Believe it or not, last Friday’s Stonehenge hippy-fest marked the mid-point of summer. By now, we should have been frolicking in the sun for a good three months. In true British fashion, our shoulders should be criss-crossed with tan-lines and our feet all hobbit-hard from flip-flops. Myself, I haven’t taken my parka off since last September but every now and then the sun peeks out and I live in hope that warmer weather is on its way.
To many people summer cheese means feta in a salad and picking bits of scorched halloumi off the barbeque but what makes a good summer cheese? And – let’s get greedy – a good summer cheeseboard? I’ve learned that the basis of a good cheeseboard is three to five cheeses and a mixture of animals, texture and interest. And if all else fails, you can do worse than follow the rhyming advice of Blessed are the Cheesemakers: something old, something new, something goat and something blue.
But for the choice of cheeses, I turned to the professionals and asked several cheesemongers what they would put on their summer cheeseboard. And, of course, I asked them the most important question of all: grapes on a cheeseboard, yay or nay? I’m quite partial to a grape or two but have recently discovered that this seems to be akin to smacking a bit blob of HP Sauce right into the middle of your Fat Duck Snail Porridge.
Sally Houben from the British Cheese Emporium promotes British cheeses in Germany. She sees summer as a chance to bring out some fresh and citrusy goat and sheep cheeses. Sharpham’s Ticklemore, a goat’s milk cheese from Devon with an ‘undulating velvety white rind and fresh-tasting paste’, is a must-have. On the sheep side, it’s a ‘nice wedge of fruity, sharp Berkswell’, an unpasteurised ewe’s milk cheese made in the West Midlands. The cows have their moment in the sun with Appleby’s Cheshire, especially where ‘the summer milk flavours will be coming through the paste a treat, salty-sweet, chewy and nutty, especially with a little accidental vein of blue.’ The blues are fully represented by the Caws Cenarth’s Perl Las whose ‘calm, yet complex flavours seem to overcome even the most fervent anti-blue palette.’ It’s hard for Sally to get hold of Mary’s Holbrook’s ash-covered goat’s cheese Tymsboro and she’s frothing at the mouth at the thought of it: ‘At about a month old, it’s vaguely citrusy and reminds me of hedgerows. I wouldn’t have to follow social etiquette and cut its pyramid surfaces properly into wedges because I’d eat it all myself.’
Alas, Sally politely refused the grapes with a ‘Nein, danke.’ For her, it’s all about figs – ‘Simply pick and wash!’
Julian Merritt from Love Cheese in York also plumped for some goat and sheep action on his cheeseboard. He chose Swaledale Ewe, a hard sheep’s milk cheese with a ‘gorgeous taste’, made in the Yorkshire Dales to a recipe first brought to the area by Cistercian monks in the eleventh century. This was joined by Haldenby Blue, a ‘seriously soft’ blue goat’s cheese from Lowna Dairy in East Yorkshire. Another blue joined the table in the form of Harrogate Blue, a new cheese from North Yorkshire producers Shepherd’s Purse; ‘sunset orange in colour’, it’s a soft and creamy cheese, reportedly made from the milk of ‘classy Yorkshire cows’! Smoked Gubeen is a rind-washed semi-soft cow’s milk cheese from Ireland, gently smoked in the farm’s own smokehouse. And Julian’s final choice is St Eadburgha, an organic soft cow’s milk cheese from the Cotswolds with the ‘ultimate runny texture’.
And the all-important grape question? A man after my own heart, it’s a ‘yes’ from Julian and ‘as a rule the darker the better…purple to black are good!’
Debbie Priestley from the West Country Cheese Company in Barnstaple deftly swerved the grape question but was forgiven by her dedication to the summer cheese cause. She warmed up by musing on ‘baby mozzarella, slow-roasted yellow tomatoes and basil’ smouldering on a beach campfire and Boiles (little goat’s cheeses in herbs and garlic) ‘on some thin, crisp, slightly-grilled bread to soak up the juices, perhaps with ‘a couple of blackened and sweet slow-roasted peppers.’ That would have been quite enough for me but then Debbie got down to cheeseboard business, choosing some Manchego, an aged sheep’s milk cheese which ‘goes superbly with a bit of apricot jam’ or a slab of Pecorino dolce ‘drizzled with some raw honey.’ A local choice for Debbie, Sharpham scores another hit with its ‘delicate’ Rustic Chives and Garlic, a semi-hard cheese made with Jersey cow’s milk. A chunk of Taw Valley Vintage Cheddar, ‘salty and creamy and crunchy’ bags another Devon spot on the board (apparently ‘with some pickled onions’). And finally the goats take their place with the Wiltshire-made Rosary Herb a ‘soft, spreadable, delicate, creamy soft cheese.’
Tony Chuck at Teddington Cheese doesn’t disappoint with the inclusion of Capria, an ‘unusual mould-ripened goat’s cheese’, made in Worcestershire and possessed of a ‘luxurious creamy texture and a rich goaty flavour.’ Crozier Blue, an Irish cheese, brings the ewe’s milk to the table with its ‘creamy texture and mildly sweet flavour’. Interestingly the taste is described as ‘biscuity’ and ‘not unlike cream crackers’ which makes it sound like somewhat of a camouflage cheese! An Oxford Isis makes for an interesting choice, rind-washed in honey mead for a stinky, sweet flavour. For the ‘something old’, a vintage Lincolnshire Poacher, matured for three years, has a ‘deep, complex flavour with a smooth, lingering aftertaste and a hint of sweetness.’ And finally, Tony adds a Wigmore (sister cheese to last Fromage Friday’s Spenwood). A ewe’s milk cheese produced in Berkshire, its ‘delicate white rind hides a creamy, voluptuous sweet interior.’
Unfortunately the votes are not going well for grapes by now. Tony tells me that ‘We are a no but fresh apples or figs always work well.’
Weather forecasters predict a spell of warm weather on the way. The only problem will be trying to decide which cheeses to try (twenty cheeses is a bit greedy by anyone’s standards). A nice slate cheeseboard, a glass or two of wine and a
big bunch of grapes handful of figs and apples. Perfect.