A whiff of very ripe Stilton drifts down the stairs of the Adelphi pub in Leeds, where a large crowd has gathered outside the function room for the monthly Homage to Fromage, a popular food club that is spreading around the region. At the stroke of seven the doors are thrown open and the excited group of 90 guests piles in.
Large platters of cheese are laid out around the room like prize exhibits, along with baskets of bread, jars of pickle, grapes, celery and crackers. Everyone eyes it hungrily.
“You can look, but don’t approach the cheese,” warns Nick Copland, who together with Vickie Rogerson, organises the award-winning cheese club.
“Pace yourself, there’s no need to panic,” adds Vickie, as she hands out the plates. “There’s plenty of cheese.”
In fact there’s around 24 kilos of it, according to Nick. As the clock strikes 7.15pm, there’s a round of applause before the word we all want to hear is bellowed out: “Cheese!”
A stampede begins as everyone leaps up and runs towards the tables. There are even a few screams as people scramble to get in-line, using their elbows or their plates to defend their place.
But it’s all part of the fun. It’s plain to see that Yorkshire is a nation of cheese lovers. In fact Britain is now the big cheese in Europe with more varieties of cheese per head of population than any other country on the continent. There are 700 named British cheeses, according to the British Cheese Board.
“France just about tops it but we do have some of the best cheese in the world,” adds Nick. And Homage to Fromage is now on a roll, with a new branch in Sheffield and another in the pipeline for Manchester. They’re part of a growing trend of food appreciation societies springing up across the region.
The Clandestine Cake Club was one of the first food clubs in Leeds and has risen to a network of 1,500 worldwide. There’s also a pudding club and various secret supper clubs around the city.
Says Vickie: “There are two types of food club, the sort where you go and everyone takes food so it’s all about the sharing and then there’s ours which is more about showcasing products and then sharing the story behind them.”
Nick and Vickie both work in food marketing, but didn’t know each other until they started chatting about cheese on social media. Homage to Fromage started in 2011 with just 15 guests and has grown into a thriving society. Membership costs £10 a year and includes a discount card for delis and cheese shops around Yorkshire. Non-members pay £10 for the monthly events.
“We don’t run it as a business,” says Vickie. “We do it because we love it.
“All the money we get from ticket sales pretty much goes into the cheese and the accompaniments and anything else on marketing and support.”
It’s this down to earth unpretentiousness that has earned them the Best Supper Club title at Leeds Food and Drink Awards earlier this month.
”It’s nothing like the old-fashioned cheese and wine evening with someone telling you what’s it’s going to taste like before you try it and which wine to drink with it,” adds Nick. “Though there are very strict rules to cheese club,” he adds. “We get everyone in and you can look but you can’t touch to start with. People go round and look and photograph the cheese, they love to see the whole thing. No-one is allowed to touch the cheese until I shout ‘cheese!”
As soon as the word goes out some manage to pile up a whole cheese counter on their plates, others are less avaricious. A little like a blind tasting, the cheeses are numbered, but not named.
There’s always a theme but the identity of each cheese is kept secret until all is revealed around 8pm when Nick and Vickie stand up and talk about each cheese.
“People can try things they’re not quite sure about and it’s also a little bit of a guessing game,” says Vickie.
“People get their cheeses and talk about what they like and don’t like. Our philosophy is very much that we are just cheese enthusiasts, we’re not necessarily experts and we love the cheese that we have here as much as everyone else does and we get excited about it too. We want people not to love everything that we put on, but to have a discussion about it and talk to their friends. It’s a personal thing whether you like something or not.”
Homage to Fromage has bloomed into a sell-out club with regulars travelling far and wide. Matt Broom, a charity worker from Leeds, says: “This is my third one. It’s great. People are really friendly and you get to try cheeses you’ve never even heard of. We love the lack of formality, it’s not like a cheese and wine night.”
Another regular, Natalie Thomas, 26, has brought all her housemates from York.
“I think a lot of people when they think of a cheese club, tend to think it is a bit posh, but actually it’s really relaxed and it teaches you about cheese.”
The December meeting includes a presentation by Sloemotion, a North Yorkshire company which makes gin and port from hedgerow fruit. In the end though, it is all about the cheese. Vickie confesses: ”I collect cheese, I just buy it everywhere and I end up with loads of little bits of things in my fridge. I’d never get bored of eating cheese.”