I’ve been pondering when to write this post. Any piece of writing about autumn has to legally include the words ‘mists’ and ‘mellow fruitfulness’ but, although strictly speaking, autumn in the UK started last Sunday, I just haven’t been feeling it. It’s been too warm and not very misty, mellow or fruitful at all. Even the conkers aren’t ripe. But then, this morning, I saw this on my walk:
A dewy spider’s web in front of some browning acorns! Lo, it was a sign! I declare autumn officially open.
I never used to associate cheeses with particular seasons. Cheese is cheese, right? But now I know that some cheeses, such as some sheep and goat, are only available in the summer months and that the nuances of each cheese changes with the seasons, as the animals graze on fresh forage or fodder such as silage. And, of course, if you think about it, our tastes change too; just as on a hot day you’d pick a glass of sharp white over a flask of mulled wine or a salad over a full-on roast dinner, so too you’d probably want a lighter, fresher cheese rather than a meaty wheel of washed rind.
So what of autumn cheese? Well, as I did back at the start of summer, I asked some experts what they’d be putting on their cheeseboards at this time of year – and whether they’d be taking advantage of the season’s bounty with a gobbet of chutney on the side. So, if you’re looking for inspiration, look no further. And, as ever, you can always follow the advice of Blessed are the Cheesemakers: something old, something new, something goat and something blue.
Svetlana Kukharchuk from The Guid Cheese Shop in St Andrews starts with a north-of-the-border cheese, ‘Paddy’s Milestone, a soft bloomy rind cheese made from rich Ayrshire cow’s milk’ and declares it to have ‘a beautiful whipped texture with a creamy and mushroomy flavour.’ It’s named after the local’s name for a volcanic island in the Firth of Clyde because it’s shaped a bit like a rock. Next for Svetlana is an Alpine cheese, Vacherin Mont d’Or. One that’s been getting the cheesemongers tweeting with excitement recently, it’s only available from September until April and so is ‘a must-have in the autumn (and in the winter too)!’ Often baked in the oven before eating, Svetlana goes on to say that ‘silky smooth inside, this runny, soft, cow’s milk cheese is covered by a washed rind which gives an extravagant barnyardy aroma and nutty flavour. Each cheese is wrapped in a piece of spruce bark and its flavour permeates the cheese and gives it a heart-warming woody flavour too.’ One for the fireside methinks.
Next up is some Barwheys Cheddar, ‘a new and exciting cheddar from the west of Scotland. Matured for at least twelve months it develops a firm texture and a long, sharp finish. The Ayrshire cow’s milk is unpasteurised and so it contains all the goodness of the fresh grasses that the cows have grazed on.’ Beaufort d’Alpage joins the table, which Svetlana describes as ‘a stunning cheese made in little huts on the Alpine slopes. A wheel over twelve months old would have been made during the previous summer when the cows indulged in the diet of the freshest Alpine flowers, herbs and grasses, all complemented with crystal clear spring water. The paste is dense, rich and mouth-coating. It’s beautifully smooth on the palate but does have a few protein crystals which add a lovely crunch to it.’ Finally, the blues take their place with a Lanark Blue, ‘an exceptional ewe’s milk cheese made in the Roquefort style.’ Made in Scotland rather than France, it has ‘a unique character. The paste is compact and crumbly. The sheep’s milk gives it some underlying sweetness whilst a generous marbling of penicillium roqueforti gives it a nice strong bite.’ Svetlana passes on the chutney in favour of ‘a glass of medium-bodied red wine with silky smooth tannins, some wholemeal crackers, and some dried fruit and nuts.’
Joe Cannon from Cannon & Cannon in South London sees autumn as ‘a return to the fuller, knobbly, serious cheeses to be enjoyed with proper chutneys and the fruits of the fall.’ It’s another cheddar that starts Joe’s selection and for him it’s off to Somerset for ‘a Montgomery’s, as old as you can get it, with the crystalline crunch if you’re lucky and maybe even a rogue seam of blue. A rough-hewn chunk, to be hacked at and enjoyed with some crisp, English apple: a russet or a cox.’ If you can’t get Montgomery’s, he recommends ‘Shipcord, a Suffolk contender whose tang and fullness of flavour is equally fantastic with apples or a great chutney.’ Representing the blues corner is Stichelton, a raw milk blue cheese from Nottinghamshire, as Joe believes that ‘autumn calls for a move away from the lighter blues and into the pungent, weighty fellows.’ He recommends a Dorset Blue Vinny as a good substitute, ‘its astringency being a good foil for the broad autumnal flavours elsewhere.’ For his last choice, Joe gets a bit misty-eyed at the thought of ‘this time of sweet-scented orchards and fruit-laden trees, of the first beginnings of decay and of leaf-mulch and damp walks’ and chooses ‘a farmyardy washed-rind cheese. I would suggest Saval, from the maker of Teifi in Wales, John Savage-Onstwedder. A whiff of the hay in the stable, and of wellies kicked through damp leaves in the nearby wood, on a cracker with some spiky chutney.’ As well as the chutney, he goes for ‘a good bunch of grapes and a stack of crackers: matzos for the blue and something a bit more substantial for the other cheeses. The first jumper of the season and your wellies. And a bottle of rich, earthy red, probably from Italy.’
Andy Swinscoe from The Courtyard Dairy in Settle, North Yorkshire, also heads Alpine for his first choice, Tarentais. It’s another seasonal must-have, being ‘the last of the summer goats’ cheeses made high in the Alps. The producers only make it up in the chalet for the summer, using the rich Alpine herbs. The start of snow in late October at this altitude will mean they descend. This will be the last few of these traditional unpasteurised Alpine cheeses that capture the richness of this year’s mountain flora.’ Cheddar scores a hat-trick with Andy’s second choice, Dale End Cheddar from North Yorkshire. In his shop, ‘the cheeses we are selling are from early Spring 2012, now sitting at about sixteen months old, so the animal’s first taste of pasture for the year, the rich spring grass, comes through in its grassy rich flavour.’ An unpasteurised and traditional cloth-bound cheese, Andy declares it ‘amazing’. Andy plumps for a washed rind for his next choice, St James from Cumbria. A ‘really rich, honeyed sheep’s cheese; washed rind, so meaty and full-on. It’s soon to go out of season for the winter – so get it while you can.’ For Andy’s final choice, Stichelton makes the board again, with Andy choosing it because ‘summer milk makes all the difference to this rich unpasteurised blue. The early summer cheeses are now becoming rounded, butterscotch-like and perfectly mature.’ On the question of chutneys, Andy likes ‘the slight aromatic sweetness of a Damson Jelly which are just being made from the start of the Cumbrian Damson harvest.’
So, you heard it here. A seasonal Alpine, a meaty washed rind, a good, sharp cheddar and a softer blue. Scrump yourself some apples, throw dog-poo caution to the wind and kick up some leaves, and then retire to the sofa with a plateful of cheese and a glass of red.