Thursday, 8 December 2011

Cheese and Biscuits

My family has had an odd relationship with cheese over the years.  Schisms existed that would have put the Catholic church to shame.  My Dad was all in favour of strong cheese; parmisian on his spag boll, and blue cheese; stilton with celery after Sunday lunch.  My Mum on the other hand was milder in her cheese appreciation.  Edam was her go-to cheese.  The stronger cheeses didn't get on with her and vice versa.  They all lived in solitary confinement in tightly sealed tupperware boxes in the fridge.  When they were released, they were placed at the far end of the dinner table so they didn't offend Mum's nose.

I took allegiance with Dad on the cheese front.  I love strong and blue cheese but not exclusively.  There is, like wine and beer, a cheese for every occasion.  Soft and mild, salty, runny, firm and of course the legendary two handed cheeses (so called because you need two hands to eat them, one to hold the cheese the other to hold your nose). 

Unlike most of my food discovery, I was well into cheese before going to Uni.  I thought I knew it all.  A good cheese board should be inclusive with cheese for everybody.  Some blue, a soft cheese like brie, a hard cheddar and something from left field.  I'm thinking about yarg, manchego, stinking bishop*, something a bit different that might just get people talking.  But I still had a lot to learn.  Mostly, I knew very little about the variety of cheeses on offer to me.

My cheese epiphany came about on the day HRH Diana Princess of Wales died.  I was in Windsor visiting Z's family and the Sunday lunch had been booked at Michel Roux's Waterside Inn.  I was a fresh-faced, ill-fitting-suit wearing, food novice, who had never eaten as much as a seared scallop. 

I was out of my depth in a restaurant with three Michelin Stars.  The number of courses, the number off glasses, the number of knives and the number of staff!  The whole experience was mind boggling.  Fortunately I was at a table of proper old-school gourmets.  They guided me through the correct way to eat a thimble of chilled asparagus soup without embarrassing Terry Wogan (sat at the next table).

I don't have a particularly sweet tooth, if there is a cheese option on a menu my mind is made up, even before I know what the main course will be. And I noticed, while the excited throng were procrastinating over their amuse bouche, tucked at the bottom of the menu, the cheese board.  The rest of the meal was a bit of a blur, but the cheese, the cheese.  I'll never forget.

My own waiter arrived (I was the only one having cheese) and stumped me with his opening gambit. "What kind of cheese would you like?" All of it, I thought, cheese boards in my experience came with three or four cheeses, don't they?  From behind my waiter appeared a three tear, wooden hostess trolley, groaning under the weight of dozens of cheeses.  He then regaled me with the list of cheese styles.  I was flumuxed but managed to get a selection that ran from mild to strong through creamy, the likes of which I'd never seen.  I even had a ewe's milk cheese on a stick!**

Tonight I should be at Homage 2 Fromage, a cheese club that has been set up in Leeds.  It's now three months old and so far cheddar and goat cheese have been the stars of the show.  Tonight is blue cheese and I'm not there.  It's Z's work's Christmas outing so I'm home holding the baby.  Luckily for me I have three blue cheeses to keep me company.  I picked them up from Mousetrap Cheese in Ludlow on my recent travels.

Blue Monk, is a mild, soft blue cheese made by the Monkland Dairy, the owners of the Mousetrap.  It's unpasteurised and therefore unsuitable for pregnant women, fine for me.

Perl Las is a blue Welsh Cheese.  The literal translation is Blue Pearl.  It is strong and delicate, not a full flavoured as a Stilton. 

Picos Blue is a Spanish Mountain Cheese, aged in caves and wrapped in maple leaves.  I tasted this one in the shop and fell in love.  It's sharp and powerful as a big blue should be.  Not crumbly like most standard blues you'd pick up in a supermarket.

Clockwise from the back; Blue Monk, Perl Las, Picos
I've been asked to pick the Cheese for the Family Christmas Meal this year.  I wonder if I'll be able to please everybody?  I know I'll be happy.

*Stinking Bishop gets its name from the variety of pear that is rubbed on the rind, it does not refer to a smelly clergyman.
**This is how it is produced, not some sort of Hestan Blumanthal cheese experiment.

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