30 Nov 2011

On the tip of my tongue: cheese vocabulary

'It's, err, really, like, creamy'
Apart from proving that it is physically possible to eat your own body weight in cheese, the other interesting thing to come out of the World Cheese Awards earlier this month was the different words people use to describe cheese.

Chomping your way through 40-plus cheeses in a few hours was the easy bit in many ways (apples, water and elasticated trousers are the secret). What was really tricky was deciding what was good and bad about each one in terms of flavour and texture, and expressing it clearly and accurately.

It was interesting that on our judging team of four people (including me) certain words kept cropping up. 'Clean', 'grassy', 'caramel' and particularly 'nutty' were popular ways to describe flavour, while 'smooth' and 'creamy' were used a lot for texture.

It's not surprising really. We all naturally tend to favour some words over others and translating what's going on in your mouth into words is tricky. But I did feel that sometimes these stock adjectives were trotted out a bit too quickly (by me just as much as anyone else). There was an over-reliance on certain words because they came to us easily. They weren't necessarily inaccurate, but weren't quite accurate enough.

The Wines & Spirit Education Trust has put together a rather nifty list of adjectives to describe wine, which can be useful when you're tasting and drawing a bit of a blank. You can see it here. So I thought I'd do something similar for cheese.

Here's what I've put together so far: Cheese Vocab

It's only a start. I'm sure there are other much more interesting and expressive words out there for describing cheese. What are your favourites for flavour and texture? What's missing from the list I've drawn up?

Feel free to leave suggestions and I'll add them to the list. It will hopefully build into quite a useful resource.

24 Nov 2011

Ossau-Iraty wins World Cheese Awards 2011

After squeezing, sniffing and tasting over 2,000 cheese, judges at the World Cheese Awards yesterday decided that the world's best cheese in 2011 was... drum roll... fanfare... an Ossau-Iraty from the French Basque region. 

Made with unpasteurised ewes’ milk in the Pyrenees by farmhouse producer Fromagerie Agour, the semi-hard AOC cheese is aged for 10 months and has a sweet, nutty flavour and creamy texture. It’s the second time that Agour’s Ossau-Iraty has been named supreme champion, after winning the title at the 2006 World Cheese Awards. 

Last year’s winner, Cornish Blue made by Philip Stansfield, nearly made it two years in a row, losing to Agour by the narrowest of margins, while third place went to a limited edition Cognac BellaVitano from Sartori Cheese in Wisconsin, USA. The semi-hard cheese is aged for a year then soaked in cognac for around a week. 

The Agour creamery was founded in 1981 by Jean Etcheleku, who still runs it with his son Peio today. It is imported into the UK by QST/Cheese de France, whose director Frédéric Gayral (pictured above, centre) collected the award from BBC Radio 2’s Nigel Barden (left) and the Guild of Fine Food’s Bob Farrand (right).

For the rest of the results, please click here.

21 Nov 2011

British cheese: the genuine articles

My last post about 99p cheese ended up being a bit of a rant about how Britain's regional cheeses, like Wensleydale and Red Leicester, had become characterless mass-produced products, sold at rock-bottom prices by the supermarkets. But there are still a handful of farmhouse producers out there keeping the faith by using traditional recipes and techniques to make authentic cheeses with distinct personalities.

My favourites are below (I've left cheddar and Stilton out on purpose because the good ones are so well known). There's nothing original about the choices I've made, but just because they're not new and fandangled doesn't mean they should be overlooked.

Sparkenhoe Red Leicester
This is the only Red Leicester (pictured above) that is made on a farm with raw milk in Leicestershire. The business was set up by dairy farmers Jo and David Clarke in 2005 to resurrect the area's cheesemaking traditions, which had entirely died out. They use milk from their own herd of Holstein Friesans and the red colouring comes from a natural plant dye called annatto. It has a lovely sweet nuttiness that gets stronger as it matures.

Martell's Single and Double Gloucester
Charles Martell is best known for his washed rind cheese Stinking Bishop, but he also helped revive the production of Single and Gloucester cheeses made with milk from the Old Gloucester breed of cattle. Made in Dymock in Gloucestershire with unpasteurised milk, his Single Gloucester has a mild buttery flavour, while the Double Gloucester has a dense texture and rich, mellow flavour. Smart's Traditional also make really nice Gloucesters.

Gorwydd Caerphilly
Pronounced 'Gor-with', this lemony semi-hard cheese is made by the Trethowan family at their farm in West Wales using unpasteurised milk. The cheese has a kind of two-tone crumbly texture with a soft creamy outer (which is called the breakdown) and a firmer band in the middle. There's a lovely tang to the flavour, backed up by earthy, savoury notes. Just a great cheese.

Hawe's Wensleydale
This is a good example of how a fairly large producer can still use traditional processes to make a decent cheese. It's fairly straightforward with a crumbly texture and lemony flavour with just a bit of honey. The Hawe's Creamery is often incorrectly called the last maker of Wensleydale in Wensleydale, but there is another much smaller producer - Ribblesdale Cheese- also based in Hawes that makes the cheese. Both are well worth seeking out.

Appleby's Cheshire
It's not made in Cheshire - I grant you - but this is the only traditional cloth-bound Cheshire cheese still made in the country. Not as sharp as the supermarket Cheshires, there's a lovely savoury quality to the cheese with a nice tang at the end. Texture is fairly moist and flaky. It's made by the third-generation of the Appleby family using unpasteurised milk from their own farm in Shropshire.

Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire
Several cheesemongers I've spoken to recently reckon this unpasteurised crumbly cheese is tasting as good as it ever has in its history, which is saying something considering it's been made by Ruth Kirkham for over 30 years at Lower Beesley Farm in Goosnargh. Martin Gott of Cartmel Cheeses reckons the texture is as important as the flavour, describing it as a "moist, buttery, breadcrumb-like crumble which somehow opens the flavour up". The flavour itself is a balance of lemony acidity and a rich creaminess.

17 Nov 2011

Is cheese for 99p really a bargain?

My ears pricked up the other day when a friend mentioned that the local 99p Store was doing a range of British cheeses. I couldn't quite believe that cheese could be so cheap, so I went down to have a look for myself.

Sure enough there was a selection of regional British cheeses, including a Wensleydale, Red Leicester and Double Gloucester all at the bargain price of 99p. I bought all three and ferried them back to the Cheese Chap Tasting Lab otherwise known as my kitchen table.

They weren't unpleasant, just bland and one dimensional. All three were dense, milky and very sweet to the extent that I found it hard to tell them apart. I did a blind taste test to see if I could tell the difference on flavour alone. I could just about pick the Wensleydale because it had slightly more acidity, but the Red Leicester and Double Gloucester were almost indistinguishable. They all tasted like the mild block cheddar you can buy in supermarkets to me.

The cheeses were all under a brand I'd never heard of called Ribble Valley, made by a company based just outside Preston in Lancashire. Preston is nowhere near Wensleydale in Yorkshire, Leicester or Gloucester.

The fact that a factory in Lancashire is making cheeses that traditionally come from completely different counties is nothing new. Many of Britain's so called territorial cheeses have largely lost the connection they once had with specific geographical areas. They are now blandly uniform, mass produced products that are made in factories all over the country and sold at rock-bottom prices by the big retailers.

The supermarkets still manage make to a hefty margin on 'value' cheese, though. According to a report from DairyCo earlier this year, retailers make an average margin of 47% on mild block cheddar. That means for every litre of milk that goes into mild cheddar the farmer gets 25p, the cheesemaker gets 4.5p and the supermarket makes a whopping 26p. This at a time when thousands of dairy farms in the UK have been forced out of business because the big retailers have driven them down so aggressively on price.

So for 99p you get a bland, generic cheese, which has been divorced from tradition, and is part of a damaging culture of low prices. In my book, that's not really a bargain at all, but what do you think? Is there a place for cheap cheese? And does it matter that cheeses named after specific places can be produced anywhere? 

11 Nov 2011

CHEESE OF THE WEEK: Abbaye de Belloc

Cheese lovers might not realise it, but they owe a debt of gratitude to monks. From Munster to Wensleydale, via Grana Padano and Epoisses, some of the world's greatest cheeses were developed in Medieval monasteries by Benedictine monks as part of a belief in prayer combined with work and self sufficiency.

It seems strange in this age of modern food manufacturing but monks are still making cheese today. I recently took home a lovely chunk of Abbaye de Belloc from a visit to Raoul's Deli in Maida Vale, London, where owner Geraldine Leventis told me it ranks as one of her best selling cheeses.

An unpasteurised hard ewes' milk cheese, Abbaye de Belloc was first developed in the 1960s by the monks of the abbey of Notre-Dame de Belloc, close to the Pyrenees in the South West of France, and they are still making it today.

Based on an Ossau Iraty recipe, the cheese is made with milk from the local red-nosed Manech breed of sheep between July and December and is dusted with paprika to help develop its pretty speckled brown rind. It's aged for 4-10 months.

I'm not sure how long the cheese I tried had been matured, but I'm guessing it was still relatively young. It had a lovely supple texture with a sweet creamy flavour that developed to nutty caramel with just a touch of wet wool (try it and you'll see what I mean!)

I'd advise against chutneys and pickles. It's a delicate cheese that deserves your full contemplation.   

Where to buy: Raoul's Deli, Henri of Edinburgh, La Cave a Fromage

How to eat: Slice and eat. Don't mess about with chutney.

What to drink: A creamy white Burgundy works well, or try a nutty Manzanilla Pasada sherry.

7 Nov 2011

The art of affinage?

It's not just the washed rind cheeses in the maturing rooms of New York's cheesemongers that have strong personalities, judging by an interesting article in the New York Times. The people running the shops and making the cheese have equally robust views when it comes to the divisive issue of 'affinage'.

You can read the article for yourself here, but, to summarise, the New York cheese fraternity seems to be split into two camps. On one side are mongers like Murray's Cheese, who have built their own temperature and humidity-controlled cheese rooms so that they can practice the art of affinage - a European tradition which involves skillfully maturing and developing cheeses to perfection.

On the other are those that argue that mongers are dressing up simple 'cheese care', practised by all good retailers, as affinage so that they can charge customers more. Or as cheesemonger and author Steve Jenkins puts it in the article: “This affinage thing is a total crock.”

There's nothing a journalist likes more than a good old ding dong, so not surprisingly issues are painted in black and white in the article when in reality they are varying shades of opinion on the subject. That said, it does raise some interesting questions, such as, what is affinage and how is it different to just looking after a product?

In the UK cheesemongers and wholesalers such as Neal's Yard, Paxton & Whitfield and La Fromagerie all claim affineur status. Martin Knapp, the manager of Paxton & Whitfield's shop in Bristol, told me over Twitter that in his opinion, "if you change the nature of the cheese, it's affinage". 

The kind of things Paxton gets up to includes making its own truffle bries, soaking the French blue Fourme d'Ambert in sweet Monbazillac wine and ageing cheddars for several months to get a more mature cheese. Knapp also explained that Paxton takes very young or vacuum-packed cheeses that do not have any rind and stores them in a 'rinding room', which has the right temperature and humidity to encourage mould growth.

Where it gets confusing is that some of the stuff talked about by Paxton is done by all cheesemongers. Justin Tunstall at Town Mill Cheesemongers in Lyme Regis told me he turns his cheeses, allows them to breathe or covers where necessary, adjusts heat and humdity and trims and dresses them for display. That sounds like there are elements of affinage going on to me, but he classes it as just 'cheese care'.

It's this grey area that gets some people so hot under the collar. One deli owner told me: "There are too many cheesemongers who think they are the second coming of [legendary British affineur] James Aldridge when all they are doing is caring well for their cheese. I was astounded at the markup some wholesalers/affineurs put on a product for what will effectively be turning the cheese a few times in their 'maturing' room. I think it is a veritable pisstake."

It sounds like the cheese care versus affinage argument is not just an American one, but what do you think? When does cheese care become affinage? And are cheeses from affineurs justifiably more expensive?