Having failed to get to Slow Cheese in Bra I decided I mustn't miss the Great British Cheese Festival this year so took the train to Cardiff for the day. What can I say? Basically that I was hugely disappointed though I know that's not a very PC thing to admit.
Most of the problems were organisational. A huge queue (right) to get into the one free cheese tent (which I fortunately missed having arrived early) which made it absurdly overcrowded. Tickets sold out for most of the events I wanted to get to (OK, my fault for not booking ahead but there should be something for people who turn up on impulse.) I managed to sneak into the 'Hall of Champions' which contained the prizewinning cheeses by brandishing my press card but that's not an option open to most of the punters there.
The two other tents - the 'Best of British' market and True Taste of Wales - had nothing to do with cheese and were sadly depleted. There were a few local beer, cider and wine stands but not much in the way of food producers. The food stalls (Pieminister apart) offered the usual dreary festival fare of burgers and fried onions (particularly perverse at a cheese festival) The splendid Trethowan's Dairy which had been at Abergavenny the previous week and is one of the only companies in Britain to offer cheese-centred fast food were notable by their absence - or at least I didn't spot them.
To lay this at the door of the festival's founder Juliet Harbutt would be harsh. A native New Zealander she has done more than anyone else to put British artisanal cheeses on the map and her own 'Rising Stars' workshop at which she showed the 10 cheeses at the festival that excited her most (and on which I'll report later this week) was the highlight of my day. But there were too many dull cheeses including, inexplicably, some award-winners. Where were the shining beacons of the cheese retail world like Neal's Yard, La Fromagerie and The Fine Cheese Company in Bath or the exciting, newly-founded Pong Cheese? Not at Cardiff.
I suspect like many things it's down to funding and Harbutt needs more big money sponsorship and support from the industry if this festival is to regain its position as the ultimate showcase for British cheese. Let me make a few suggestions:
* More big names. Yup, sad to say it's celebs that pull in the punters so let's have a cookery theatre with TV chefs and cookery writers cooking up cheese-based recipes. That applies to the other workshops too - more tastings of cheese with beer, wine, cider and other drinks from well-known experts.
* Insist that the takeaway food stands are cheese-based. (Can't be that hard for goodness sake - really good cheese sandwiches, toasties, pasties, baked potatoes with cheesy toppings, macaroni cheese . . . )
* Have a minimum of two free cheese tents one of which has stands where you can try different styles of cheese (the M & S-sponsored Hall of Champions made a fair attempt at this but it was ticketed and only open to around 50 people at a time)
* A cheese cookery school for kids (there were a lot there) with a competition for the best cheese salad or sarnie
* If money is scarce - and it may be - make it every other year - alternating with Slow Food Cheese
* and I hesitate to suggest this, consider changing the venue back to central England to make it more accessible (it used to be held in the Cotswolds) or at the very least change the date so that it doesn't follow the week after Abergavenny. It can't make sense to hold two Welsh food festivals within such a short period.
End of rant. Did you go? Is this assessment fair? What would you like to see from a British cheese festival?