Never one to miss the opportunity to try several new cheeses in one sitting, I recently hiked across to Brixton again to one of Ned Palmer’s tastings at Cannon and Cannon. If you missed the last instalment, ‘Eight Cheeses in One Day’, you can check out what I snaffled last time here.
The theme of this tasting was ‘Cheese and Culture’ in which Ned attempted to show how cheese has evolved through history according to the environments and societies which produced it. With two hours ticking on the clock and just eight cheeses on the plate (just eight cheeses!), Ned himself admitted that it was never going to be a comprehensive and chronological survey of global cheese history but it was certainly interesting. I won’t attempt to reproduce everything he said, partly because he might sue me and partly
mainly because I drank some beer and can’t remember. But I will tell you about the lovely cheeses and drop a few nuggets of information in as I recall them.
Here is the cheeseplate for your salivation and delight. Alas, I only realised about halfway through the tasting that One of My Cheeses is Missing and so I have taken the liberty of reproducing it for you on the bottom left. We start at the top with the soft, curdy-looking cheese and work clockwise.
Graceburn is perhaps the newest kid on the block in Cheeseworld and its producer, Blackwoods Cheese Company, is another cheesemaker to add to the teeny but growing list of urban fromagers in London. Based in Brockley, it was set up by four friends, three of whom were schoolfriends back in Australia and all of whom have experience in the cheese industry. Ned presented Graceburn to us as one of the very simplest forms of cheese. One of the theories of how mankind ‘discovered’ cheese is that milk being transported in a bag made from a calf’s stomach (thus containing rennet) coagulated and someone thought ‘Gone-off milk? I’ll give that a try’ and found it palatable. Simple cheeses such as feta and ricotta are still made with minimum interference, just some milk, rennet and perhaps a starter culture. Similar to feta, Graceburn is a marinated cow’s cheese made with organic raw milk. It takes around two weeks to make, mainly due to its lengthy brining process and is then transferred to jars full of oil and herbs. It’s a fresh cheese that you can really taste the milk in and its flavour is enhanced by the oily herbiness. One to be mopped up with a thick slice of bread, perhaps with a juicy tomato on the side.
Second off the mark was Fresco Angelico, another cheese from the stable (if goats have stables) of Sarah Hampton from Brockhall Farm. I’d previously tried her Pablo Cabrito and Dutch Mistress, both of which were outstanding, so it was a pleasure to get my hands on another one. Fresco Angelico is a fresh goat’s cheese, made from unpasteurised milk and, in cheese evolution terms, still a fairly simple creature. It’s a lactic cheese, which means it relies primarily on natural bacteria converting lactose to lactic acid causing the proteins to cling together and form a curd; it takes much longer for the milk to coagulate and Fresco Angelico takes three days to make. Historically lactic cheeses were popular as cheese-making was carried out mainly by women; naturally, women also had about a trillion billion other things to do
whilst the men sat about drinking and so making this cheese enabled them to get on with everything else whilst it slowly went about its curdy business. Another fresh cheese, this one is creamy and light with no hint of over-goatiness. The lady next to me was in raptures about it. Spread it heartily on a Hovis biscuit.
St Jude is made by Julie Cheyney at White Wood Dairy in Hampshire. If Graceburn and Fresco Angelico are the babies and toddlers in terms of cheese maturity then St Jude is still a small child but one that wants to choose its own clothes (I promise I’ll stop with this analogy now…) It’s made with unpasteurised cow’s milk from cows that graze in the fields nearly all year round, only coming inside for two months when they stop lactating. Another lactic set cheese, it’s similar to the French Saint Marcellin, with a delicate white rind. Julie believes in treating her cheese gently and slowly. She collects the milk herself in churns whilst it’s still slightly warm and, after adding French starters and rennet, ladles the curd into moulds to drain and turns and salts them by hand (sometimes working in the middle of the night, if the time is right). It’s a creamy, moussey little thing, slightly mushroomy around the rind. Small enough to eat a whole one at once.
Bermondsey Hard Pressed is a different creature altogether. Made by Bill Oglethorpe of Kappacasein under a railway arch in South London (and, no, it’s a different railway arch to Gringa Dairy), this cheese reflects Bill’s French and Swiss origins as it’s an Alpine style cheese. True Alpine cheeses are traditionally made in large wheels and they are a great example of cheese that’s shaped by both environment and necessity. Cows would be taken high into the mountains to graze during the summer months when pastures were lush, accompanied by one or two herders. If you’re making rare trips up and down mountain passes with your cheeses on your back or tied to your donkey, it makes more sense to have big durable wheels rather than lots of dainty little cheeses. In addition, the cheeses needed to last all winter, feeding the family when milk was scarce, and so large, dry cheeses would last longer. To lose as much moisture as possible, the curds are cut into rice-sized pieces and cooked (or ‘scalded’) over copper vats, before being salted, pressed and aged. Bill uses a 100 year old giant copper vat that was brought over all the way from Switzerland (much to the twitchiness of Environmental Health). It makes for a rich, dense, fruity cheese.
It was another new one for me next, in Ardrahan, and one of those ‘Marmite’ cheeses that can divide a room down the middle. Ardrahan is made by Mary Burns in County Cork, Ireland and it’s a washed rind cheese, otherwise known as ‘a stinky one’. The local climate, damp and salty from the sea, provides the ideal environment. Rind-washing means that a cheese is soaked, sprayed or rubbed down with a liquid when young; Ardrahan is washed with saltwater but others are washed in booze or even rosewater. Washing the rind encourages one particular bacteria – brevibacterium linens – and it’s this bacteria that makes the cheese smell (and your feet smell like cheese, nice). Many rind-washed cheeses can trace their origins back to monks and the first such cheeses were produced over 700 years ago. Monks were predominantly vegetarian and the theory is that the ‘meaty’ flavour of the washed rind cheeses provided a welcome supplement to their diet. Unfortunately Henry VIII put paid to our monk-fromaging during the Dissolution of the Monasteries but a renaissance has seen new cheeses such as Stinking Bishop, Oxford Isis and Burwash Rose. Some say that you either love them or hate them; I’d say I’m somewhere in the middle. Ardrahan has that farmyardy, bacony taste that washed rinds have; if you’re in the mood, it’s a great addition to a cheeseboard.
Spenwood is a cheese I’m familiar with, having written about it before, as well as cooked with it recently. Made by Anne Wigmore in Berkshire, it’s a ewe’s milk cheese, created by Anne after she was inspired by Pecorino in Sardinia in the 1980s. Artisan cheese-making was a tricky business back then, especially if you didn’t have your own farm. Supply of cow’s milk was controlled by the now-defunct Milk Marketing Board, which was set up to provide centralised manufacturing during the war and sold cow’s milk in quantities suitable for large producers rather than small operations. Fortunately for Anne’s Pecorino plans, it was far easier to buy sheep’s milk, as there was less demand and hence control. Sheep’s milk cheeses had been all but extinct in Britain since the eighteenth century and it was enterprises such as Anne’s that spearheaded a renaissance. Spenwood is matured for at least six months. Its flavour is subtle, sweet and slightly nutty and I’m a big fan of eating it and cooking with it.
Every good cheeseboard needs a blue and Ned hadn’t let us down. Next up was Cropwell Bishop Stilton, one of the few artisan Stiltons in the country. Afforded PDO status in 1996, Stilton can only be made in three English counties (Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire) and cheese-makers must adhere to certain guidelines in making it. The history of Stilton cheese is a bit misty and, it’s fair to say, a bit tetchy. The village of Stilton is in Cambridgeshire and was smack-bang on the Great North Road, the coaching route between London and Edinburgh. The Bell Inn became a popular trading post and an enterprising eighteenth-century landlord took to selling a blue-veined local cheese there – and so it became known as Stilton. The cheese was soon being sold in London and commanded a significant price. There has always been much debate over whether Stilton was ever actually made in or around Stilton or whether it was just traded there. And, of course, because Stilton is in Cambridgeshire, they can’t now make ‘Stilton’ cheese there. The debate rages on, with a local MP earlier this year describing the three-counties PDO-recognised cheese-makers as ‘new boys’! And taste-wise? Well, it’s exactly what you would expect from an artisan Stilton: creamy, tangy and melt-in-the-mouth lovely. If you’ve never eaten traditional Stilton before, I COMMAND you to go and seek out this one or Colston Bassett and I DEFY you not to love it.
Lincolnshire Poacher is another cheese I’m familiar with. It’s a hard, unpasteurised cheese made from the milk of cows that graze on the chalky pastures of the Lincolnshire Wolds, an area not usually associated with dairy let alone cheese-making. It was first produced in 1992 by brothers Simon and Tim Jones and takes its name from an eponymous 17th-century folk song in which a rogue gives up his respectable apprenticeship to go poaching hares. Made to a recipe loosely based on West Country cheddar, the cheese can take anything from fourteen to twenty-four months to mature. However, although very much like a cheddar, the cheese is also influenced by Swiss mountain cheeses (Simon was taught by the late Dougal Campbell, who learned his craft in the Swiss Alps). Lincolnshire Poacher, like Swiss cheeses, is made with thermophilic (heat-loving) starter bacteria whereas Cheddar cheese uses mesophilic starter bacteria, which grows best at slightly lower temperatures. The result is a smooth Gruyère-like texture but with the nutty, grassy taste of a mature cheddar. I’ve also tried the traditionally smoked variety which was amazing and I will happily have a fist fight with anyone who tries to say that you should never smoke good cheese.
Gosh, this post is nearly as stuffed as I was after eight cheeses washed down with beer. If you’re still with me, I salute you. Another great afternoon spent gobbling British cheese.