Cheese please…

If ever I had a weakness it is for cheese.  As a lad I always had a weakness for good old-fashioned cheese on toast and the Edam my mother bought (because it was cheap.)  In my teens I discovered Sage Derby and the “sharp Cheshire” from Stockport market, Lancashire, even Camembert, then many more and it developed from there.

By tradition, every Christmas I buy  a load of great cheese.  This year austerity will kick in and I’ll reduce the overhead on yellow fatty treats, but in times past I’ve spent over £100 on cheeses. They will typically include some traditional Montgomery or Quickes or Keen’s cheddar (light years ahead of the blocks of soap in supermarkets that are labelled as “cheddar“), some superb mature Stilton (see here for more information about Stilton) and a range of other British and continental cheeses, often from online retailers like the Teddington Cheese Company, The Fine Cheese Co, or others.

And if I want a real treat I go and see my cheese in the flesh to pick the most appealing out of thousands on display at Neal’s Yard Dairy or the estimable Paxton & Whitfield on Jermyn Street, both in London.  The pictures you see below were all taken at these two splendid shops, both of which I would heartily recommend to anyone who appreciates gastronomy.  Apart from suggesting which cheese go well with your planned meal, which accompaniments you should try, they will also take into account the day you plan to eat the cheese and give you pieces that will have ripened to perfection ready to serve.  Bliss, and luckily nothing remotely like the Monty Python cheese shop where the only thing not available is cheese!

Cheese is such a versatile product for both cooking and eating, though sadly one on occasions swamped by bureaucracy.  There was time when it looked like cheeses made from unpasteurised milk would go the way of the dinosaurs, though thankfully that threat seems to have receded and been replaced by recommendations that such delicacies are not eaten by the very young, the very old, the infirm or pregnant ladies.

It would be a great shame, given how the farmhouse craft of making such beautiful cheeses has survived for centuries and given us a wealth of colours, flavours and textures, and worlds apart from the days when menus offered a generic substance called “cheese,” many of which were the end product of an industrial process rather than an artisan craft, and bore no relation whatever to the real thing.

Remember the “Ploughman’s Lunch”, that marketing invention used from the 60s to sell lumps of inferior cheddar?  Thankfully even that has grown up as consumers have become more discerning in our selection of cheeses, though I have yet to see anywhere remotely like the Royal Oak pub in Didsbury, Manchester, where you could and probably still can buy the most amazing lunchtime platters of cheese, pate, bread and pickles, chosen from a vast selection, and to which customers would come from many miles just to sample a generous plate of cheeses, washed down with decent ale.

Typically, you will find your cheeses divided into hard, soft, blue and washed rind (semi-soft), and/or into those made from cow’s, goat’s or ewe’s milk.  Within each category you will find examples from most European countries, and in some cases further still.  The Chinese and other Far Eastern nationalities may not yet have developed a taste for dairy products, but who knows?  Maybe in due course they will too!

In the past, it’s been easy to reject American cheeses just as we reject American beers, possibly because the only examples we see are those made by industrial food processors, but I well remember being at Pike Place in Seattle and seeing genuine artisan cheese being made in the window of the shop where they were sold.  That’s really the point about craft and cottage industries – they make small-scale products which are often available only locally, and would not naturally be shipped across the world.  Wisconsin cheese is probably the best-known Cheddar-style cheese made over there, the website for which provides some interesting statistics about American cheese consumption.

European production for the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication ( PGI) may well have helped the fame of some products to spread and to be available for purchase well beyond their locality, but in the case of cheese we’ve always had a strong association with nations.  For example, France, home to thousands of amazing cheeses, will always be associated in the minds of Brits with Camembert and Brie, the Netherlands with Edam and Gouda, Switzerland with Gruyere and Emmenthal, and so on, even if these are barely scratching the surface.  Even the UK has 700-odd cheeses, and new variants are being created all the time.

For the eating part, we have whole industries geared to accessorising cheese, from boards and knives, crackers of various sorts (personally I love charcoal crackers, if you’ve never had them give them a whirl!), chutneys and more besides.  But the area in which we under-exploit the value of cheeses is in cooking.  Sure, we do cheese on toast, or in its more sophisticated form Welsh Rarebit, cauliflower and/or macaroni cheese; we top our lasagnes with cheese sauce and grate some more on the top, and we pour or grate parmesan on our bolognaise, but how much more do we use the many virtues of cheese? Where do you see most cheese in our cooking now?  Probably ricotta as part of the filling to pasta like ravioli, with fried brie and baked camembert coming up on the rails!

Granted there was a time, largely in the 60s, when fondues were fashionable.  I went through a spell of cooking fondues in the early 90s, usually a mix of Gruyere (lovely & nutty), Emmenthal or Jarlsberg (for their sweetness) and some Cheddar, plus white wine or dry cider.  Cooked in the fondu pot, it was served with crusty bread and crudités (carrot, apple etc.) to scoop up the molten bubbling cheese mixture.  Very unhealthy I’m sure, but always a joy to eat!

Actually, there are many more ways to cook cheese than we often realise.  Try a few more – you may be surprised and delighted!  Try here for a couple of examples.  How about Raclette?  This is a semi-hard cheese which fits on to a grill assembly, enabling the cheese to be melted and scraped on to potatoes, ham and other ingredients, but while you can buy the cheese over here I’m not aware of any British person having used it for its primary purpose.

Perhaps we’re still learning?  We still haven’t worked our way around all the possibilities within goats’ cheese, let alone some of the more esoteric varieties available.  Sadly, we allow the fear of robust flavours to dominate and never find the joys of any but generally mild and mellow cheeses, or worse still industrial imitations of true cheese.  The British consumer needs to take time, taste a few samples and develop a palate for the wonderful cheeses out there.  Why are we scared of extending our repertoire?


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