Only the Brits could come up with something like this.
This past August, Whistler hosted the ninth annual Great Canadian Cheese Rolling Festival. It is based on the historic original event, which has taken place for over 200 years on Cooper’s Hill in the quaint countryside near Gloucestershire, England.
There is something so delightfully insane about dozens of lads and lasses literally falling over each other down a hill—all after a piece of cheese. But that’s the name of this game.
The rules are simple: when the horn shrieks, run down the hill as fast as you can. (This is done in heats to give everyone a fair chance, so about 12 people run at once.) There is no need to catch the cheese; in fact, it’s never been done. To be the winner, all you have to do is make it to the bottom first—it doesn’t matter if you roll the whole way. And yes, the winner gets the 11-pound round of cheese.
The Whistler festival’s prize is a 100 per cent Canadian cheese made with Canadian milk, donated by Courtenay’s Natural Pastures. An award-winning aged cheddar, the product is loaded with rich flavour and lingering sweetness, representing the terroir of the Comox Valley. The winner also walks away with two seasons passes to Whistler Blackcomb, but who needs that when you’ve got 11 pounds of aged goodness?
At the 2016 event, Just for Laughs comedian Ivan Decker charmed the crowds with cheesy jokes and announced the arrival of each round. It was one of the hottest days of August, yet while festivalgoers’ foreheads beaded with sweat, all the vendors’ delicacies were fresh as a newborn dairy cow. The endless samples provided a delicious distraction to the lulls in between each heat.
While competitors in the British version forgo all safety gear, we Canadians prefer a little cushioning—helmets, elbow pads, and shin pads were provided for all willing to brave the hill. There were no major injuries last year, but plenty of crushed ankles and red rashes of grass burn as competitors crashed into the bottom. To help with this, every finish line requires “cheese blockers”: sturdy folks with padded shields to stop the racers’ momentum. While they may look like shaggy ski bums and mountain bikers plucked from Garfinkel’s pub with the promise of some free dairy products, make no mistake: these are the unsung heroes of cheese rolling. If no one were to stand at the bottom, competitors wouldn’t be able to stop in time, and would slam directly into the bales of hay, taking down a CBC cameraman with them.
In the end, two cheese champions were crowned: Mike MacDonald from Summerland, and Laura Chipman from Bainbridge Island, Washington. Dairy Farmers of Canada’s Sandra Da Silva was thrilled with the turnout. “The festival always has such a great air about it,” she says. Even though the rolling is a competition, the bottom line is to have fun and let the cheese-makers show off their pride and joy. Da Silva notes that the festival is a great combination of a British Columbian’s two loves: adventure and good food.
If running down a hellishly steep hill after a massive piece of cheddar isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other activities during the festival, including potato sack races, costume contests, uphill dodge ball, and even a seminar on wine and cheese.
During one of his sessions, chef David Beaudoin reminded everyone why they were there. Whether you’re chasing cheddar down an incline or eating an expensive blue in a fancy restaurant, this food seems to have bonding powers: “Get together, eat cheese, drink wine, and talk about life—this is what it’s all about.”