Halfway through the first day of the International Cheese Awards, Geoff Platt caught up with Richard Paul, chairman of the International Cheese Awards.
I know we've only just started, but how is it going?
Richard Paul: As you know, we've had record entries in the cheese classes: 3,717, which is colossal. We thought we had topped out several years ago, but we seem to be able to keep beating it. It has grown by 15%, so it's a huge jump.
The vibrancy of dairy and the cheese trade particularly amazes me, along with the clamour for prizes. It continues to be the one that cheesemakers want to win. It seems to be cemented in the diary as one of the key industry days, not just here in the UK but probably worldwide. It's probably the premier cheese show in the world.
So, why is this?
Paul: I think it's the respect from the trade. The key ingredient is the judges. We have a huge amount of volunteers. This isn't a commercial organisation, it's a registered charity – an agricultural society – and we rely on the support of judges, people like yourselves in the media, to come up to a field in South Cheshire. It creates a really different atmosphere. The ambience is unique. We're in a field, in a tent – albeit a rather big tent now. I get told off: I have to call it a pavilion, 70,000 square feet. It's colossal.
It has become a major event – if I knew what the key ingredient was, I'd be a lucky man. I never cease to be amazed.
You've rebranded the show and upgraded the facilities. Tell us about that.
Paul: Yes, it has been part of a three- or four-year plan. I think the show has dared to be different and we've invested in it. One of the best investments over the years has been the floor and the air conditioning.
We have tough times around us, but I think it shows the resilience of everybody pulling together. We have to work that much harder.
The perception from this show seems to be that despite the tough times the industry is succeeding.
Paul: Yes, you're right. The industry is rolling up its sleeves and getting on with it. We have a fantastic product and everyone wants to be top cheese; they want that prize. Whether you're gold winner in your class or supreme champion, the results will go up in three hours and it's like being back at school waiting for your exam results. People will be pushing to see how they got on, whooping with delight if they've won!
It's really humbling to see that, and it gives me immense pride. It's a real thrill.
This year, in your PR & marketing, you've gone into social media in a big way.
Paul: Yes we have. We've had to do this. It's part of that make-up. We have had the foundation of the show for many years, with the cheesemakers. They fight for the prizes. Then we have the distributors and the retailers, and on top of that pile is the consumer – the ultimate customer – and that's the media for many of them. They have their iPhones and Blackberrys and they want instant access and reaction. We started that up not too long ago and the following is enormous.
Yes, it has helped that we've sprinkled in a couple of celebrity judges and celebrity chefs, but it has ballooned from there. It has been amazing.
Are you already into planning for next year?
Paul: We are. We have had discussions this morning, critiquing what we should have done: Can we do this better, will we have more entries, will we have less?.
We have a growing army of volunteers that are joining us to put this event on because it's a mammoth task. I have said this already, but it's a registered charity – the stewards, the judges, they're all unpaid. There is a pride and a value to being a Nantwich judge. It's an honour and a privilege to be invited, and it's still seen that way by people in the industry.
And people who have been involved in the show for many years – past chairman – come up to me and say it's a great show. That thrills me.
**You were interviewed on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2. What was that like?**
Paul: It was exciting and daunting. I have had these sort of events lined up before where they say we want to do an interview and then there's a big incident, a big news story that takes over and it doesn't go ahead.
I was on holiday in Spain at the time. After breakfast, the phone rang to say the interview was on. I found a room, shut the kids out and they were peering through the windows while I was trying to have a conversation with Chris Evans, so it was a bit stressful. It only lasted about three minutes and the time went so quickly. But it went well.
So would it be correct to say that you're tired but happy?
Geoff Platt is editor of Dairy Innovation magazine. He’s also active on LinkedIn.
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