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10 December 2016updated 30 Jun 2021 11:56am

A very cheesy Christmas: could you stomach the pong of these cheeses?

In San Sebastián for the World Cheese Awards, I could smell the gathering from the next room.

By Felicity Cloake

“Cheese aversion” is a thing, apparently. It has its own entry (between “cheese addiction” and “cheese ball”) in The Oxford Companion to Cheese, a handsome new, 888-page volume edited by Catherine Donnelly of the University of Vermont, devoted to the joys of what one Chinese person described to the anthropologist E N Anderson as “the mucous discharge of some old cow’s guts, allowed to putrefy”.

Even some quite sensible people aren’t immune. The (in all other respects entirely admirable) drinks writer of this magazine, Nina Caplan, is a self-confessed turophobe, who considers it “horrid stuff” – apart from Parmesan, because that reminds her of sherry.

Nina, I suspect, would not have been comfortable in the room where I found myself in mid-November, with 3,021 varieties from 31 countries for the World Cheese Awards in San Sebastián, Spain – a gathering I could smell from the other end of the corridor, even with the doors closed.

To me, the pong, a mixture of old trainers and flatulent dog, was a thrilling whiff of the treat to come: namely, tasting 45 samples in two hours, from a classic Camembert so ripe that we had to call for spoons, to an Australian goat’s cheese studded with citrusy green native ants. Yes, ants. It turns out they’re delicious.

My fellow judges, an international mix of makers, ’mongers and importers, were fanatics. Later that day when the champion was announced – the best cheese in the room and therefore, in theory, the world – there was what one witness described as “an almost animalistic cry” of joy from the winner, an emotional Norwegian dairy farmer who then had to rush home to milk the cows, presumably to make even more of his crumbly blue Kraftkar to satisfy the inevitable surge in demand.

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It was a hall full of curd nerds, people fascinated by the way that milk, the simplest, most ancient form of human sustenance (and yes, you can make cheese from human milk, if you happen to have enough to spare), rots into something infinitely more interesting. They wielded cheese irons (the boring tools used to take samples from large truckles of cheese) with the confidence and dexterity of master butchers; they sniffed and squidged and rolled the results around in their mouths like sommeliers and shook their heads sadly over defective rinds and chalky interiors – “Just terrible, terrible cheese-making,” I heard one of them mutter gloomily, as he prodded at a blameless-looking chèvre. When they took a break for lunch they all headed straight for a local tapas bar that was rumoured to serve the best cheesecake in the world, but came back broken-hearted: it was closed for las vacaciones.

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I suspect that, underneath their white coats, many of them were wearing the tattoos that, the Companion informs me, some aficionados adopt as “an identifier and a sign of their personal commitment to cheese”. (Apparently, a wedge of a hard variety, sometimes with Swiss “eyes” or blue veining, is the most popular design, no doubt because it’s difficult to represent a packet of Dairylea in miniature form.) Some of them, perhaps, were even cheese addicts, a condition that, according to my new bible, is possibly linked to compounds in the fermented milk which bind to opioid receptors in the brain, releasing dopamine, “a chemical that can signal feelings of satisfaction or reward”.

Nina clearly prefers to hit those receptors with a nice Negroni or a cold glass of Manzanilla, pleasures to which I am not immune. But even after sampling my way through my table and doing a spot of minesweeping from others on the way out (who can walk past a ripe Brie without helping themselves?), I couldn’t stop thinking about those ants and what a hit they would be at the festive feast. It might be time to get a tattoo. 

This article appears in the 06 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump