As I posted here in a fit of excitement last week, I recently won a toastie maker. This has opened up a whole new world of culinary excitement but in particular there was one toasted cheese ‘combination’ that I’d read about and, despite my best attempts to suppress the memory, it kept returning to me. Apparently – and I know this is hard to believe – there is a Stateside trend for cheese toastie-based cocktails (or ‘grilled cheese sandwiches’, as they’re known over there). Spirits plus cheese toastie. Seriously? Seriously. You can find it here.
I know, I know, you’re dry-heaving even as you read this. I was too. But nevertheless the thought kept coming back to haunt me and I’d find myself in the kitchen, eyes flickering from toastie machine to spirit bottles and back again. It had to be done. Gin’s my preferred tipple of choice and I’ve been dabbling around, matching it with cheeses for a while. This may sound anathema to some but a nice floral gin really does go well with a soft lemony goat’s cheese (less so with a blue but I’m working on it). But I had a different cheese in mind for this one: Appleby’s Cheshire.
Appleby’s is a bit of a special cheese. If the words ‘Cheshire cheese’ conjure up a brick of sweaty white nothingness, this cheese could change your mind. Cheshire is the oldest named British cheese, mentioned in the Domesday Book but probably dating back to the Roman occupation or beyond. But whilst the cheese used to be made by nearly every dairy farm in the northwest a couple of centuries ago, with thousands of tonnes of it being shipped down to the London markets, the Appleby family is now one of the last producers of traditional clothbound Cheshire cheese.
And from a mixologist (ha get me!) point of view, it sounded like the ideal cheese. Cheshire cheese is said to derive its characteristic tang from the salt-beds that lie under the soils of the Cheshire plain. Arthur Cunynghame, former cheesemonger to the Queen, says of it that ‘its fresh character somehow brings to mind fresh sea breezes and the tang of salt on the face…a long, lingering, delightful reminder of a summer’s day.’ If you’re going to make a cocktail out of cheese (and who wouldn’t?) then a fresh, salty, summery cheese sounds about right to me. I’d even tried matching gin with Appleby’s before and dug out my notes: ‘Herby and then slightly cow-sheddy. Finally a smooth, salty finish.’ Sounds good, right? Right?
First of all I had to make the toastie, a basic toastie, on white bread with butter.
And then to pour the gin. The recipe for the US cocktail specifies that the toastie should be soaked in the spirit for 24 hours so I chopped it into chunks and pushed it into the gin. Into the fridge it went and I tried my best not to think about it.
It was the next day that I started to feel squeamish. I’ve never been a fan of white bread and, despite loving cheese, the thought of drinking neat milk makes me gip. So the idea of drinking anything with bits of bread and cheese juice floating in it made me shudder. But it was time to filter my solution. Some of the liquid poured out easily and some of it I had to squeeze out with my hands (hurl). When I’d got out as much as I could, I filtered it through cheesecloth to remove the floaty bits and film of grease at the top (boak). I then stared at the resulting liquid for a very long time. A very, very long time. Then I plucked up the courage to taste it and…it wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined. The harsh edge of the gin had been mellowed and – maybe this was my imagination – there was a saline edge to it. The only problem was a bready aftertaste.
The American cocktail calls for the addition of a tomato and basil solution at this point but that sounded like a big cop-out to me, like someone was trying to disguise a cheese-based beverage with a dash of Bloody Mary. If I was going to do this thing, I was keeping it pure. A dash of sparking water, some appropriate garnish (do you like the salty rim – classy, hey?) and voila. Appleby’s Toasted Cheshire Cheese and Gin Spritzer. (And before you even think about it All Bar One, the copyright on this baby is all mine).
Some of you will have stopped reading in horror by now. Some of you will be gagging into your hands. I know what you mean, I really do, but it didn’t taste that bad. In fact the only objectionable note was the lingering taste of bread. You’re not convinced, are you? Not even a little bit? Okay, well if you do nothing else, seek out the cheese and try it; seriously it’s a great cheese. Fresh sea breezes on a summer day, what more could you want in a cheese?
Gin, you want gin with it.