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The wonder of cheese

Update 18 April 2008

I haven’t updated this page since July 2005, and things have changed quite a lot since then. First, we lost Ken Davis’s lovely St James Delicatessen in Derby, thanks to a greedy landlord pushing the rent too high for the business. Then Derby got its own Farmers’ Market. Then, a lot later, we moved to North Nottinghamshire. Then we sold our house in France and didn’t visit Normandy so often. Then we found the new Welbeck Farm shop in The Dukeries, a short drive from home.

So where are we now with cheese?

First, we still bring back Camembert, Pont l’Eveque and Livarot whenever we visit Normandy. Second, Chewton Mendip cheddar has been replaced by Lincolnshire Poacher, and excellent farmhouse cheddar-type cheese that comes in normal, vintage and ’knuckleduster’ varieties. Third, we can get Mrs Kirkham’s lovely Lancashire again. Fourth, we can get expertly-matured Brie de Meaux again, and Appleby’s Cheshire. And fifth, to my amazement, my beloved Colston Basset Stilton has been knocked off its perch by Stichelton, which can’t be called Stilton because it breaks the rules by being made from unpasteurised milk, as Colston Basset used to be. It was developed (with the help of the guys from Colston Basset) and is made on a farm on the Welbeck Estate. It’s been a huge hit with chefs, Neal’s Yard Dairy and foodies all over the country. We’re proud to say that we bought some on the Thursday of the first week it was on the market, just two days after the launch.

So, cheese-wise, happy days are here again!

See also Getting good ingredients, with more up-to-date and detailed information on our local cheeses and suppliers.

The old page

Fat is my downfall - and cheese is the source of fat that I find least resistible, as essential a part of my diet as bread and wine. For me, life without Brie de Meaux, Colston Bassett Stilton, Chaumes, Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire, St Nectaire, Appleby’s Cheshire and Roquefort would be seriously impoverished.

I’m not one of your Cheddar-that-rips-the-lining-off-your-mouth enthusiasts: I prefer a mild Cheddar that’s beginning to crack, with that wonderful musty flavour I remember from my childhood - what my Mum used to call ’mousetrap Cheddar’. I thought it had gone forever until I discovered Chewton Mendip. It was truly a wonderful cheese. I bought a whole truckle at Christmas a few years ago, and enjoyed it over a period of several weeks as it slowly dried and its flavour evolved. Wonderful. Now I can’t get it locally. Quelle dommage.

I’ve been so careful to alternate French and English cheeses in my list that you might suspect me of political correctness. Not a bit of it. This is one area in which even such a dedicated francophile as I am will agree that we English can hold our heads high in company with our Gallic neighbours. Our countries both make truly great cheeses, and my dinner parties usually include a plateau de fromages featuring superstars from both.

That said, what most British people do with cheese is another matter. Where in Heaven’s name did our depressing habit of serving ’cheese-and-biscuits’ come from? And why do so many British people spread - or attempt to spread - everything from liquid Camembert to rock-hard Cheddar on buttered biscuits? Every cheese is a unique individual, and we should exercise our judgement as to how it should be eaten.

The Italians serve a slice of Bel Paese, a mild, soft, rather rubbery cheese, alone on a plate and eat it with a knife and fork. In general, when the cheese course is served in France (before the dessert) any surviving bread will still be on the table, but if it has all gone you’ll have to ask for some more - and there won’t be any butter unless it has been served with a previous course and forgotten.

Having been brought up in England, I actually prefer to have something starchy to eat with any cheese that seems to need it - but that’s the crucial point. Some cheeses are so subtle and delicate that even eating something as bland as a cream cracker (and few things are blander) between tastes, with our salty butter, will wipe away the flavour. Others are so buttery themselves that to eat butter with them is just plain silly. Still others are so powerful that you may want some soothing butter to counter their gum-scorching acidity, either between mouthfuls or before moving on to something gentler and more subtle. What I’m urging is that we should abandon boring old habits and take a fresh look - and taste - at the way we eat cheese. Do your own thing, by all means, but do it because it feels right - not because it’s what you’ve always done.

One of the most depressing developments during my lifetime has been the corruption of ordinary people’s tastes by the predominance of mass-produced cheeses. Nothing is sadder to me than the sight of a half-hundredweight block of rindless ’Cheddar’, perhaps from as near as Ireland but possibly from halfway round the planet in New Zealand, trapped in a plastic vacuum pack. This bland, predictable glup deserves to be stuck on buttered cream crackers or, better, buried under a layer of vinegary pickle between two slices of tasteless, textureless bread smeared with sunflower margarine. And no, I’m not too snooty to enjoy a cheese and pickle sandwich - provided it’s made with a decent cheese that can stand up to the competition, quality pickle (since I live near Branston, what else?) and real bread.

Yet industrial dairies can produce excellent cheeses. My local delicatessen resisted my requests for Buxton Blue for ages on the grounds that it had been invented at the Hartington Dairy which was then owned by one of the giant industrial dairy companies. I argued that they sold Hartington Stilton from the same factory, and was told that Stilton was a traditional cheese. I responded with what amounts to heresy in Derbyshire by asserting loudly that Hartington Stilton isn’t as good as Colston Basset or Long Clawson, and that in fact I thought Buxton Blue was actually a better cheese than the local Stilton.

I was not alone, and eventually the deli bowed to market pressure and started selling Buxton Blue - a smooth, creamy, orange-coloured cheese with rich blue veining and a really good, earthy flavour.

The French counterpart of Buxton Blue, if you like, is St Agur. This is Patricia’s favourite cheese, a very smooth, buttery white paste with almost black veining. It looks rather like Roquefort, which is a very ancient traditional cheese, but tastes quite different. On balance, I personally prefer Roquefort, but I still thoroughly enjoy St Agur. The last time I was in Philippe Olivier’s wonderful cheese shop in Boulogne-sur-Mer, I asked whether they had any. The lady I asked looked at me pityingly and shook her head, and I chose not to ask her why. When I got home I had a look in William Stobbs’ handy little Guide to Cheeses of France (forword by none other than Philippe Olivier): no St Agur. Ken, who runs the deli and sells St Agur, had the explanation: ’It’s an industrial cheese, not a traditional one.’ ’What - like Buxton Blue?’ I replied mischievously. He actually had the grace to look a little sheepish.

Thanks to the Stobbs book I’ve just learned that my beloved Brie de Meaux is probably an industrial cheese too. He says ’More often made in industrial dairies near Paris than on farms, but with unpasteurized milk, and tended by affineurs who follow the ancient traditional methods like some sacred ritual.’ The word ’ancient’ is no exaggeration: according to Eginhard, chronicler of Charlemagne, Brie was already being made in 774 AD - nearly a thousand years before Camembert!

One of the saddest moments for me was during the great Salmonella and Listeria panic of the early Eighties, in which our local ex-MP Edwina Currie played such a prominent part and which put a permanent end to her ministerial career. The Colston Basset dairy in Nottinghamshire (only about five miles from the Long Clawson dairy in Leicestershire, which is in turn around 40 miles from Stilton itself as the crow flies) was forced to stop making its wonderful cheese from unpasteurised milk. For some time we feared that this fine cheese was gone forever, and it is to the eternal credit of the dairy that it coped with the huge cost of re-equipping and came back with a cheese just as good as before. They now sell so much cheese that they have had to abandon their policy of using only milk from four local dairies - but the cheese is still magnificent.

I would put Colston Basset Stilton up against any French cheese, even Roquefort, and challenge any expert to say that this was not a very close contest indeed, to be settled only by personal preference. For me, it is quite simply one of the finest cheeses I have ever tasted, whether eaten relatively young when the curd is just off-white or allowed to mature until it is beginning to turn quite brown.

For the rest - well, I have listed many of my favourites. Wife Number Two loved Reblochon, which comes from the Savoie mountains. It’s 120mm in diameter by 30mm thick, with a firm rind, and is packed in waxed paper between two discs of thin wood veneer. At its best, this is a truly wonderful cheese, but I have had far more nondescript samples than really good ones. Savoyard cuisine has many ways of cooking Reblochon, most of which are best sampled in winter as they tend to involve red-hot charcoal braziers on the table.

Another cheese - or rather family of cheeses - from the same area are the Tommes de Savoie. These are larger discs with a thick, lumpy rind covered in a dusty grey mould, which look as if they’re cast in concrete. They vary tremendously in flavour and strength, but are generally very agreeable. When I was in Philippe Olivier’s shop recently (and before I had disgraced myself by asking for St Agur), I discovered Tomme de Courchevel, from the village where I had been skiing a couple of months previously. I managed to have quite a lively conversation about this with Madame, who assured me that it would be ’un bon souvenir des vacances’. It was.

When Phillippe (my old mate, not M Olivier) first came to lodge with me at the age of 20, he brought half a St Nectaire with him. This is the cheese of Auvergne. At its best it is creamy, rich and has what I can only describe as the smell of the earth - and the cow-byre.

A couple of years ago I came back from shopping on New Year’s Eve to find a card from the Royal Mail informing me that they had tried to deliver a packet, which had been returned to the sorting office. It being late, and a Bank Holiday, I had to wait until the 2 January to collect the parcel.

It was about a foot square, four inches thick, and was quite badly flattened on one side. When I picked it up I saw that it was from Phillippe. The weight gave me a hint of what was inside, and the thought that it has been on the shelf in this office, kept at a civilised working temperature of over 20ºC day and night, for about 36 hours didn’t cheer me much. When I opened it, the whole St Nectaire inside was a sorry sight. It was sweaty and squashed, the rind was cracked, and the smell was frankly pretty desperate. But, remembering that a cheese is a complex colony of living organisms, I put it on a wire cake-tray and left it in the cellar, which is pretty chilly around New Year, with a gauze umbrella over it. 48 hours later it had dried out and it smelled like St Nectaire rather than someone’s very old socks. I cut a portion and took it upstairs. It was wonderful - the best I had ever tasted. A whole St Nectaire weighs 1½ kilograms, so the cheese had time to develop before it was all eaten. As such a cheese should, it changed dramatically over a few days, but was unfailingly delicious to the last morsel.

Whether or not you eat the rinds of some cheeses is a matter of taste - and courage. Few people, I suspect, would eat the rind of a mature Stilton (though I did read somewhere a suggestion that it could be cooked. Fewer still would try the dusty grey rind of a Tomme de Savoie. Some of the St Nectaire that Phillippe brought over during his year as my lodger had been stored in mountain caves full of wood ash and looked rather like Tomme, yet one of Phillippe’s fellow-students actually ate the rind, to Phillippe’s ill-concealed disgust (he was busy learning some of the more colloquial English vocabulary from me at the time, so I won’t quote what he said verbatim).

The rind of Parmesan is hard and leathery and looks as if it’s been varnished, but it has its use: the proprietor of my local deli, an ex-chef, told me that he always puts it in his Bolognaise sauce during cooking - but removes it before serving. An excellent tip.

When it comes to soft cheeses like Brie and Camembert, we’re in more controversial territory. Personally, I do eat the rind unless it’s so hard that it’s unpleasant, smells of ammonia or has acquired an orange tinge, which I suspect but don’t know may be a rather unwholesome mould. The white rind itself is, of course, a mould, but very much a domesticated one. It is called Penicillium Camemberti, and it is used for all cheeses with soft, white rinds. Like so many ’farmed’ micro-organisms, it was originally the native of a small area (in this case Brie) but, when microbiological techniques allowed, pure strains were cultivated in laboratories for sale to cheese-makers.

The white rind of Brie and Camembert isn’t just for decoration. It happened first by accident to cheeses made in the Brie region, and it was discovered that cheese infected with this particular mould ripened in a particular way. Now it is known that it is the ripening organisms that give different cheeses much of their unique character. In the case of mould-ripening, it is enzymes secreted by the Penicilium that penetrate the ’green’ cheese (as unripe cheese is called) and partially digest it. In the case of Brie and Camembert, they convert a hard, white, chalky substance into a sublime, cream-coloured and creamy-textured semi-liquid with a quite wonderful flavour and aroma.

What is going on here, in a nutshell, is that the mould is slowly eating our cheese. We allow its slow digestive processes to go just as far as we choose. Then, because we’re a lot bigger than the mould, we step in, pinch the cheese and eat it ourselves. And if that isn’t bad enough, rind-eaters like me eat the poor mould as well.

Another domesticated natural mould is called Penicillium Roqueforti. I don’t have to tell you that this is the organism that ripens Roquefort, the monarch of French blue cheeses, in the process creating the characteristic blue veining. What may surprise you is that it also ripens Stilton. This blue-green mould actually looks a lot more evil than its nice white cousin Camemberti, but it works in exactly the same way and because it’s inside the cheese we don’t think twice about eating it. This seems to me to be as good an argument as any for eating Camembert rind.

At the beginning of the 20th century it was discovered that eating Camembert actually cured some diseases. 20 years later, Alexander Fleming’s work on another mould, Penicillium Nautanum, produced the first - and still very powerful - antibiotic, pennicillin. That seems an even better reason for eating the rind. And it makes me feel just a little bit better about all the fat I absorb from my cheese.

Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.

This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.