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Cheese (and People) Keep on Rollin’

It turns out the cheese can be an extreme sport. In Gloucester, England, people participate in cheese rolling races every year. Participants chase a wheel of double Gloucester down the dangerously steep Cooper’s Hill. If you win first place, you win the wheel of cheese. Otherwise, you simply earn the pleasure of somersaulting down a hill. The event in 2014 boasted about 5,000 spectators. The videos of the event are undeniably hilarious and terrifying. But why in the world does cheese rolling exist?

The History

Turns out, cheese rolling goes back hundreds of years. The first written evidence can be found in a message to the Gloucester Town Crier in 1825, but this written piece clearly indicates that the event was already a tradition at that point.

The most common explanation for the tradition of cheese rolling traces its roots back to pagan customs. Allegedly, pagans would roll bundles of burning brush down a hill to represent the birth of the new year. They would have also scattered buns or cakes across the top of the hill as a sort of fertility rite, in an effort to bring in a good harvest.

At some point, these two traditions combined and morphed so that the brushwood and sweets became cheese.

The Event

Cooper’s Hill has an incredibly steep gradient, which makes it virtually impossible to run down without falling over. In videos of races you’ll sometimes see competitors somersault a few times and then bounce back to their feet, only to fall over again. The organizers do take some safety precautions, removing fences that normally line the hill, cutting and flattening undergrowth, and removing stones or other hazardous objects leading up the race.

Races are done in groups of 15 competitors and split into men’s and women’s races. You have to be at least 18 years old to compete. (Kids have an uphill version where they race up a smaller hill to win a smaller wheel of cheese.) A team of medics is onsite to treat injuries—and inevitable hospital visits—and a team of rugby players lines the bottom of the hill to catch competitors as they tumble across the finish line. ESPN covered the event in 2009.

The Cheese

Since 1988, the cheese for the event has been provided by cheesemaker Diana Smart, the only cheesemaker in Gloucester who still makes her Double Gloucester cheeses by hand and following traditional methods. Double Gloucester is a firm cow’s cheese traditionally made in the UK. The milk used for Double Gloucester is whole milk, opposed to the Single Gloucester which uses partially skimmed milk and is lower in fat. The wheels for the event are between 7 and 8 pounds, with a dense texture and a tough rind. The winner of the cheese roll is treated to a balanced cheese with notes of earth, smoke, and bacon.

Because an 8-pound wheel of cheese can do some serious damage, a foam version is rolled down the hill, but the actual cheese is presented to the winner at the finish line.

The event at Cooper’s Hill is the most famous but has inspired a similar event in Eltham, New Zealand. The event in New Zealand is Saturday, April 4. The Cooper’s Hill event this year will take place on Monday, May 25. Still enough time to get a ticket!

Watch this video from 2009:

This video from 2012:

Feature Photo Credit: Dave Farrance

Gabrielle Roman

Gabrielle Roman is earning her Master's in Publishing and Writing at Emerson College in Boston. She is originally from Kansas City and misses the BBQ but the Thai food is good consolation. Her favorite hobby is cuddling with her puppy.

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