Monday, 6 November 2017

A giant cheeseboard

Cheese is certainly worth celebrating, and the London borough of Greenwich will be doing exactly that when it hosts a giant cheeseboard this December.

I must admit that the idea of an "immersive cheeseboard" doesn't appeal to me - it sounds like an opportunity to be drowned in whey or smothered by fromage blanc! - but a massive celebration of cheese from across Europe certainly does. Centrepiece will be a huge backed Camembert (the only way I like that particular cheese), with artisan cheesemakers offering samples of their wares. Tickets are £30 - but include free cheese, biscuits, and mulled wine.

(The French part of me wonders about that mulled wine... not really the ideal accompaniment for most cheeses. One would normally prefer a slightly acidic Alsace wine or perhaps a dry rosé... though as Serious Eats points out, ideally you'd want to match a particular wine to a particular cheese. Difficult in the case of the giant cheeseboard!)

There are four sessions of the Giant Cheeseboard, on 16th, 17th and 23rd December 2017, and despite my slight misgivings, it actually sounds rather fun. If you're in London in the run-up to Christmas, it could be an unusual way to celebrate the winter season.

Update 18 December 2017

According to the Guardian, things haven't gone entirely according to plan.  Certainly the photos in the article look more like Abigail's Party than 'immersive cheeseboard'.

I regularly (though not this year, alas) help with catering for about 60 people at a Morris dancing and folk music event. That might not be everyone's cup of tea, but Morris dancers and melodeon players have the same appetite as everyone else. What really strikes me is that the photos from the Giant Cheeseboard look uncannily similar to what I and various other helpers put out for the village hall supper on Saturday night.

I would not consider my 'cheeseboard' to be giant, gourmet, artisan, or any other amazingballs verbiage. It consists of a few Aldi or Waitrose cheeses chopped into bits and put on a tin tray.

If I'd paid thirty quid or more for it, I think I'd be disappointed.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Bread and French history - a digression

A lot of the cheese I write about is French, and there's a particular French food culture which I've begun to understand as I research it. It's not about haute cuisine - though France has its fair share of Michelin stars - it's about having high expectations for everyday food, for the food of the common people. While Britain has a huge dichotomy between the supermarket pizza and the foodie culture of nouveau street food and snail porridge, in France every school serves four course lunches and many of them now promote local food and organic produce in the canteen.

So: the place of bread in French history. No bread, no Revolution, no Rights of Man.

As every Englishman knows, Marie Antoinette said 'Let them eat cake'. Actually, what she said is qu'ils mangent la brioche, which is not quite such a wild non-sequitur as most boulangers will still sell you a brioche loaf... at a price. The better translation would probably be 'Why don't they get the artisan-made sourdough wholemeal loaf with added chia seeds?' And apparently it may not have been the unloved Austrian who uttered the memorable words in any case.

However you translate it, though, one of the reasons for the Revolution was a rising bread price together with static wages. Bread was a staple - the main item in the diet of most working people - not a luxury, and it was rapidly becoming unaffordable.

Following the Revolution, many privileges previously afforded only to the nobility were thrown open to all. The end of feudalism was not gradual and partial, as in some states (for instance Britain), but complete and sudden. And one of the aspects of that change was that instead of the landowner having a bread oven, and charging people to bake bread in it, a village could have its own oven for all to share. (A link in French on the four banal - that's banal as in 'ban' - has pictures of a couple of communal ovens here.)

The other big food change that came with the Revolution was the throwing open of the hunt. So while 'hunting' in Britain means toffs with red coats after a fox, or a huge pheasant shoot for a bunch of merchant bankers, in France 'hunting' means what your neighbour does on Saturday morning instead of going to the supermarket, and is likely to involve putting meat on the table for Sunday lunch.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

In Praise of Stilton

I spent much of my time in a country with 365 types of cheese. And yet every Christmas I spend here, there's one cheese that I want, and it's not French: it's Stilton.
Look at that marvellous texture, and the way the 'blue' is almost black. Superb.

France has many blue cheeses, but none of them are quite the same as Stilton. Roquefort is creamier, slushier; it oozes on to the plate, it doesn't have the crumbly, dry texture of a good Stilton. Fourme d'Ambert is too unctuous. (And don't get me on to the monstrosities known as 'blue Brie' - nothing to do with real Brie - and 'Danish blue', an acrid nastiness added to a base of what seems to be Kraft processed cheese. Ugh.)

Stilton mixes the edginess of a good mature Cheddar with the sharpness of the blue. It's punchy, with a certain nuttiness to the flavour as well as a good salty tang, and a really good Stilton will have a nice tartness to it as well. Getting all those tastes to work together, without one overpowering the others, isn't easy, but the result is wonderful.

When you smell Stilton, your nose should prickle. There's something of the stable or the farmyard in that aroma, and behind it, there's a hint of cream and richness. Again, different and indeed mutually contradictory aromas work together to create something complex and unmistakably good.

And unusually, indeed uniquely, for an English cheese, Stilton is geographically protected. The milk must be produced and the cheese must be made within a specified area of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, and must also be made according to a specific recipe and ageing procedure. (More on this at Gourmet Cheese Detective.)

I love my Christmas Stilton. It keeps for the whole twelve days of Christmas, and indeed longer, and when we get nearly to the end of it, I make potted Stilton, mixing it up with butter and the heel end of a bottle of port. Some people add mustard, and Heston Blumenthal adds mascarpone, but I keep it simple - just butter and port. It's a great way to use up the little crumbs that try to escape, and it really doesn't need a recipe, just mash up roughly two to three parts of Stilton to one of butter and add enough port to make it easily spreadable (and alcoholic). Then stick it in the fridge and allegedly it'll last a month or more. I wouldn't know; it always disappears far more quickly than that.

Coming up to Christmas. The pudding is made, the cake is ready, the goose is ordered and the chocolate brownie recipe is at the ready. I have checked the cellar and all the bottles stand marshalled in their order. But I have a horrible feeling that I've forgotten something...

This year, darn it, I forgot to buy my Stilton.

Monday, 28 November 2016

A Cheese Advent Calendar!

When I was little, an advent calendar with a little picture behind each door was enough to delight me. Every day from 1st December to Christmas, I had a little door to open, and behind it, there would be something - a donkey, a cat, a little scene, a Christmas tree...

Later on I discovered the delights of chocolate advent calendars. And then, gin advent calendars.

Now someone's doing it with cheese! It's not available this year... but heck, why not do it yourself?

You'll need to think about having enough variety - hard cheese, soft cheese, blue cheese, creamy cheese... And then, while December 1st might be a fresh goat's milk cheese, the cheeses towards the tail end of Advent need to be older - a manchego, mimolette, or aged comté, perhaps - or cheeses that can mature nicely while your calendar is on the wall - an Epoisses, Livarot, or Stinking Bishop.

Anyway, whether you decide to follow this zany idea or simply go out and buy a selection of delectable cheeses, may I wish you

a very happy Cheesemas!

Monday, 25 July 2016

Understanding the French: Cheese buying

I was down in Berry last weekend and we popped into La Chatre for the market.  A local cheese maker had a stand there - a chap from Beddes, about 20km away, selling goat's cheese.

Very simple. All the cheese was the same, from the same goats (beautifully shown on the signboard). You had a couple of choices; ash-rolled or not, pyramid or log.

But this being France, of course, there was a third choice: fresh, aged, completely dry.

And this being France, that meant each customer entertained a negotiation along the lines of: I want it about two weeks old. You haven't got that? Er... well if I get it a bit younger, I'll be having friends round next week, will it age by then? or.... What's the freshest you've got?

Then the vendor would look around his cheeses and fish one out for approval. But more likely than not, the first one would be too old, or too fresh, or too big, or not quite what was wanted... and so a second cheese would be prodded forwards, and that one would be approved of, and wrapped in its paper, and priced up.

So the queue, although it wasn't very long, proceeded rather slowly. But I think I learned several lessons about the French along the way.
  • Being choosy about your food isn't an upper class thing or a foodie thing. It's normal. This is not a posh stand in any way; it's the regular cheese guy.
  • Transactions aren't simple (other than buying a baguette). Specifying what you want involves a little dance with the vendor, a little to-and-fro that takes time, but gives a certain seriousness to the purchase.
  • Cheese isn't a simple commodity. It's a complex purchase - even when all the cheeses are the same.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

The experience of French cheese shopping

A lovely post on the Chocolate and Zucchini food blog which I follow takes us through the experience of buying cheese in a Paris fromagerie, and how to make the most of what's available.

I was particularly glad to see section three - 'seasonality'. (Plus a French translation for "What's good right now?")

That's an important aspect of the world of French cheese that those who haven't lived in France often miss. And thereby hangs a tale...

Every year, there's a moment in Autumn that I look forward to the way others look forward to the announcement that "Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé". It's the arrival of the Mont d'Or cheese in its little wooden box, puffed up in its box almost like a soufflé and with its soft slightly yellowing brown to orange crust looking almost as if it has been scattered with powdery snow.

The first time my knife sinks into the cheese. Will it be oozing and melting, or slightly firm, this time? Waiting for the first sniff of cream and lemons and slight gaminess and that tinge of pine that comes from the bark wrapping. Waiting for that unctuous feeling in the mouth, the way the cheese melts on the tongue, sticky for a moment, and then flowing, and then, too soon, gone and leaving only that piny savour behind it.

It's amazing that a cheese can be so creamy and yet so fresh. It's amazing that such a large cheese is gone so quickly...

And it's amazing that we seem already to have collected a half dozen of the little round boxes, which I have no idea at all what to do with.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Cheese in supermarkets

Normally I'd wax lyrical about the delights of buying cheese from a pungent stall on a French market, or from specialists like the delightful people at Truckle Cheese who made my day at GBBF with a superb platter and friendly chat (and really excellent chutney).

But let's be realistic; most people do most of their shopping at a supermarket. Nowadays thank goodness that needn't mean ten kinds of plastic supermarket 'cheddar' and a double Gloucester that tastes like cheddar with orange colouring added.

It could mean Waitrose, which has just won the Bel Trophy at the International Cheese Awards. That's given to the retailer getting the most awards for its own line of cheeses - Waitrose for instance won classes with its farmhouse cheddar, goat's milk gouda, and Cropwell Bishop white stilton - and also for a blue vein French cheese, Lancashire, Parmesan and Gruyere.

Why Waitrose?
  • Waitrose is willing to work with smaller producers and to bring more interesting cheeses into the line-up.
  • Waitrose has quite a 'foodie' customer base. Some other supermarkets might find that goat's cheese, for instance, doesn't sell particularly well.
  • Being cynical about the way the awards system stacks up, Waitrose therefore has a great chance of winning classes for slightly unusual cheeses while Asda, perhaps, doesn't. (I shouldn't be too cynical: to win the highly competitive Farmhouse Cheddar class is not easy for anyone. And 26 awards from 77 categories is rather striking. By comparison, M&S got a bare handful of trophies.)
  • Waitrose also has a brand that is seen as a mark of quality. A cheese producer who might be a bit sniffy about working with Asda will be happy to collaborate with Waitrose.
But it's worth noting that Waitrose wasn't the only retailer to win awards.  Asda got two - cheddar cheese retailer of the year and healthy cheese retailer of the year - while Morrisons won the cheese board retailer trophy, and the Co-Op won speciality cheese retailer.  And Tesco romped home in quite a few classes, with a really good haul of trophies for individual cheeses.

Only one major chain was conspicuously absent from the awards. Sainsbury's won nothing. It got a single silver ("Any other blue vein cheese - produced outside UK") and a very highly commended. It's not obvious what's going on there, but I think I shall be steering clear of their products.

Now then, what's wrong with the awards? Well, obviously, they do nothing for the independent retailer. It's a pity - because they do support independent producers. It's a real pity there's not a class for small shops, though it might be difficult to tuck into the existing format.

In the meantime, it's nice to see that the quality of supermarket cheese is being inspected, assessed, and, one hopes, improved.