I’ve always liked cheese. I’ve eaten it for nearly all of my life, although if I’m truly honest most of it has been processed, factory made crap. The proper rubbery, dayglo yellow rubbish. Rarely have I had the opportunity to sample the really good stuff, and even when I did – I didn’t really know what I was eating. I appreciated it, yes. But I’d never go out of my way to procure it, or consider it as an option on a restaurant menu. But finally, my eyes have been opened. I recently started working for Trethowan’s Dairy, selling their own Gorwydd Caerphilly and other fantastic British (and some French) cheeses for Christmas in the Bristol Harvey Nichols food hall pop-up.
It’s been an incredible learning opportunity, and I’ve grasped it with both hands. (Thanks Todd, Jess and Ben).
I wanted to post this before Christmas when, as is traditional, many of you would be buying huge slabs of cheese. Sadly I was just too damn busy actually selling the stuff to finish the post. Nevertheless, this information will still be valid all year round, therefore let me share with you what I’ve learnt.
So without further ado…Essex Eating does cheese. *Fanfare*
First of all, for the most part, forget pasteurised. Unpasteurised is where it’s at with regards to cheese. All of that which really makes a cheese unique, interesting and tasty is lost when made with pasteurised milk. (Pasteurised milk, in case you’re nodding wisely, but in reality have no idea what I’m talking about, is where the milk is heated to a certain temperature to kill off any potentially harmful bacteria present, but.... there’s bacteria which as it develops gives a good cheese it’s flavour and this is also lost).
Every batch of unpasteurised cheese has to be tested to ensure it’s safe to eat. This is not the case with pasteurised cheese, so in fact in theory it’s actually potentially dodgier. (But saying that, just to be on the safe side - add unpasteurised cheese to the whole list of things you shouldn’t eat if you’re pregnant).
Next, buy your cheese from a cheesemonger, or failing that a delicatessen. I don’t know why it is, but most supermarkets seem incapable of selling cheese in decent condition. If you have the choice, buy your cheese from a specialist.
British cheese is fantastic. There has been a real renaissance in the past 20 years or so, and there are loads of unbelievably good regional handmade, unpasteurised products. Real artisan stuff. Don’t let anyone tell you Britain doesn’t make good cheese. Ours is some of the best anywhere in the world.
So, you’ve got your lump of expensive, tasty, artisan cheese. How long will it last? And how to keep it?
Unpasteurised cheese is a bit like fruit, there’s no expiry date on it. So treat it the same way, if it looks manky – it probably is. If it looks good, it’s no doubt fine. Trust your sense of smell and taste. In any case, it’ll probably dry out before it ‘goes off’.
Store your cheese, believe it or not – in the salad drawer at the bottom of the fridge, or as close to the bottom of the fridge as possible, but away from any strong flavours (such as onions).
In addition, if your cheese came wrapped in waxed paper – then make sure it’s re-wrapped again before storing it. Cheese left uncovered in a fridge will dry out quicker than a Jacobs cracker wrapped in loft insulation and left to fend for itself in the Sahara desert.
If the cheese has a naturally ‘mouldy rind’ then in addition to keeping it wrapped in waxed paper, clingfilm the cut edges, but only the cut edges mind. The cheese breathes through the rind; it’ll keep so much better if you do this.
Although saying that, some cheeses (such as Gorwydd Caerphilly washed rind or Parmesan) actually benefit from being wrapped in clingfilm, so make sure to ask your cheesemonger on how best to store your no doubt eye wateringly expensive, (but worth it) lump of dairy.
What cheese should you buy?
Well based on what I’ve been selling (and sampling) here’s my selection. Mostly British. All unpasteurised and all handmade.
This is one of my favourites. Made from organic milk on the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire, it’s the only unpasteurised Stilton you can buy (but they can’t call it Stilton…. long story). This is a beautiful cheese, incredibly creamy and flavoursome. I love it. You can eat the rind on this; it has an interesting salty, ‘biscuity’ texture.
My employer’s own cheese and it’s absolutely superb. Handmade using traditional methods on the Treothowan’s farm in Llanddewi Brefi in Wales. It has a subtle, rich, buttery taste with a slight bite. The breakdown at the edge is almost Brie like, and you can eat the rind – in fact you should eat it. It has a raw mushroom taste to it and really adds a nice contrast to the other flavours. A really classic British cheese, I can’t get enough of it. (BTW it’s also sold at Neals Yard and on a stall in London’s Borough Market itself – keep an eye out for it and have a taste, it’s impossible not to like).
Vacherin Mont D’or
The French and the Swiss argue over who owns this cheese and both produce it. Made from unpasteurised winter milk, and only available from around September until March. I was gifted one of these to try over Christmas (thanks Todd). As is traditional, you prick the top with a fork, insert some garlic and pour over a splash of white wine. Wrap the whole wooden box in foil and baked in the oven until it becomes liquid, almost like fondue. Oh my God, it was amazing…. seriously decadent, rich and grown up smeared on crusty bread with some cornichons. It really is something you should try. These retail for around £12, but will serve at least four people.
The Comte we sell is considered to be ‘The Best’. It’s Marcel Petite Reserve. And, it’s fantastic. Full stop. With an incredibly rich taste, buttery but with complex grassy flavours, it’s probably the nicest cheese I’ve ever tried. We gave out samplers of this, and what was amazing to me is seeing people’s reaction as they absentmindedly picked a piece up on their way past the counter, and then stopped, gobsmacked for a double take on what exactly they’d just eaten. The reason it tastes so buttery and grassy? It’s made from the summer milk of cows that graze in high alpine pastures, and their diet includes a high proportion of herbs and flowers. It’s an amazing cheese and one that I would go out of my way to buy despite it being pretty damn expensive.
A British Camembert ‘style’ cheese, from Hampshire. This is cracking stuff. To be honest, I didn’t like it much at first, but it really grew on me and I ended up a big fan. The tasting notes often say it has something of a 'cabbage' taste, but I don't get this. I think it has a fresh, almost spring onion and wild garlic pungency to it with a delicate soft texture.
A mature goats’ cheese log produced by Neal’s Yard Creamery in Herefordshire. If you like goats’ cheese, you’ll love this. Strongly flavoured with a real lemon tang to it. Personally, I find this cheese a bit too ‘goaty’ for my liking, preferring instead its stablemate below…
Also produced by Neal’s Yard Creamery, this is an extremely young goats cheese. In fact, so young it’s coated in vegetable ash to make it easier to handle. These are fresh, almost mousse like in consistency and also have a real lemony tangy flavour. I really like these and I'm especially taken with their gnarled, unusual looking exterior appearance.
In the summer I was lucky enough to be taken along for a visit and shown around Moorhayes Farm in Somerset by George Keen himself. The Keens make a classic British Cheddar. It’s a million miles away from the processed blocks of rubberised, tasteless junk you’ll see on most supermarket shelves. This is the real deal; handmade, cloth wrapped and produced using traditional methods. This cheese has a real depth of flavour, but is quite fresh tasting with a ‘bite’. It’s lovely stuff.
Another classic British Cheddar, also from Somerset, also handmade, cloth wrapped and produced using traditional methods. But, and this is the interesting thing – tasting completely different to Keen’s. Montgomery has an earthier, nuttier taste to it with really complex flavours. It’s quite strong and punchy, but in a rather subtle, subdued way. It has such depth of flavour you can still taste it a good few minutes after eating a piece. I reckon this would be a lovely cheese accompanied by a glass of red wine or port.
Yet another cracking Somerset cheese, and named after a particularly loathsome witch. Unlike the rest of the cheeses I’ve listed, Old Demdike is made using vegetable rennet and is therefore suitable for vegetarians (although I’ve found that some veggies aren’t particularly bothered by the whole rennet thing). This is Ewe’s milk cheese, and I think it looks amazing, being almost stone-like in appearance. It has a subtle, sweet almost nutty taste. I like it a lot.
So, there you have it, “the stuff what I learnt”.
I now have a real appreciation of quality cheese, and a real sense of what makes good cheese worth paying that bit extra for. I also have been left with a newfound awareness of all the amazing artisan British cheeses that are being produced out there, with real love and much care. Long may it continue.