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.