When I started this cheese adventure back in May, hoping to educate myself in all things cheesy, I envisaged myself scoffing back stinky French wedges and holey Swiss slices in my quest for fromage knowledge. Guzzling Gorgonzola, snaffling Saint-Marcellin and pigging out on Parmesan were all part of the plan. Then I read a bit more and was determined to try Norwegian Brown Cheese (Gjetost), Sardinian Maggot’s Cheese (Casu Marzu) and Mauritanian Camel’s Cheese (Caravane). But something rather unexpected happened along the way.
I fell in love with British cheese.
I didn’t mean it to happen. I know it’s like the equivalent of planning to backpack round the world and then getting off with Tony from Halifax at Heathrow Airport and taking him back home to meet your mum. But I couldn’t help it. I’ve tried to wean myself off it, to get back on the plane. I’ve eaten Reypenaer and Rocamadour, Pont l’Evêque and Provolone. But it’s no use. I’m hooked on the home-grown stuff.
But I’m a bit cross too, cross that we haven’t been introduced before. How did I get to my advanced age without knowing how much of the stuff there is? There are more than seven hundred varieties of British cheese. Seven hundred! Rumour has it that even the fromage-fancying French can’t muster that many. If I ate a new cheese everyday it would take me two years…but then there would be some new varieties…so I’d keep eating…and then they would have invented some more…and before I know it, the front of my house is being sawn off by the fire brigade, so they can winch me out of the house.
But before Channel Four get excited at the thought of ‘The Big Fat Fifty-Stone Cheese-Eating Woman’, I’ve discovered that I don’t want to gorge myself. Firstly, because like anything else, you get fed up of the stuff. But mainly because I’ve found out how damn good British cheese is. Cheshire, Caerphilly and Red Leicester all used to be dirty words in our house. They were nasty cheeses, dry and crumbly or over-processed and slimy. But in the last four months I’ve discovered Cheshire that melts in the mouth, creamy Caerphilly with a rainbow of flavours and Red Leicester as good as any aged Gouda. I’ve found goat’s cheese to suit all tastes, from light and lemony to eau de buck’s balls. Sheep’s cheese that would make you swear never to buy Pecorino or Roquefort again. Blue cheese that tickles your taste buds – and blue cheese that makes your eyeballs sting. Reader, I have been amazed.
I’ve found out that there’s Feta in Yorkshire, Halloumi in Wales and Mozzarella in Hampshire. I now know that Shropshire Blue’s not from Shropshire and you can’t make Stilton in Stilton. I’ve discovered cheese-makers on remote Scottish islands and next door to Del Boy in Peckham. People who’ve packed in jobs as film editors and naval engineers, carpet fitters and corporate high-flyers to mess with some milk and see what happens. I’ve heard of Kentish cheese caves and cheese-makers in converted cow-sheds, cheese-rolling in Gloucestershire and a town-crier who’s still paid his bonus in cheese (I want that job).
I’m obsessed with the history of British cheese, the fact that some used to be blued with mouldy old boots or that they used to make dolphin-shaped cheese in Wiltshire. That Admiral Lord Nelson would woo the ladies with a cheesy wedge (so to speak) or that if you had a baby on the Isle of Man, it was your right to lie on a sheepskin eating cheese. I’ve heard murky stories of contraband cheese being sold under counters and cheese being eaten with a spoon so as to pick out the mites from the maggots. Of a king drafting in French monks to make him some decent cheese and a fishy tale about some West Country folk who tried to scoop the moon’s reflection out of a pond because they thought it was a cheese.
And the cheeses themselves tell stories – of the land and livestock that made them. From the salty Cheshire plains to the Sussex fields brimming with buttercups, the herby meadows of Lancashire to the heather-clad hills of Scotland, the mineral-rich Welsh valleys and the Irish coast lashed with saltwater, each imparts their flavour to the local cheeses. From nettles to seaweed, goose-grass to horseradish and hops to vine leaves, there’s a cheese that uses the flora of our lands. And of course – being British – there’s the quirky; marigolds, dock leaves and snails have all been used in cheese-making.
So, I’m smitten. There’s no point in pretending. British cheese and I are shacking up together. That’s not to say I won’t have the odd Italian nibble or flirt with something French and squidgy. But I’m mainly staying at home. I want to find out even more about British cheese and to make some headway into eating the 650 or so cheeses I’ve yet to try. And I’m going to challenge myself to cook with as much British cheese as possible and post the recipes here. If you’ve got a great British cheese recipe, come along and share it; there’s plenty of British cheese love to go round and if we don’t all use it, we’ll lose it.
And, yes, I should probably change the name of my blog to something a bit more Blighty-ish really. But ‘Cheese Ode’ just doesn’t seem to have the same ring to it somehow…