Monday, December 29, 2008

Stilton and leek quiche

One of the best ways to use up odd bits of cheese is a quiche and over Christmas that's as likely as not to be Stilton. As I also just discovered two unused leeks I thought I'd combine the two along with half a pot of leftover crème fraiche that was nearing its use-by date. The bliss of cooking on an AGA, which we took over with our current flat, is that you don't have to pre-bake the pastry case which makes the whole process incredibly easy but I've given instructions for a conventional oven here. If you don’t have any blue cheese you could easily substitute Cheddar, Gouda or any other full-flavoured hard cheese.

Serves 4-6
40g butter
2 large or 3 smaller leeks (about 350g-400g untrimmed weight)
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh thyme
3 large eggs
100ml creme fraiche or double cream mixed with 100ml milk
3-4 tbsp grated parmesan (depending on strength)
100g Stilton or other medium-strong blue cheese, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the pastry
225g plain flour (or a 50/50 mix of plain and wholemeal flour)
110g chilled butter, cut into small cubes
4-5 tbsp cold water
You will need a deep 23cm loose-bottomed quiche tin

First make the pastry. Put the flour and a pinch of salt in a food processor and pulse once or twice again to mix. Add the cubed butter and pulse to incorporate then add just enough water to bring the mixture together (about 3-4 tbsp). Shape the pastry into a disc, wrap in cling film and rest for half an hour.

Trim the bases and coarse outer leaves off the leeks, slice finely and rinse thoroughly to get rid of any dirt or grit that has accumulated between the leaves. Heat the butter in a large frying pan and fry the leeks for 5-6 minutes until beginning to soften. Add the chopped thyme, season well with salt and pepper and set aside to cool

Take the pastry out of the fridge and roll it out in a circle big enough to fit a 23cm/9in diameter flan tin. Carefully lower the pastry into the tin pressing it into the edges and lightly prick the base with the prongs of a fork. Chill in the fridge for 20 minutes then line the pastry case with a piece of greaseproof paper or foil weighed down with baking beans and bake the pastry shell for about 12 minutes.

Separate one of the eggs, reserve the white and beat the yolk and the other two eggs together. Measure the cream and milk into a jug, mix well, add the beaten eggs and parmesan, season with freshly ground black pepper and beat again.

Remove the paper and beans from the pastry case and brush lightly with the beaten egg white. Return to the oven for another 5 minutes then remove the flan case from the oven and turn the oven down to 180°C/350°F/Gas 4. Trim the overhanging edges of pastry with a sharp knife.

Scatter half the blue cheese over the base of the tart, spoon over the leeks then cover with the remaining blue cheese. Carefully pour the egg and cream mixture over the top making sure that it is distributed evenly*. Bake the quiche for about 35-40 minutes until the top is puffed up and lightly browned. Cool for about 20 minutes before serving. (I personally think it’s nicest at room temperature.)

*If there is too much egg mixture bake the tart for 7-8 minutes then half pull out the shelf and carefully pour the remainder over the top.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Cutting your cheese bill

If you're a fellow cheeselover you won't have failed to notice that it's an expensive habit to indulge. But as someone who is habitually watching my household budget (as you'll see if you visit my other blog The Frugal Cook) let me tell you that it is possible to have your cake - or rather cheese - and eat it.

You can buy the best cheeses around - just buy a lot less of them. Forgive me if this sounds blindingly obvious, but if you're like me you probably automatically buy too many cheeses and too much of each, particularly difficult if you're in a cheese shop and they've got the cheese wire hovering over a nice big slice. It seems mean, doesn't it, not to buy more? Well, no it doesn't because it means that you can go on buying cheese from that nice shop and don't have to end up buying block cheddar from the supermarket.

Here's a slice of Picos Blue I bought the other day for £1.20. Just 100g but it's a strong cheese so it was plenty for the two of us. No waste, either. For those of you who haven't come across it before it's a Spanish cheese from the Asturias that tastes a bit like Roquefort - only not quite as salty and a bit creamier (it's a cows' milk rather than a sheeps' milk cheese) I found myself wishing as I was tasting it that I had a bottle of sweet oloroso sherry open. No doubt I will next time.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The ultimate cheese and ham 'sandwich'

Well, not really a sandwich but it tasted like the best cheese and ham sandwich you can imagine! It was a dish in a great new Italian restaurant in Soho called Bocca di Lupo (which literally translates as 'the wolf's mouth' but probably means something like the ravenous eater) and was described as Crescentini with finocchiona, speck and squacquerone cheese.

What arrived was a little deep fried pillow of bread topped with finely sliced fennel sausage and a gorgeous pool of creamy fondue-like melted cheese. Unbelievably delicious!

Squacquerone, which probably isn't pronounced to rhyme with macaroni but looks as if it should be, is apparently a fresh Italian cream cheese that's popular in Emilia Romagna and the Marche region of Italy. And Soho now, too

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Afuega'l pitu

Another cheese discovery - surprisingly in my local deli.

It's a rich, soft Spanish unpasteurised cows' milk cheese with the exotic name of Afuega'l pitu (because of its tendency to stick to the palate, according to Wikipedia which has an impressively detailed entry on the cheese, and is made in the Asturias region of Northern Spain.

At £9.38 it was pricey but having never seen it before I couldn't resist trying it. It had a wonderful texture and taste. Creamy without being cloying, slightly floral, not 'cow-y' at all. We served it with a very good Fourme d'Ambert and some 18 month old parmesan but it really deserved solo billing

Extraordinarily you can buy it on Amazon in the States as well as on a site that imports Spanish products called La Tienda from which you can see that the brand name is Temia, not Emia as the photo suggests.)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A model modern cheeseboard

I came across this attractively presented cheeseboard in a restaurant called Le Bistro d'Hervé in Agde the other day and thought I'd share it with you. It's a model of what a modern cheeseboard should be - attractive, limited in scope (so not too expensive!) and very wine-friendly (largely because the cheeses weren't overmatured and the accompaniments were skilfully chosen to build a bridge to any accompanying wine*).

The cheeses were Reblochon (left) Comté (back) Roquefort (front) and Cantal in a rectangular piece underneath, propping up the other cheeses. The two jellies were griottine (wild cherry) at the back and piment d'Espelette (an AOC chile from the Basque Country) in the front. I haven't seen these in England but there are other products, for example chilli-flavoured jelly that should work equally well.

I also liked the fact that the board was rough and unvarnished, an attractive contrast to the smoothness of the cheese.

*For more on cheese and wine pairing see my website

Sunday, November 30, 2008

When cheeses are in season

Not everyone realises just how seasonal cheese is. There are obvious examples such as goats' cheeses which are at their best in the spring and Vacherin Mont D'or which is only available from October to March (so perfect right now) but there are many other cheeses which I guess most of us have no idea about when they're at their peak.

I've just come across a really useful chart on a website called elegusto, an on-line retailer of wine and cheese. Whether it's currently trading or not, I'm not sure. Some of the recent updates seem to have been made in 2007 but this information is certainly most useful.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

How to make Labneh

Last night I tried out Bristol's newest restaurant Lido* and kicked off with a 'small plate' of labneh, an addictive soft yoghurt cheese topped (in this case but not invariably) with anchovies and sprinkled with chillies, onion seeds and fresh coriander.

It's also ridiculously easy to make at home. All you need is a large square of muslin (which you can buy from department stores like John Lewis), two large 450g-500g pots of unsweetened full fat plain yoghurt and a scant teaspoon of fine sea salt. Line a bowl with the muslin, mix the salt into the yoghurt then tip the yoghurt into the bowl. Pull the edges of the muslin square together and tie to form a bundle and hang over the sink or a larger bowl for about 12-16 hours. If using straightaway tip the cheese into a serving dish, make a shallow dip in the centre, drizzle round some olive oil. and scatter with chopped herbs or other flavourings as above. Or refrigerate in a covered bowl or box until ready to use.

(*you can find a full review on my website

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The River Cafe's Cheese Room

Are cheese rooms the new must-have restaurant accessory?

You'd think perhaps not in these hard times but if the iconic River Café installs one you can be pretty sure that others will follow. I was hoping to check it out last week but didn't manage to fit it in with moving house (hence the lapse in posts on the blog) but there was a glowing article about it in yesterday's Telegraph

I was interested to see from their menu that one of the cheeses they stock currently is Castelmagno, an ancient semi-hard cows' milk cheese that's made next to a chapel of the same name up the mountains above the Piedmontese city of Cuneo. As you can see from the picture below, taken when I visited this time last year, it can have extensive blue veining but it varies from cheese to cheese.

Other London restaurants with cheese rooms include the Star & Garter in Lower Richmond Road, Vivat Bacchus in Farringdon and, of course, La Fromagerie if you count cheese shops with a café. But we have yet to have a full-blown cheese-centred restaurant of the quality of Artisanal in New York. With a lower average spend in restaurants maybe it will be the upcoming trend.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Goats' cheese and beet salad

Not a great deal of time for cheese exploring this week - we've just moved house, which is the usual nightmare. Packing cases everywhere!

Anyway I thought I'd post a picture of a simple salad I enjoyed in my favourite local restaurant Culinaria last week. Mixed leaves, cooked beets and goats' cheese, dressed with a light shallot dressing and scattered with parsley. Simple, pretty, healthy, tasty - what's not to like?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rabbit or rarebit?

A debate periodically breaks out in the cookery columns of the press about whether the celebrated dish welsh rarebit should be spelt rabbit or rarebit. Majority opinion suggests the origin was rabbit, the explanation being that the Welsh, who were poor, couldn't afford the real thing and that rarebit evolved to avoid what might be deemed a national insult! When I was growing up we always called it rarebit so I tend to stick to that though you will see it spelt the other way on the menus of many modern British restaurants.

Be that as it may, a rarebit/rabbit was what I made with some of the cheap Montgomery cheddar I told you I'd picked up and very good it was too - a definite step up from cheese on toast. For one person you need 75g of strong cheddar, just under 3 tbsp good strong ale, 1 1/2 tsp plain flour, 1/4 tsp English mustard or mustard powder, a medium egg yolk and a few drops of Worcestershire sauce. And a large slice (or two smaller ones) of sourdough or wholemeal bread

Pre-heat the grill and toast the bread then pour the ale into a pan, add the cheese and mustard, sprinkle over the flour, stir and place over a low heat until the cheese has melted. Take the pan off the heat, add the egg yolk and a few drops of Worcestershire sauce and a grind or two of black pepper. Line the grill pan with foil, place the toast on top, pour over the melted cheese and flash under the grill until brown and bubbling. Comfort food at its best!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Another discovery and a bargain

While I was in Paxton & Whitfield checking out Blue Monday I discovered another fascinating cheese I'd never heard of before called Terschelling Schapenkaas. It's an organic, Gouda-style sheeps' milk cheese from the island of Terschelling in the far north of Holland.

Despite being only four months old it has a beautifully smooth texture and full nutty, tangy flavour - much mellower than many sheeps' cheeses. I discovered it was imported by a company called Boerenkaas which is run by a guy called Chris Macfarlane who used to work for Neal's Yard. You can also buy it direct from their stall in Borough Market on Fridays and Saturdays, for £28 a kilo which isn't cheap but well worth it in my opinion. (Apparently you only get 2 litres of milk a day out of these sheep!)

The bargain was a great hunk of Montgomery's cheddar P & W was selling off as cooking cheese from a truckle that had gone slightly over and started to blue but which still had a fantastic flavour. That was just £2.79 for 455g! I can see that there will be a weekend of toasted cheese coming up . . .

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A square blue. Now why did no-one think of that before?

News this week that the enterprising Evenlode Partnership has come up with a square blue cheese called Blue Monday, such a perfectly simple idea that you wonder why no-one thought of it before.

The brains behind the innovation are former Blur guitarist-turned farmer and food writer Alex James and Juliet Harbutt, organiser of the British Cheese Awards, an unlikely but smart-thinking pair who have already attracted a great deal of attention for their first efforts Little Wallop and Fairleigh Wallop.

The cheese is produced for them in Scotland by Ruaraidh Stone of the Highland Fine Cheese Co, producer of Highland Blue and Strathdon Blue and is made from cows' milk with vegetarian rennet. I gather it's milder than most blues with an extra-creamy texture but hope to taste it for myself later this week.

You should be able to find it in branches of Paxton & Whitfield from next week - and other specialist cheese shops before too long

Three days later . . .
Well I did manage to get to taste Blue Monday and very delicious it is too with an exceptionally creamy consistency and plenty of 'blue' character without any attendant bitterness. When I tasted it with wine back at home it even managed to survive a glass of red wine (a Marcillac) though it was better with sweet sherry (Gonzalez Byass Solera 1847) Rhuaridh Buchanan, Paxton & Whitfield's buyer and affineur told me that they'd served it with dry Australian riesling at the launch which had worked surprisingly well. The cheeses were bigger than I imagined though

Friday, October 31, 2008

The perfect Hallowe'en cheeseboard!

If you're hosting a Hallowe'en supper tonight and wondering what to put on the cheeseboard, let me make a couple of suggestions.

Hallowe'en's all about kitsch so I would certainly colour-theme my board. It would have to be largely orange as there aren't many black cheeses though you could serve one of those black wax coated cheddars if you could find one. And some ready-to-eat prunes and charcoal biscuits on the side!

Perfect candidates for orange cheeses would be Mimolette, a very good dark orange-coloured cheese from Northern France, a washed rind cheese such as Epoisses or Stinking Bishop (the idea of a stinky cheese seems particularly suitable for Hallowe'en, I feel) and red Leicester from England

There's certainly no orange or black wine that I know of but port is pretty dark in colour or you could serve a pumpkin ale.

Have a fun evening!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A good Morbier

I've always loved the look of Morbier with its striking band of ash down the centre but have frequently been disappointed at the taste. However I bought a good one the other day (right) which was delicious, with a nice semi-creamy texture. Better news still it went very well with a glass of the red wine we had open, a ripe, generous garnacha called Higueruela from a relatively unknown denomination called Almansa east of La Mancha. (Semi-soft cheeses of this style usually struggle with reds.)

According to the Morbier website - yes it has it's own dedicated one - it has been produced in the Jura for some 250 years. Traditionally it was made with leftover curd from Comté cheese which was covered with a light vegetal ash to stop a rind forming overnight before the mould could be topped up with the next day's leftover curd. You can see on their step by step slides of the cheesemaking process how the distinctive layer of ash is added these days. It has to be matured for 45 days, according to the AOC regulations, but is more commonly matured longer

If you're a fan you can even send a Morbier e-card. I don't think I'd go quite that far though I rather like the ones of the cows ;-)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Cheese Nun

Knowing I was writing a cheese book, a friend sent me a DVD of a PBS programme called The Cheese Nun. It's a remarkable documentary about an American nun called Sister Noella Marcellino who not only learns to be a cheesemaker but leaves her closed Benedictine community to study at the University of Connecticut and travel all round France to become one of the world's leading cheese microbiologists.

She's a wonderfully engaging, joyous character (with, incidentally, a beautiful singing voice) and the footage of the traditional cheesemaking methods she adopts is quite fascinating.

It's a bit like a cheeselover's Sound of Music but then that was pretty cheesy too ;-)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Top tips for a perfect fondue

I had a press release this morning from the makers of a pre-mixed Swiss fondue called Emmi claiming that dipping was 'this autumn's biggest food trend'. I don't know quite where they got that from but if I were to get back into fondue I certainly wouldn't make it from a packet.

It's one of those things that's ridiculously easy to do once you get the hang of it - a bit like swimming or riding a bike. Basically it's simply a question of stirring grated cheese into hot wine, cider or beer but there are a few things to remember that make all the difference between success and disaster:

* you need good quality cheese - including Gruyère - though you can blend two or three

* your cheese should be at room temperature before you start

* you should add a little cornflour or arrowroot to stabilise the mixture

* you need a cast-iron pan rather than a stainless steel one

* your liquid should be almost boiling but off the heat when you start adding the cheese. (You can put it back on the heat when you've added around a third of it)

* you should stir the cheese with a zig-zag motion rather than round and round which makes the cheese more likely to ball up and separate

* you need to add a dash of something strong at the end - kirsch is traditional, apple brandy great with cider-based fondues

* you need good quality rough-textured country bread to dunk in it. Cheap bread will go soggy

* you need a glass of dry white wine, cider or beer to drink with it (depending on the alcohol you use to make it). Never drink iced water with a fondue - it will give you indigestion.

Fondue's fun but I can't really see it taking off again. It's too rich, too expensive and, to be frank, too unhealthy for today's lifestyle. It's great as an occasional treat especially on a cold winter's night but I doubt people are really going to develop a big-time fondue habit.

Or maybe I'm wrong. What do you think? Are you a fondue fan or do you think they're overrated?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Oh-so-tempting Tartiflette

This week I made a wickedly rich, indulgent cheese and potato dish from the Savoie region of France called Tartiflette which is not, as you might imagine, a tart but a dauphinoise-style dish of layered potatoes, onions and bacon topped with Reblochon cheese. I dread to think what the calorie count is but boy, is it good!

Serves 6
2 tbsp sunflower or other light cooking oil
200g/7oz smoked lardons or diced smoked streaky bacon
2 large onions, peeled and finely sliced (about 400g/14oz)
2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
700g/1lb 8 oz waxy potatoes e.g. Desirée, well scrubbed
A sprig of rosemary (optional)
1 small or 1/2 a large Reblochon cheese (about 275g/10oz in weight)
150ml/5 fl oz double cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
You will also need a large buttered ovenproof baking dish

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and fry the lardons until beginning to brown. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon. Tip in the onions, stir and fry for a low heat for about 20-25 minutes until they have collapsed right down and are beginning to brown. Add the garlic about 5 minutes before the end of the cooking time. Meanwhile cut the potatoes, unpeeled, into slices about 1/2 cm/1/3 inch thick, place in a saucepan with a sprig of rosemary if you have some and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and boil for 2 minutes then remove the rosemary, drain the water and set the potatoes aside. Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas 6. Cut the Reblochon into thin slices, removing the rind if you prefer*. Tip half the potatoes into the baking dish, cover with half the onions and bacon and season with black pepper. Repeat with the remaining potatoes, onions and bacon and pour over the cream. Cut the Reblochon into thinnish slices and distribute over the top of the dish then bake for 15-20 minutes until the cheese is brown and bubbling. Serve with a green salad.

*It depends on the cheese. If you have a very mature cheese with a sticky rind you may prefer to remove it. I prefer to use a slightly younger cheese and keep the rind which adds colour and texture.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Fruitcake and cheese

I've always been slightly resistant to the idea of serving fruitcake with cheese but it's a long-established British tradition. And if you're happy to eat dried fruits with cheese it's illogical not to, really.

Of course it depends on the cheese. I certainly wouldn't enjoy a washed rind cheese like a Munster or a Stinking Bishop with a piece of cake but a mild hard English cheese like Wensleydale or Cheshire goes rather well. Or a creamy Stilton.

Anyway I'm coming round. The other day I picked up a cake from a West Country producer called Marshfield Bakery. It looked rather dry but was actually quite moist with a pronounced mixed spice flavour. It worked really well with a piece of Gorwydd Caerphilly which had quite a buttery taste. It's called a Maggie Ramage cake if you want to try it and you can order it from Real Food Direct or buy it, as I did, from a West Country branch of Waitrose.

A nice little tea-time treat

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A tasting from Country Cheeses

Strolling around Topsham in Devon earlier today in the late autumn sunshine we passed a cheese shop that looked a bit out of the ordinary and turned out to be something of an Aladdin's cave.

Gary Jungheim the proprietor not only sells cheese, or 'real cheese' as he describes it, but gets involved in making it as a result of which his firm Country Cheeses stocks a whole lot of West Country cheeses I'd never even heard of before.

I'm on a quest to find cheeses that work with red wine at the moment (you may be surprised to hear that many don't) and here's how they fared:

Pennard Ridge
A hard Caerphilly-like goats cheese from Phil Rainbow of the Somerset Cheese Company. Attractively firm and crumbly in texture (firm to cut, light and fresh in the mouth) but with a full, tangy, nutty flavour. 7/10 with our red (a 2006 Domaine Gauby Les Calcinaires Côtes du Roussillon Villages). A more than creditable showing but a Sauvignon Blanc or Loire red like Bourgeuil or Saumur Champigny would have respected the cheese's integrity better.

Tamaracott Boyton
A tangy Pecorino-like sheeps cheese made by Terri Rasmussen in North Devon. Sheeps cheese is always pretty good with red wine and this was no exception. 8/10

No Name*
A delicious washed rind cows milk cheese with an unctuous creamy texture. Not nearly as pungent as most French washed rind cheeses but with plenty of rich, full flavour. Just about survived our red but would be considerably happier with a white such as an Alsace Pinot Gris. 5/10
* In fact the cheese is normally named Morn Dew and comes from one of my favourite local producers Pete Humphries of White Lake Cheeses of Somerset.

We also tasted a sample of the Beenleigh Blue from Ticklemore Cheese in Totnes they were selling, a ewes' cheese I had tasted before. It's deceptively mild looking without much veining but packs a similar punch to a Roquefort so is better suited to a sweet wine such as Sauternes. Not good with red anyway - 3/10

The problem with strong and blue cheeses is they tend to strip the fruit out of reds leaving you with a slightly bitter taste in your mouth. More on this subject, if you're interested, on my website Matching Food & Wine.

Anyway Country Cheeses is a gem and I'm glad to have discovered them. They also have branches in Tavistock and Totnes.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

In search of the perfect cheese soufflé

I can't remember when I last made a cheese soufflé. Actually I think I can but I'm not going to tell you because it was a long, long time ago.

I decided there needed to be one for the cheese book and came up with an interesting twist which again I can't reveal or my publisher will kill me (this must be a very frustrating post for you but bear with me . . .) I checked out the basic method with a few books and then the problems began. Because they all suggested different proportions of flour, milk, cheese and eggs.

I followed the majority and used 150ml of milk but it made rather too thick a panade (the posh term for a soufflé base). Elizabeth David recommends using 284ml but as she's habitually vague about quantities I overlooked her advice. But I now find that that's the amount Leith's, one of the top cookery schools in London, recommend to their students.

The soufflé rose beautifully and didn't collapse but just wasn't quite light and airy enough. Nevertheless it's a wonderful dish to impress with and a delicious light supper accompanied by buttered new potatoes or crusty bread and a green salad. Will just have to make it again to refine the technique. At least that's my excuse . . .

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Two unsung cheese heroes

About the last place you expect to find real experts on cheese is behind a supermarket cheese counter but I was amazed to find not only one but two such paragons in my local branch of Waitrose in the Henleaze neighbourhood of Bristol.

First there was Hilary Margolan (in the rather fuzzy picture above) who knowledgeably discussed the fat content of different curd cheeses, compared two different red-wine washed cheeses (the fact that Waitrose stocks two is pretty remarkable in itself) and discussed which goats cheese would be best for crumbling over a pasta

Then she was joined by her boss Richard Perry who turns out to give talks on cheese to local groups as diverse as the girl guides and the local twinning committee.

Neither is - how shall I put this tactfully - a spring chicken (Hilary told me she was a nurse for 40 years) but both have a real passion for their subject you'd be lucky to come across in a specialist cheese shop. Clever Waitrose and lucky me.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

And the world's best cheese comes from . . .

No, not France, not Italy, not the UK or the US, not Spain but you're getting warmer. The Canary Islands!

Well I told you it would be a surprise. It's a goats' cheese called Queso Arico curado pimentón’ made by a co-operative, Sociedad Canaria de Formento. The cheese is pressed and regularly brushed with paprika and gofia, a powdered cereal unique to the Canary Islands, before being matured for around six months.

Apparently it was a close run thing. The other finalists were a soft cows’ milk cheese from Canada called Cendré de Lune which tied with a Von Muhlenen Le Gruyere and a Fourme d’Ambert, produced by Morin Père et Fils.

The result is hugely fortuitous as the Canary Islands are hosting next year's event - pure coincidence according to the organiser Bob Farrand. "I'm sure people will think it's one of those Eurovision Song Contest type fixes but the final votes were cast in sealed envelopes" he assured me.

Apparently the highest ranking British cheese was a Colston Bassett Stilton which just failed to make the top four.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Judging the World Cheese Awards

I spent yesterday morning in Dublin as one of 150 judges who had been invited to taste 2000 of the world's top cheeses. Fortunately not all 2000 of them otherwise I doubt I'd be blogging today but about 50-60 (I didn't count).

We were divided into teams of four from different backgrounds. I was in a team with two retailers - a guy from Fortnum and Mason and the owner of a cheese shop in Nottingham - and a Canadian cheese judge (every team had one technical expert) It was fascinating the different perspectives we brought to the task. The cheese judge, as you'd expect, assessed cheeses for cheesemaking faults, the two retailers worked on the basis of how they looked on the counter and whether they could sell them and I, representing the cheeselover in the street, judged on the basis of the cheeses I liked.

So that our palates didn't get jaded we had two different types of cheese to judge, a batch of goats cheeses (above) and one of 'new cheeses', a category only marginally more popular than flavoured cheeses, the type that every cheeselover dreads. We had a couple of those, including one flavoured with chilli which I have to admit wasn't too bad.
The most interesting thing was how important texture turned out to be, dividing the well-made cheeses from the poorly made ones just as surely as taste. With the hard cheeses Louis, the cheese judge, used a cheese iron (above) to extract a tasting sample from the heart of the cheese. You could see in a second whether it was going to be any good or not.

We tasted the cheeses blind so I have no idea what the ones we liked were - at the time of writing we're still waiting for the final results but I have a tip-off that we're in for a big surprise!

The most depressing thing was that all the cheeses were destroyed at the end of the judging process which seemed the most terrible waste (about which I've had a bit of a rant on my other blog The Frugal Cook).

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Barkham Blue is the best cheese in Britain!

According to this year's British Cheese Awards the results of which you can find on The Cheeseweb. It also picked up the award for Best English Cheese and Best Blue.

These are not the first accolades for this creamy blue which is made by Sandy and Andy Rose of Two Hoots Farm in Barkham in Berkshire. It has picked up awards every year since they started making it in 2003

It also performed really well in a tasting I conducted for Decanter a couple of years ago where it ended up as one of the panel's top three cheeses for a Christmas cheeseboard. You can apparently now buy it in branches of Waitrose (though our branch in Bristol doesn't have it) and Paxton & Whitfield, along, I'm sure, with many other specialist cheese shops.

Other winners this year included Montgomery's cheddar and Fairleigh Wallop No. 2 which is made by awards organiser Juliet Harbutt and former Blur bass guitarist, farmer and food writer Alex James.

The best British cheeseboard went to Allium restaurant at Fairford in Gloucestershire.

Friday, September 26, 2008

What do chefs know about cheese?

Not a lot if the results of a survey recently published in Restaurant magazine are anything to go by. Of their top ten cheeses (which the magazine rather overexcitedly dubs the 'world's best') eight were from France and two from England. None from those great cheese producing countries Italy or Spain (Hello! What about parmesan and Gorgonzola?) let alone Portugal or Greece. Could it be because the survey was commissioned by the French cheese promotional body Frencheese which is currently running a feature on the poll on their website? Perish the thought!

The fairly predictable list included Montgomery's Cheddar, Brie de Meaux, Colston Bassett Stilton, Camembert de Normandie, Roquefort Cartes, Comté, Mont d’Or, Beaufort, Chaource and Ossau Iraty from Fromagerie Agour (did the chefs actually specify the producer, unprompted? Unlikely. I wouldn't have done.)

I wasn’t over-impressed either with the dishes cited in the piece as examples of what ‘modern cooks’ are doing with cheese. Pork and Brie Gateau, onion soup with fried Camembert and (yuk) Brie and Mussel Stew. I love Brie and I love mussels but please, not in the same dish.

Frencheese had arranged for journalists to go and taste the cheeses at what many consider the best cheese shop in London, Patricia Michelson’s La Fromagerie in Moxon Street. She obviously considered the selection slightly unbalanced and sneaked in an ash-coated goats’ cheese and an Epoisses. All were superb, as you’d expect, especially the Beaufort, one of my own favourite cheeses. And I discovered an interesting wine match for Brie (always a tough cheese to pair) with a crisp dry Hirondelle Bianco Greco from Puglia that Michelson stocks in her shop and café.

She also served a small bowl of Fontainebleau, a delicious mixture of fromage blanc and whipped cream topped with a few wild strawberries. Now that’s a creative use of cheese!

Maybe a few more chefs should hang out in her shop ;-)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Eating Raclette in Abergavenny

Yesterday we went off to the Abergavenny Food Festival. A great day - the weather was glorious - but a bit disappointing on the cheese front. I was hoping to discover a few new Welsh cheeses but most of them seemed to be flavoured with apricot brandy, ginger or other weird stuff.

The saving grace was a fantastic stand which was run by Trethowan Dairy which ironically has a stall in St Nicholas Market where I live in Bristol. They were serving some brilliant toasties made with sourdough and their own Gorwydd Caerphilly but, better still, little takeaway cartons of Raclette: cooked new potatoes, sprinkled with cheese and grilled on a contact grill then smothered with Raclette which had been melted on a purpose-built toaster then scraped onto the potatoes (above). If one were being picky, which I wasn’t inclined to be, the potatoes were a touch on the floury side (smaller, waxier ones would have been better) but who can quarrel with crispy and melted cheese in a single dish? Not me.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Travels with a stinky cheese

Smelly cheese, it has to be said, does not make a good travelling companion.

It was barely 20 minutes since I'd bought a selection of artisanal cheeses from Paxton and Whitfield in Jermyn Street, including what I subsequently discovered was a particularly smelly beer-washed cheese called Saulxurois* that I began to be conscious of their presence. In a café (embarrassingly). On the train - despite being up in the luggage rack. In the kitchen even though I'd wrapped it in a plastic bag and encased it in a box in the fridge. The smell still seeped out.

I consulted Ruaridh Buchanan the cheese buyer for P & W. "Ah, yes" he said. "I am afraid that particular cheese is a very smelly one. It's best to consume it soon after purchase. I think you should invest in some Tupperware, if a second fridge is not an option. It would be fine for about a week if you can handle the smell though. Serve it with a glass of dark continental beer.

Four days on I finally plucked up the courage to remove the cheese from the fridge and its wrapping and try it. Barring the smell I have to say it was magnificent especially with a glass of Orval (dark Belgian beer). And even better, a glass of . . . no I'm afraid I can't tell you that. You'll have to wait for the book ;-)

* Confusingly it's also labelled Carré de L'Est, a style of cheese that is also associated with the Champagne region whereas this one comes from the town of Saulxures which is in Lorraine. The recommended wine pairing, in my copy of Les Fromages, incidentally, is a Pinot Noir d'Alsace - in my view a potentially disastrous combination. The French are still wedded to red wine with cheese.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Events for fellow cheeselovers

The end of September/beginning of October always seems to be the highlight of the cheeselover's year with the results of the British Cheese Awards, The Great British Cheese Festival which this year is being held in Cardiff Castle (see above, sculpted in cheese and also on YouTube) and British Cheese Week. This runs from September 27th to October 5th and will be celebrated in cheese shops and delis all over the country.

Juliet Harbutt who set up the Cheese Awards and Alex James (ex-bass player of Blur, now a food writer and farmer) who have collaborated on a cheese called Little Wallop will also be holding a series of 'Cheesy Rider' masterclasses and dinners at three venues round the country on the dates below:

Tuesday 30th September 2008
Dinner @ Lords of the Manor Hotel, Upper Slaughter, Gloucestershire
Starts 7pm until 11pm. Tickets £65 each. Call 01451 820 243

Thursday 2nd October 2008
Dinner @ Wensleydale Dairy, Wensleydale, Yorkshire
Starts 7pm until 11pm. Tickets £37.50 each. Call 01969 667 664

Friday 3rd October 2008
Dinner @ Jesmond Dene House, Jesmond, Newcastle Upon Tyne (AA Hotel of the Year 2008/2009)
Starts 7pm until 11pm. Tickets £55 each. Call 0191 212 3000

There will also be plenty of opportunity to taste cheese at the various food festivals which are taking place over the next few weeks such as the Abergavenny Food Festival which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this weekend and the 10 day York Food Festival which starts on Friday.

And I'm off to Dublin at the end of the month to help judge the World Cheese Awards which are taking place in Ireland for the first time.

Should be a great couple of weeks! I'll report back on what I find, starting in Abergavenny this Sunday . . .

Friday, September 12, 2008

Is this the cheese recipe of the year?

If you judge the success of a recipe by the number of times it's mentioned in reviews or newspaper articles Rowley Leigh's parmesan custard would already run away with the prize.

For those of you who don't know Rowley, he's one of London's longest-serving and best-loved chefs, former chef of Kensington Place and now of the wonderful Le Café Anglais, an Anglo-French brasserie in Bayswater

Part of its retro charm is its selection of hors d'oeuvres of which this dish is one. It's a warm, slightly wobbly pot of wantonly delicious cheesy custard into which you can dunk fingers or 'soldiers' of toast sandwiched around an anchovy filling. Pure comfort food - I think I could eat one every day for the rest of my life without tiring of it, although there probably won't be any anchovies left to make it in a few years time if reports are to be believed.

It stems, Rowley explains in his weekly Financial Times column, from a chicken and goats' cheese mousse with olives he had on his menu at KP (as it was affectionately known by its regulars) which was almost equally delicious.

The beauty of it is that it doesn't look that difficult to make apart from the fact that the recipe suggests 100g of freshly grated parmesan. That's an awful lot of parmesan as any of you who have weighed parmesan will know. I suspect you can get away with rather less.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A fantastic new cheddar

I spent a day meandering around at the Organic Food Festival on Saturday where I was tipped off by a fellow food writer about a young couple who were making cheddar from Ayrshire cows on a farm in West Wales.

Didn't sound massively exciting - how many cheddars are there in the world for goodness sake - but as I trust his judgment I tracked them down.

What a cheese! It was full of flavour but incredibly pure tasting with none of the funky flavours you can get in artisanal cheddars like Keens and just a hint of that deliciously crystalline texture you get in an aged parmesan.

The cheesemakers, Sam and Rachel Holden, admittedly have an impeccable foodie pedigree. The organic farm on which they're making it is managed by Sam's father Patrick, director of the Soil Association. But that doesn't make it any less of an achievement

Apparently Randolph Hodgson, buyer for Neal's Yard Dairy (and brains behind the fabulous Stichelton - of which more later) was so impressed that despite the fact he initially told Sam Neal's Yard didn't need any more cheddars they're taking it on.

Look out for it. It's called Hafod and I predict it's a star of the future.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Why I love cheese . . .

Hello, and welcome to The Cheeselover. Especially to those who've been following my adventures on The Frugal Cook.

Now it's time to move onto a new project and happily my other regular publisher, Ryland, Peters & Small has given me the chance to write a book on one of the foods I love best. Cheese, heavenly cheese . . .

Those of you who are fellow fans will need no convincing that this is the perfect subject for a blog but just in case I'm preaching to the unconverted let me tell you the five reasons why I think cheese is possibly the greatest food on earth:

* It's the ultimate no-junk, fast food.

* It has the most incredible range of flavours and textures. There's a cheese for every time of day, every season, every mood . . .

* It lends itself to an amazing variety of recipes

* It's pure comfort food. Especially when it's melted. (Better than chocolate IMHO)

* Some fabulous people make it.

Over the next few months I'm going to be writing about the cheeses I'm tasting, cooking with and pairing with a whole range of delicious drinks (not just wine). Come along for the ride . . .