Interview: Julius Longman, chairman of the British Cheese Awards
PUBLISHED: 14:13 18 February 2019
The new chairman of the British Cheese Awards, Somerset's Julius Longman, talks to Chris Allsop about what makes a champion cheese, how the domestic industry is maturing and why the Bath & West Showground is the perfect home for the event.
“When we’re judging, you look primarily for the presentation.” Julius Longman, the new chairman for the British Cheese Awards, is explaining how his judges assess a competing cheese. “Then we look at its texture, aroma, flavour, and finally the balance of those three key elements together.”
High scoring cheeses are awarded gold, silver or bronze, and champion or reserve champion for the truly palate-conquering. “The cheeses that go to the top table always combine fantastic ingredients – high-quality milk is essential – and a taste of the passion of the cheesemaker that has gone into making it. And it really does involve an awful lot of heart to make it right,” he adds, his enthusiasm crackling down the phone line.
Longman should know. His qualifications for one of British cheese’s most lofty roles are clear enough. There’s time served – he was on the committee for four years prior to a ten year stint as vice-chairman. Carefully aged, you might say, and also packed with the right ingredients; his family have been Somerset cheesemakers for four generations (with the fifth generation, his children, now beginning to come into their own) and he’s also sales director of the family business, Longman Cheese Sales. But what makes him the perfect candidate is the passion.
Despite it being 25 years since the British Cheese Awards was created by cheese aficionado Juliet Harbutt – and nearly 40 years since the rekindling of the artisan cheese industry – there’s still a fresh excitement about British cheese. Every year a talented new cheesemaker or two seem to step out of the dairy and into the limelight, their passion and creativity rightly celebrated as they add another name to the well-stocked British and Irish cheese larder.
“In ‘94 we had 97 cheesemakers and 296 entries and last year we had over 1,000 entries from 147 producers – a 51% increase in terms of cheesemaker entries,” Longman says. “You’ve had the emergence of not only the traditional cheesemakers who have been around for a long time and are trying new things, but also the rise of a lot of experimental artisan cheesemakers.”
This confident new class have brought about an uptick in the sticky, pungent washed rind category – famous domestic examples of which include Stinking Bishop and Celtic Promise – a development that’s also suggestive of how the average British cheese eater’s palate has matured. There’s also been noticeable experimentation with milks other than cow, with sheep’s milk in particular enjoying something of a moment (a definite passion project with the average sheep producing half a gallon of milk a day compared with a cow’s six to eight gallons). In fact the last two supreme champions were sheep’s milk (and both from the same producer, Somerset’s White Lake Cheese) – Pavé Cobble and Sheep Rustler.
“Made by my cousin, Roger Longman,” Longman laughs. “Sheep Rustler has that je ne sais quoi. Roger has that inventiveness like a chef – he’s forever pushing the boundaries on this sort of thing and Rustler is a great modern cheese.”
Cheesemakers are also playing with the flavours of classics such as cheddar, as well as territorials. “For example, Red Fox by Belton Farm is a fantastic modern version of a vintage red leicester, with a bit of crunch to it,” Longman says, describing the crunchy calcium lactate crystals usually encountered in vintage cheddars. “It’s getting a lot of publicity and rightly so – fantastic cheesemakers Justin Beckett and his team.”
Publicity is a major part of Longman’s new role, helping to bring cheese curious Joe Public closer to the awards’ milky treats. When Harbutt chose the Bath & West as a permanent home for the show – it was previously a travelling concern – it was a move that, among other things, spoke of how awareness of the awards had reached a tipping point and it was now ready to put down roots.
“What’s particularly great about the Bath & West Show is that it’s four days’ long, and the awards are there for all four days,” Longman says. “Cheesemakers who have entered have quite a few stands at the show, and once the awards are done the prizes are promoted at the stands. People can go up to those selling and walk away with a piece of cheese.”
Longman has such a confident manner on the phone that it’s surprising to hear him mention some anxiety about another public element of his role – that of co-host of the awards dinner, which takes place in the evening after the judging has been completed. “I’m a bit of a virgin at these things, but we’ve got a great compere in [BBC presenter] Nigel Barden — he’s lots of fun and makes it very relaxed… you do have people who aren’t used to accepting rewards.”
Or handing them out, it seems. But, as he adds before we finish: “The event is all about showcasing our vibrant cheese industry, how it’s full of passionate people, and that’s what gives them the appetite to push the boundaries, to find new varieties and flavours.”
He laughs again. “Barking mad half of them, and I’m one of them!”
Sheep Rustler, White Lake Cheese, Supreme Champion 2018
An unpasteurised sheep’s milk tweak on their lauded goat’s cheese, Rachel, White Lake Cheese’s Sheep Rustler is a semi-firm cheese aged for three months that has a slightly nutty flavour with a hint of caramel.
Pavé Cobble, White Lake Cheese, Supreme Champion 2017
The first of White Lake’s historic double, Pavé Cobble, made with unpasteurised sheep’s milk, is a lactic-set, ash-dusted pyramid named after the cobbled stretches of the Tour de France. Its flavour is described by cheesemonger La Fromagerie as having notes of sweet cream, fresh cobnuts, and a slight lanolin gaminess.
Blue Shropshire, Cropwell Bishop Creamery, Supreme Champion 2016
Showing that they’re more than just top drawer stilton producers, Cropwell Bishop took away the supreme prize for their annatto-tinted Blue Shropshire, described as having a nutty flavour shot through with spicy notes.
The 2019 British Cheese Awards will take place on Wednesday May 29, 2019 at the Royal Bath and West Showground, Shepton Mallet, Somerset.