Most agree that the French are the world's biggest food fanatics: with their white truffles, vintage champagne, lexicon of sauces, fondness for offal meats and coveted star rating system for restaurants --which sometimes involves bribes, death threats and hostages (and that's just figuring out who the judges will be).

Recently though, the British have been catching up with the food mania which has meant a big leap forward. Prior to top toques like Gordon Ramsey, Britain's national dish consisted of unseasoned limp fish, fried in barely hot oil and served in greasy newspapers.

In addition to beer, the Brits are really fond of two things: peas and cheese. Cheddar cheese, to be precise. Some of the toniest events on the British social calendar include award ceremonies pinning metals on cheese (delicately). Aged cheddar cheese is a beloved commodity. This year 904 cheeses from 181 makers were entered into the British Cheese Awards, almost twice the amount that were entered in 1998 when I was living and working in London, That year, I remember the news that was splashed across the front page of every newspaper announcing that right before the annual British Cheese Awards, a thief ran off with the cheese: 5 tons of aged cheddar.

It seems that in the dark of night, a huge rig backed up to a cheese barn in North Cadbury and quietly loaded up hundred of cheesecloth covered wheels of the one cheese that everyone had laid odds was a shoo-in for the gold metal.


This heist happened 150 miles west of London --an idyllic, verdant setting of mooing heifers, killer dart games, and the famous ploughman's lunch --now sans cheese. This crime was not some shot in the dark --it seems the culprits knew exactly which cheese they were nabbing. They didn't settle for some inferior curd, but picked their way through tons of lesser cheddars in storage to grab the gold medal stuff. The loss is valued at 50,000 pounds (quid) and heartbroken at the thought of the cheddar-less winter that stretches out before him, Jamie Montgomery, the owner of the farm had offered a 3,000 (quid) reward.

The usual suspects being rounded up are those trafficking in stolen goods (or anyone with a huge refrigerator). Juliet Harbutt, the founder of the award's board said, "This is espionage in the highest order." The cheese maker's mother is leaving no cheese wheel unturned and has spent two days on the telephone warning local pubs and restaurants not to buy cheddar from any dubious characters (or anyone procuring cheddar from under their trench coat). She's asking that folks call authorities to report any suspicious cheese.

When a London newspaper went out to the farm to photographer the crime scene and collect information about the reward, the sullen-faced owners posed beside the only remaining cheese wheel that lay safe in their cupboard. But, just as the camera shutter closed, in this case, no one had the heart to say, "cheese."