Monk (2020) and La Fresca Margarita (2021), and Keen’s Extra Mature Cheddar (2022).
So what is going on?
Penny Nagle, from Feltham’s Farm, which produces two of the supreme championship cheeses, explains the importance of the Virtual Cheese Awards and how they are transforming the artisanal cheese industry.
‘They were started during the lockdown by Sarah De Wit, who has worked in the cheese industry for years. During the lockdown, everything was shut down, so there were no competitions for artisanal cheeses. Contests are one of the ways we test cheeses, but there was nothing in the pandemic.’
‘Small artisan cheesemakers typically don’t have huge marketing budgets, so awards are very important to us.’ Penny says. ‘There are now more than 400 British and Irish cheeses in the VCA Awards.
‘All the cheeses are judged online live so you can see what is happening, and it is totally transparent.’
How can a cheese be judged online? Once, the idea would have been laughed at, but it transpires it is absolutely possible and has transformed the world of the artisan cheesemaker.
If you want to see for yourself, the judging is available on the VCA website. Who needs Netflix when you can watch cheeses being judged?
However there’s a serious point to this way of promoting cheese. Says Sarah De Witt:
‘Normally, when judges are judging cheeses, they are in a room by themselves; you don’t get to see what goes on, what is said. But these awards have turned the whole thing around.
We work with cheese experts like Nigel Barden, and everything is recorded. People can see exactly what others are saying about the cheese, so you get this valuable feedback.
And, of course, if you are going to an awards ceremony, you can’t take everyone. By doing it online, the whole farm or dairy can see and learn and celebrate.
Penny also appreciates the learning from the VCA Awards. ‘You can hear what people are saying about our cheese and the feedback from professional experts. It’s an amazing system, and you learn so much.’
Is it Blackmore Vale grass?
The 2022 supreme champion Award went to the Extra Mature Cheddar from Keen’s Cheddar, a fifth-generation cheesemaking family farm. So what is it about this corner of Somerset that produces Supreme Champions? George Keen talks about the alchemy of the cheesemaker. ‘Cheese is fermented concentrated milk, and the alchemical skill of the cheesemaker is to capture all the quality of the milk in the cheese. Milk is so complex that a skilled cheesemaker can make any style of cheese just by managing the fermentation with temperature, drainage and time. However, no two cheesemakers will make the same cheese. It’s all very personal!’
There must be something else for the supreme champions to be located so close? George has some thoughts: ‘It might be the crops we can grow in the Blackmore Vale which in turn produces the quality of milk that makes the best cheese? Or the community of local artisan cheesemakers who inspire new styles of cheese? Or perhaps just happenstance!’
Penny gave her own thoughts on the unique local success. ‘We have this huge ecosystem here in Somerset where we can get the best milk right on our doorstep. There’s also a creative vein, with a lot of people interested in milk quality. Keen’s have a wonderful heritage, whereas we at Feltham’s are non-traditional cheesemakers. But we all need to be near the supply of milk – all our milk for Feltham’s cheese is from a single herd at Godminster. We do still get variations in the milk, such as when cows are fed silage instead of grass. The milk really tells you what to do.
‘We also have people around us who know about cheese. For example, Carolyn in the Truckle Truck is an evangelist for promoting cheese (see The BV, Oct 22). And then we have excellent farm shops and supermarkets such as the Udder Farm Shop, Kimber’s, Durslade (their honey is perfect with La Fresca Margarita), and Dikes. That local network keeps cheese going in the area. We also have brilliant cheesemakers. And finally, we have a good local council that knows how to fund and promote rural businesses and what they need. Somerset is the Silicon Valley of cheesemaking – it is an exceptional place for the industry. There’s a fantastic milk field and it’s high quality. So it’s not surprising that all the cheesemakers are here!’
To order a Supreme Champions Hamper, see Feltham’s Farm website.