Five things you may not know about cheese judging From our very own cheese Judge, Sonia Cousins
Imagine being closed in a room full of the best cheeses in Australia, and you're not allowed out until all of them have been tasted. It might sound like all of your cheese dreams have been answered, but it's all in a days work for a cheese judge.
Sonia is one of only 10 cheese professionals who judge each year at the Australian Grand Dairy Awards, Australia's most prestigious cheese competition. Each year the cream of the crop of local cheeses - those that have already been awarded Gold medals at the state qualifying shows, such as the Sydney Royal - are gathered in a room in Melbourne, and the champions are chosen.
The Awards are announced in February each year, but judging takes place long before that, and is closed to the public. So what really goes on behind those doors, with tables full of cheese surrounded by white-coated judges?
Here are Sonia's five things you may not know about cheese judging.
1. It's not about like or dislike
Cheese judge's put their personal preferences aside. Most cheeses are judged "blind" - that is. without any packaging or labels present - so judges can be as objective as possible.
2. Cheese judges are highly trained professionals
It takes years to master the skills required to objectively work your way through up to 60 cheeses before lunchtime. That's right, six-zero. Tough job, I know, but someone has to do it.
Every style of cheese is judged against a set of criteria that are unique to that style. For example, blue cheeses are supposed to be salty, with a balance between the blue and cheese flavours. A pleasant acid tang is desirable in a vintage cheddar, but in a brie? Not so much. After years of training and tasting (working as a cheesemonger certainly helps), we build up a memory bank of the ever-growing variety of cheeses available.
3. Yes, we spit
That's right - it's not about eating 60 pieces of cheese before lunchtime, but tasting them. So, just like wine judges, we spit them out. Having a full stomach dulls the appetite and the senses - we want the last cheese of the day to be judged with the same integrity as the first.
4. All 5 senses are used
It's not strictly correct to say that we taste the cheese. We actually use all five senses to evaluate the cheese - sight, touch, smell, taste and even sound. Taste is just a small part of the process. How it looks and what it smells like are just as important too.
5. Gold medal doesn't mean 1st, and silver medal doesn't mean 2nd
In most Australian cheese competitions, cheeses are awarded a score out of 20. If the cheese scores 18 or more, it is awarded gold; if it scores 17-18, it's awarded silver; and bronze usually means 16-17. If there are lots of really good cheeses that score 18 or more, there are several gold medals awarded. Or, if the standard is not so high, there may be no gold medals at all.
One of the most common questions I'm asked is "How did you learn so much about cheese?" Well, the best way to learn about cheese it to eat it - and I've eaten a lot over the past 14 years.
So next time you take a bite of your favourite wedge or wheel, don't just chew and swallow. Take a few moments to consider its complex flavour nuances, or the way it melts across your tongue, or the aromas that linger after you've finished eating.
You might just find your inner cheese judge.