Monday, 8 October 2012


Abondance is a cheese I always associate with autumn, though it's available from July through to Christmas;  it's a fairly youthful cheese, with a maturation period of only 90 days, made in Savoy, near the Swiss border. This is one of France's oldest cheeses, dating from the twelfth century when it was made by the monks of Sainte Marie de l'Abondance abbey; it was served to the Papal conclave that met in Avignon in 1381.It's been an AOC since 1990 (in fact, two AOCs, Abondance, and Abondance de Savoie - though both come from Haute-Savoie, though the distinction suggests otherwise).

It's nutty, reminiscent of hazelnuts to be precise, and slightly acidic - with a lemony edge to it - and creamy in taste; firm, slightly chalky in texture. The one I tasted this week I find slightly too young - the taste is at first almost imperceptible. You have to be patient, chewing and holding the cheese in your mouth without swallowing, to let those nutty, tart flavours come through (and they do). (It's a little like Comté or Beaufort, but I find it less grainy and dry than most Comtés.)

It's a holey as well as a holy cheese, but unlike, say, Emmenthal with its round, large, holes, tends to develop horizontal fissures. The consistency is quite hard, but still creamy; not chewy and glossy like Emmenthal, not quite as creamy as Saint-Nectaire, and chalkier than Comté.

Abondance comes in a small wedge, with a thin, orangeish rind; each disc of the cheese weighs about ten kilos, so you rarely see a whole cheese. Even on the cheese stall, I've never seen more than a half cheese - someone has always broken into the whole one before I arrive.

As well as eating the cheese raw, you can bake slices of Abondance in a ramekin rubbed with garlic, with a little wine or madeira drizzled over it, and some pepper and nutmeg, to make 'berthoud' - a sort of fondue. I look forward to trying it over the next few days.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Cheese of Ibiza

A recent stay on Formentera provided an opportunity to get to know some Ibiza cheese.

Apart from manchego, I've not been impressed by Spanish cheese - it's often rather undistinguished, a pretty plasticky texture and not a lot of taste. And it always seems to be wrapped in weapons-grade armour-plated thick plastic, which requires a heavy-duty knife to remove - any French cheesemaker would be appalled by the hermetic barrier which prevents the cheese ever becoming mature.

This Ibicenc cheese comes in the standard plastic integument, but it also comes in a number of varieties, the one I chose being encrusted with thyme leaves. (So at least that takes care of the flavour, I hope.)

The cheese is a mixture of sheep and goat milk (cabra e ovella - it's labelled in Catalan, not Spanish), slightly saltier than I'm used to with most cheeses. The texture is not particularly endearing - very firm, but not at all crumbly. And there's not a lot of aroma, nor creaminess in the taste. I'd have to say it's a five out of ten cheese.

The thyme is the making of it. It's very much a traditional flavour of the islands - wild thyme grows all over Formentera and Ibiza, its bushes forming huge mounds of purple when it flowers in the summer. It has a dryness that cuts into the saltiness of the cheese and really lifts the flavour. A slice of the cheese is good on its own - never mind bread or crackers.

I wonder if the cheese will be better with a bit of age... so I'm deliberately leaving it aside for a while, and I'll revisit it when it's had a chance to breathe.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Norfolk cheeses

A recent trip to Holt (and specifically, to the cheese section in Bakers and Larners) reacquainted me with Norfolk Dapple, a superb cheese made in Little Barningham. It's roughly similar to Cheddar in its texture, a dense cheese, with a rind that was turning just a little mouldy and pungent, and a mature tangy flavour and aroma. I imagine it would mature like a Manchego, to become transparent and chewy, but the Dapple I bought didn't last that long. It went well with a red onion marmalade.

Norfolk cheeses are all very different though. In France, the local traditions generally mean that there's a family resemblance between the cheeses of a region - though Normandy has separate AOCs you'll find that most of the cheeses have a creamy texture and are relatively soft and pungent. Camembert, Pont l'Eveque, Livarot, Neufchatel are all vaguely similar, though each has its own specific character. In England, there's no such tradition - cheesemakers have pretty much a blank sheet, particularly in a county with no great traditional cheese.

Binham Blue, for instance, is a quite different animal from Dapple - another cow's milk cheese, but a slightly squashy blue-veined cheese, quite tangy but also creamy in both texture and taste. This was an enjoyable cheese, not quite as soft as a Roquefort in texture, and with a pronounced tang, yet without any ammoniac nose.

Wighton Cheese comes from the same cheesemaker, near Wells next the Sea, and it's a much softer, fresher cheese, without too much creaminess and with a nicely delicate taste.

While the selection of Norfolk cheeses was good, it wasn't quite up to what we're used to in France - but the quality of the cheeses, I think, is up to the mark.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012


A wonderfully saggy, slumpy cheese this, cheesy cream oozing out at the bottom. It looks as if it has got tired and just given up on life.

But as the guy on the cheese stall told us, it's 'un fromage de caractere'. It combines a sweet creamy honey flavour with the smell of silage or manure; shocking.

I think any relationship with this cheese is a love-hate relationship. In this, it's a little like a really good old Belgian gueuze or red ale - you take a mouthful of Rodenbach or Boon or Duchesse de Bourgogne and for a moment your tongue tells you it's just vinegar, and you ask yourself whether beer is really meant to be like this, before the other flavours catch up and you realise you're drinking a classic. Duchesse is one of my favourite beers in the world and yet I still have that little moment of doubt, every time.

Love-hate. Not just love it or hate it, though no doubt some people will hate it, but love and hate; or at least, love coupled with a fearful respect.

Technically, it's a cheese neither pressed nor cooked, and with no rind, hence the marvellous slumpiness - the inside is chalky, the exterior actually verging on the liquid, at room temperature. It's from Burgundy, which has 'previous' for 'characterful' cheeses, in the form of Epoisses. And I'm told it's a traditional cheese that is on its last legs, as most local farmers now can't be bothered to make it, and sell their cheeses to industrial fromageries instead; which may be why a couple of web sites I've looked at mention Saint Florentin as being creamy, light, and suitable for desserts, which the cheese I have in front of me right now certainly is not.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

An excellent resource

When I'm drinking a new beer I like to taste it, if possible, unprejudiced; I don't look at the book beforehand. But afterwards, I like to make comparisons with other people's tastes, so beer advocate or pint picker are wonderful sites to visit - sometimes answering that question one so often asks oneself, "I know this aroma (or flavour), I'm sure it's.... it's.... it's on the tip of my tongue, but what is it?"

The world of cheese, unfortunately, doesn't seem to have any such sites. What's up there is very fragmented - and also shows up some major national differences, every time an American or Brit says that Brie, for instance, is "too goaty", "too strong," and "stinky". Which to anyone who lives in France and eats cheese is nonsense. Okay, Brie is stinkier than Kraft processed cheese slices - but what isn't?

However there is one very useful resource out there. Wikipedia is sometimes useful, but only in French - and even in the .fr version, some cheeses only get stubs (or ebauches, rather). So I go to Androuet's 'Cheeses of the world' to get my information. It must be good, as I've been eating and writing my way through French cheeses for a good while now and it still has names I've not heard before. In French, English, and a good few other languages, which is helpful.

It has a good search function - you can search by name, country, region (of France, so that's useful when we travel), mild to stinky (which they call 'characterful'), season, type of milk, or even the wine you want some cheese to go with.

And it's remarkably comprehensive, though I'm not sure they've road-tested every description (and they don't have Norfolk Dapple, which personally I think is one of the best English cheeses I've ever eaten). There are 495 French cheeses, 134 from the UK, and over 100 each frmo Spain and Italy. Alas, coverage in the Netherlands and Germany is skimpier, though they have 9 different Norwegian cheeses and yes, that includes Gjetost.

They even have two cheeses from Afghanistan. I think it's unlikely I'm going to taste either of those very soon.