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.