I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it was about this year’s Cheese Festival that didn’t quite gel for me. There was a lot I did enjoy – the fresh, crisp autumn day, with its promise of tastebud-temptations, the happy buzz of turophiles milling about in lazy pursuit of their favourite cheeses, washing down a morning’s tasting round with an ice-cold Gone Fishing Cider… but something wasn’t quite right.
Perhaps it’s because I got a touch over-excited about it in the first place, rooting out what was natural and organic, who the small producers and artisans were, and other aspects of the festival that interested me. Or maybe it’s because the festival is now getting so big that it’s losing that country-side charm that it used to have before it became so popular that tickets could no longer be sold at the gates.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because what is supposed to be the focus (um, cheese) seems to be losing ground to things like olives, muffins, pomegranates and a whole lot of wine.
It seemed to me that the ratio of cheese to ‘everything else’ has been skewed… Where before I could keep walking around, discovering new and exciting cheese producers, this time I kept finding myself wandering a little aimlessly, wondering where they were hiding. Of wine, there was plenty. Of cheese, not quite as much as I was expecting.
‘The Market’, for example, is usually my favourite hunting ground, and last year was wall-to-wall cheeseries, most of them small producers, exhibiting for the first time at the festival. This year, though, there were hardly any cheese stalls around the courtyard, and instead a strange and mottled assortment of stalls offered everything from muffins, to pomegranates, to carpaccio salad, to barbecued mushrooms.
Not that any of those are bad things – they just seemed a trifle out of place.
I guess what I missed most, though, was the enthusiasm of the new small producers, who’re usually so excited to be at such a big festival, and to tell you about their creations. It’s why I go, because I’m not that into wine, and although I love olives, the Olive Festival is where I’d head for those.
So why cut down on the cheese, in favour of other stuff…? I have a feeling many of the smaller producers simply can’t justify the cost of having a festival stall (never mind all the free samples they have to give out for four days running).
Last year, if I remember correctly, Agri-Expo sponsored 10 small cheese producers from around the country, and brought them to the festival. I don’t think that happened this time around – and I think that’s a pity!
It’s also a monumental challenge for smaller cheeseries to create the vast stockpile required for replenishing both the sample plates and their for-sale items. Many cheeses can stay fresh for a while, but not all of them, and certainly most of them don’t keep as easily as wines and olives, for example. So it’s possible that the reason there was less cheese, was because there were fewer stallholders to start with.
That’s not to say there wasn’t lots of cheese, there just wasn’t quite as much variety and novelty to be had as in years gone by. Commercially-produced cheeses I can find in a supermarket – I’m not looking for that at a festival (I’m not just after free samples).
Anyway, whatever the reasons, it was still a fun event, and a busy one (sold out both weekend days), and everyone I saw seemed to be having a good time, so perhaps I’m just getting jaded! (Am I?)
Still, I hope the festival’s 10th anniversary next year brings more cheese variety, not less, and supports the small-producers we cheese-fanatics love so much. I’ll be back, but don’t move my cheese!