30 Oct 2011

CHEESE OF THE WEEK: Ragstone

I got a bit over-excited in a previous post about how some British cheesemakers are going back to using traditional calves' rennet in their cheeses (rather than vegetarian) because they believe it gives a more rounded, 3D flavour.

Following on from that, and just by coincidence, I picked up a small log of  Ragstone goat's cheese from Neal's Yard Dairy at Borough Market, which is made with kids' rennet.

Logically, you would think that all traditional goats' cheeses would be made with kids' rennet, but it's actually very unusual in the UK. A lot of goat's cheese producers here use vegetarian or calves' rennet, but cheesemaker Charlie Westhead swears by keeping it 100% goat. He thinks it adds "an extra dimension" to the flavour of the cheese, which echoes what cheesemakers in my previous piece were saying.

Anyway rennet ramble over, Ragstone is a pretty cheese with a velvety white rind and smooth interior. It's made with unpasteurised goat's milk in Herefordshire overlooking the River Wye by Neal's Yard Creamery. The company was originally based in the South East of England and was part of Neal's Yard Dairy, but it is now completely separate and relocated to Herefordshire in 1996.

The piece I bought in mid October had a rich creamy flavour with lemony, herby notes and an earthy finish. There was an interesting mix of textures as well with the silky rind giving way to an oozy outer layer and a smooth paste inside. Best of all, the flavours and the textures all seemed to balance each other really well.

Sometimes there's a macho swagger to goat's cheese - the billy goat flavour is just too overpowering - but not with Ragstone. It's a harmonious little cheese.

Where to buy: Neal's Yard Dairy, Paxton & Whitfield, IJ Mellis, Whole Foods Market 

How to eat: This is a versatile cheese, which works on a cheeseboard, but is also great in salads, tarts and sandwiches. Try it in a salad with pear and walnuts, or grilled with marmalade in a sandwich. Beetroot and rosemary are also friendly flavours.

What to drink: A grassy sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley is a classic accompaniment to goat's cheese. The CheeseWorks in Cheltenham recommends a crisp English white from the Three Choirs Vineyard called Coleridge Hill 


26 Oct 2011

Vacherin Mont d'Or: a seasonal star

Everyone knows that absence makes the heart grow fonder, which is why there’s always an extra-special thrill when seasonal foods that have been missing for many months suddenly reappear.

Whether it’s the arrival of asparagus in May or Seville oranges in December, these long-awaited foods are made all the more precious by the knowledge that they will only be available for a short time.

For cheese lovers, one of the most eagerly anticipated seasonal débuts is the mountain cheese Vacherin. Made exclusively during the autumn and winter in France and Switzerland, this soft cow’s-milk cheese is a sure sign that summer is over and the nights are drawing in.

By happy coincidence, Vacherin’s gooey creaminess makes it the perfect cheese for winter evenings, when it is traditionally warmed in the oven in its own spruce-wood box and eaten like fondue or drizzled over meat and potatoes. The cheese is considered to be at its best from November onwards, making it a Christmas favourite on the Continent.

Vacherin’s distinctive undulating rind is said to resemble the Jura mountains, which straddle the border between Switzerland and eastern France, where the cheese is made. Both countries claim to have invented Vacherin – the Swiss eventually won Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) status for the term “Vacherin Mont d’Or” (despite the fact that the summit of Mont d’Or is actually in France). Never ones to miss a chance to safeguard their foodie traditions, the French also successfully applied for AOC status for the terms “Vacherin du Haut-Doubs” and “Mont d’Or”.

To read the rest of this article, which was first published in the November edition of Harrods Magazine, click here

21 Oct 2011

CHEESE OF THE WEEK: Berwick Edge



Unless you live in the North East of England, you might not be familiar with Berwick Edge, which is made by Doddington Dairy in Northumberland and is mainly available in regional delis and farm shops. 

That's a shame because this unpasteurised Gouda-style cheese, which is aged for between 12-24 months, is an absolute cracker. The cheese I tried managed to retain the milky freshness of its youth while also possessing those fruity caramel flavours that come with age. There was a nice salty hit to it as well.

Don't just take my word for it either. Members of the Specialist Cheesemakers' Association awarded it with the 2011 James Aldridge Memorial Trophy earlier this year, which goes to the UK's best raw milk cheese.

The trophy is named after legendary cheesemaker and affineur James Aldridge, who helped reinvigorate the artisan cheese sector in Britian in the 1980s and 90s and passed away in 2001. In a weird twist of fate, Doddington's MD Margaret-Ann Maxwell took advice from Aldridge when she first started cheese making. 

Where to buy: The Pantry, Bamburgh

How to eat: Good in sandwiches when it's young, but when it's older and fruitier it works well as cheese on toast or over pasta, or simply as part of a cheeseboard. 

What to drink: Try an off-dry riesling from Germany or the Alsace. The combination of sweetness and mineral notes works well with the fruity, salty flavour of the cheese.

18 Oct 2011

Urban raclette at Borough Market

Cheese is nearly always made in the countryside because, well, that's where cows live. But cheese company Kappacasein, which is once again drawing huge crowds at Borough, makes cheese just five minutes from the market under some railway arches in Bermondsey. 

Urban cheesemaker William Oglethorpe sources the milk for his cheese from an organic farm in Kent, which rears Brown Swiss and Montbéliarde cows. The milk is brought back to Kappacasein's newly built dairy at Voyager Railway Arches, where it is turned into a halloumi-style cheese called Bermondsey Frier and Bermondsey Hardpressed, which is similar to Gruyere. There's a strangely atmospheric video of the process at the bottom of this post.

Oglethorpe was the man who helped develop, and gave his name to, Montgomery's washed rind raclette-style cheese Ogleshield when he worked for Neal's Yard. 

He was also part of the so-called Bermondsey Seven, who were evicted from Borough Market earlier in the year for trading at new foodie destination Maltby Street (close to where he makes the cheese). 

Thankfully, he seems to have patched up his differences with Borough and is now back at the market trying to keep up with the big queues that form at his stall. Here he cranks out plates of new potatoes, cornichons and little pickled onions smothered in the frazzled, bubbling loveliness of melted Ogleshield raclette.

This is the traditional way to eat raclette in Switzerland and France, where the cheese originates ('racler' is French for scrape), although it's made all over the world these days. According to fromage guru Patrica Michelson, in her fantastic book 'Cheese', Swiss raclette tend to be much stronger in flavour than French, particulalrly those made in the high Alps, which are washed in brine and has nutty smoky flavours.


Hot, gooey Ogleshield blobbed over potatoes and pickled onion sounds just about the most awesome hangover dish I can think of, especially when it costs just £5. In the interests of research, I visited Kappacasein's stall with a slight hangover to put this to the test and can confirm that I was instantly cured. Mind you, I did also eat half of one of Oglethorpe's other great inventions - the toasted cheese sandwich made with Poilane sourdough bread and Montgomery's cheddar.



16 Oct 2011

In search of a 3D flavour

Unless you're a vegetarian, rennet is probably not very high on your list of priorities when it comes to choosing cheese, but perhaps it should be.

A growing band of British cheesemakers are switching from using vegetarian rennet in their cheeses in favour of traditional calves' rennet because they say the flavour is much better.

Charle Martell: '3D flavour'
Charles Martell of Stinking Bishop fame is one of them. He told me that his Single and Double Gloucester, Hereford Hop and Double Berkeley cheeses taste "like they used to 30 years ago" and have "a 3D flavour" since he switched to calves' rennet, with none of the bitter notes he was getting with vegetarian rennet. He's thinking of switching to animal rennet in his Stinking Bishop as well.

At the same time Robin Skailes of Cropwell Bishop has developed new calves' rennet Stiltons, which he says are more "rounded" and "complex". I've done a pretty unscientific taste test myself with some Cropwell Bishop and would have to agree. But more on that in a minute.

Before then, I wanted to give a bit of background to rennet, which admittedly is not the sexiest of subjects, but it's important to understand what effect it has on cheese. Traditional rennet, which is also sometimes called 'natural' rennet, is basically a collection of enzymes extracted from calves' stomachs that is added to milk to help it coagulate into curds and whey.

Not surprisingly, vegetarians don't want to eat this kind of cheese, which means classics such as Parmigiano Reggiano and Gruyère are off the menu because by law they must be made with natural rennet.

Quite a few British cheeses, including Montgomerys' Cheddar and Gorwydd Caerphilly are also still made with natural rennet, but a lot of British cheesemakers switched over to vegetarian rennet in the 80s and 90s. This was partly because the big supermarkets wanted to target as wide a consumer base as possible, but also because there were problems sourcing good quality calves' rennet.
The story behind vegetarian rennet, also known as microbial rennet, is not really any more appetising than that of traditional rennet. It's made by fermenting mould (mmm, tasty) and can be associated with slightly bitter flavours in aged cheese because the enzymes target the milk's casein proteins in a general way, while animal rennet acts on specific areas (that's what Paul Thomas, the head cheesemaker at Lyburn, told me anyway).

Stilton producer Cropwell Bishop is interesting because it makes cheese with traditional rennet and vegetarian. Weirdly, Waitrose sells both kinds, so you can actually do a direct taste test. Here they are:

The one on the left is made with vegetarian rennet and the one on the right uses traditional rennet. Interestingly the prices are not that different -   £14.95 per kilo for the veggie cheese and £15.99 per kilo for the other.

Three of us blind-tasted both cheeses and we could all immediately tell the difference. The traditional rennet Stilton was noticeably better. To be completely fair, the vegetarian Stilton was from the bottom of the truckle (it had a rind on two sides), which might have made a difference. And I don't know how long they'd been matured for either.

 

But the flavours of the calves' rennet cheese were definitely more vivid and pronounced. It was creamier, more tangy and had a longer earthy note at the end. '3D' is a good way to describe the flavour. Nigel Tufnel in Spinal Tap would have said its volume had been turned up to 11.

In contrast, the vegetarian rennet cheese was muted with a definite bitterness at the end, or to carry on the Spinal Tap analogy, its flavour volume was a seven with some unpleasant feedback.