30 Dec 2012

Ribblesdale Cheese: room for two

Wallace's smile wouldn't have been quite so wide if he'd known that the nice bit of Yorkshire Wensleydale brought to him by Gromit could well have been made in Shropshire, Cheshire or even (whisper it) Lancashire. 

Like many territorial cheeses, most Wensleydale is now manufactured on an industrial scale miles away from the beautiful Yorkshire valley where it was traditionally made. Most cheesemongers know there is an exception to this sad state of affairs in the form of the Wensleydale Creamery, which is based in Hawes in the North Yorkshire dales. 

What is less well known is that there is actually another cheese maker in the town making Wallace's favourite fromage. Ribblesdale Cheese was set up in 1978 by Iain Hill in the nearby village of Horton-in-Ribblesdale, but after he passed away in 2006 his niece Iona Hill took over the business and relocated it to Hawes. 

Not that the Wensleydale Creamery would have been too worried by the competition. Ribblesdale is a fraction of the size of its neighbour, as Iona Hill explains: “They employ 200 people and have a turnover of £22m. We employ two people – me and cheesemaker Stuart Gatty – and our turnover is £350,000. There's really no comparison.” 

That said, Hill is keen to play up the fact that she also makes Wensleydale in Hawes, pointing out that in the 2011 Great Taste Awards her cheese received two stars, while her larger neighbour picked up just one for its Wensleydale. “We know we can make it, it's just that we don't have the market because everyone associates Hawes with Wensleydale Dairy,” she says. “It's a shame because my big mantra is that there are two cheese makers in Hawes.”

Despite the difference in size, or perhaps because of it, relations between the two companies are good. Richard Clarke, Wensleydale Creamery's head cheesemaker uses Ribblesdale's premises once or twice a month to make an unpasteurised Wensleydale – something that would be tricky at creamery which is dedicated to pasteurised milk.“I'm happy to work with them rather than against them,” says Hill.

Ribblesdale also makes its own unpasteurised Wensleydale, using milk from a local pedigree herd, as well as a pasteurised version and a new product called Yorkshire Bowlers - red waxed balls of Wensleydale that look like cricket balls.

However, cow's milk cheese remains a small part of the business with 85% of production coming from hard goat's cheeses, including best sellers such as Original Goat and Superior Goat gouda.

To continue reading this article, which was first published in the Dec issue of Fine Food Digest, click here and turn to p21.

18 Dec 2012

Cropwell Bishop Stilton: blue velvet

Mince pies and turkey are all well and good, but it's the salty tang of Stilton that is the true taste of Christmas for cheese lovers. 

Britain's most famous blue is the perfect partner for port or Christmas cake, but there's another reason why it's the cheese of choice over the festive period. Stilton is in its absolute prime in December because it has been made with rich summer milk.

Robin Skailes at Cropwell Bishop Creamery in Nottinghamshire, whose family have been making Stilton for over 60 years, explains: “The Stilton you eat at Christmas has been maturing for at least 10 weeks, so was actually made in September. That's when the cows have been feeding on the lush pastures of the Peak District all summer, so they are producing the ultimate milk for making a soft blue cheese just in time for Christmas.”

Robin and his cousin Ben Skailes are the third generation of the family to Stilton. Like their grandfather, Frank, who bought the company in 1949, they are sticklers for tradition, especially when it comes to choosing a perfect cheese for their own Christmas dinner.

“There's always a huge piece of Stilton on the table in the Skailes household at Christmas,” say Skailes. “Each year our head grader puts aside a few really good cheeses and my father makes a special visit to the dairy to personally pick the best one for the family. It's a long family tradition.”

Protected by EU laws in the same way as Parmesan or Champagne, Stilton can only be made in the three counties of Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire using traditional recipes. The strict rules mean there are currently only five Stilton producers, some of which are large industrial manufacturers, but not much has changed at Cropwell Bishop since Skailes' grandfather took over.

Robin Skailes
Milk is sourced from small family farms, while almost all of the work is still done by hand from cutting the curds to filling and turning the moulds to ensure the cheeses form evenly inside – an impressive feat when you consider that 500 of the 7.5kg Stilton 'rounds' are made every day.

Strong arms are required for this weighty job, says Skailes, but a light touch is all important when the cheeses are removed from their hoops. A team of nimble-fingered ladies 'rub up' the young rounds using a knife and a flick of the wrist to smooth the sides and create an air-tight seal. 

To continue reading this article, which first appeared in the December 2012 issue of Harods Magazine, click here 

29 Nov 2012

Manchego wins nail-biting World Cheese Awards 2012

You could have cut the tension with (ahem) a cheese wire. A crowd of fromage freaks watched nervously from the sidelines . Bob Farrand, co-organiser of the World Cheese Awards 2012, suddenly blurted out that he had goosebumps. 

For the first time in the awards' history, there was a tie between two cheeses in the battle to be named World Champion. In one corner was a Manchego. In the other a blue buffalo milk cheese from Italy. They were the last two cheeses standing from 2,781 entrants to the annual competition. After guzzling cheese for eight hours, the grand panel of judges had one last crucial decision to make. Which of the two would take the title?

In the end the Manchego won it by a whisker after a show of hands vote from the judges. Made by a company called Dehesa de los Llanos in Albacete, the Manchego DO Gran Reserva is made with raw milk and matured for at least nine months. It was the first Champion from mainland Spain in the two decades that the awards have been running.

"A stunning cheese - light, with high notes like a choral song and an aromatic, long finish,” is how the judging panel described it. After recovering from his goosebumps, Farrand declared  it "an exquisite example of an artisan cheese made with incredible skill".

The blue cheese that oh, so very nearly took the crown was a rich brick-shaped blue called Blu di Bufala (below) from a company called Azienda Agricola Gritti Bruno E Alfio. Hard cheese, you might say.

In all, 255 judges from around the world took part in the awards, staged alongside the BBC Good Food Show at the Birmingham NEC.Cheese from 30 countries was entered into the awards with 75% of entries coming from overseas. 

Two British cheese made the final shortlist of 16 Super Gold cheeses: Spenwood, a hard-pressed cheese made from unpasteurised ewe’s milk, matured for six months; and Barkham Blue, a buttery blue made with Guernsey and Jersey milk. There was also a really good showing from the US (see below for the full list).

The top 16 Super Golds at the 
World Cheese Awards 2012

Manchego DO
Gran Reserva
Dehesa de los Llanos S.L.

Blu di Bufala
Azienda Agricola Gritti Bruno E Alfio S.S.

Spenwood Ewes
Village Maid Cheese

Le Gruyère AOC 1655
Fromage Gruyère

Soignon Chevre de Caractere produced
by Eurial

Melkbus Boerenkaas
Uniekaas Nederland

Cellars at Jasper Hill

Stärnächäs Extra Würzig
Walo von Mühlenen

Le Gruyère AOC Switzerland
– Cave Aged
Walo von Mühlenen

Rogue River Blue
Rogue Creamery

Comte AOP produced by Arnaud
QST / Cheese de France

Barkham Blue
Two Hoots Cheese

Bandage Wrapped Cheddar
Fiscalini Cheese Company

Sierra de Albarracín – Blue Label
Queso Artesano de Teruel

Rotwii Bärgler, Red Nose
Walo von Mühlenen

Grafton Village Cheese Co.

The entire list of all the award winners can be downloaded here.

22 Nov 2012

Cheese brain of Britain: a tasting at Leiths

Meet Tom Badock. That's him there in the very badly taken photo (my fault) holding a small round cheese in the palm of his hand.

Look at him closely. He appears to be a perfectly normal individual (apart perhaps for the bow tie), but I can assure you that he is not like everyone else. This man is one of the preeminent cheese brains of Britain.

I know this because I was recently invited to a cheese tasting hosted by Badock at Leiths School of Food & Wine, where he spoke solidly and entertainingly about mountain cheeses for the best part of three hours.

Describing the event as a 'cheese tasting' is a bit like saying The Odyssey is a story about a bloke taking a holiday cruise round some Greek islands.

Badcock's talk, which was subtitled Altitude, Attitude and Magnificence, was a tour of some of Europe's best mountain cheeses taking in thousands of years of history, the importance of cheese in culture and language and even how the modern banking system owes a huge debt (excuse the pun) to cheese making and maturing.

He works for the Cheese Cellar, one of Britain's largest wholesalers of artisan and farmhouse cheeses to food halls, delis and restaurants, and he has made it his mission "to know more about cheese than anyone else".

"It's a hopeless task," he said looking rather happy.

We started with a Pecorino Sardo Fiore - a simple 'prehistoric' cheese, according to Badock, which has been made for over 10,000 years. Originally, shepherds would have cooked sheep's milk over open wood fires and curdled it with fig leaves in their mountain huts. It was rough and spicy and had a soapy rind due to saponification - a process that is used to make soap. "The gap between soap and cheese is very narrow," said Badcock seriously.

These little nuggets of knowledge peppered the entire evening (see below) and was the kind of geeky knowledge that fans of QI (like me) appreciate.

Badcock showed that cheese is a way of understanding the world. I've heard Sheila Dillon of BBC Radio 4's Food Programme say something similar about how food is a lens through which to understand what's happening around us.

We tried 16 different cheeses altogether, plus copious amounts of bread and chutney. Top cheeses of the night included a Pastourelle Roquefort and an Italian cow and sheep's milk cheese called Testun al Barolo,which is covered in nebiollo grape must and matured by Bepino Occelli. It was sweet and creamy and alcoholic.

I have to admit that I was reeling by the end - more from the cheese than anything else. Everyone else seemed to be tucking into the final plate of Reblochon fermier quite happily, but I could only manage a few bites. I don't like to think of myself as a cheese lightweight, so I'm blaming a huge lunch just a few hours before.

Top cheese facts from Tom Badcock:

* The words 'fromage' and 'formaggio' come from the ancient Greek word for baskets - 'phormos' - which were used as cheese moulds. 'Cheese' comes from the Latin word for the food itself, 'caseus'.

* The holes in Emmental come from a particular type of bacteria, which emits carbon dioxide. The gas rises to the top and would break through the rind, if it wasn't for the fact the cheeses are turned regularly.

* The mountain villages where Gruyere and Comte are made tend to be around eight miles from each other because this is how far a cow can walk in a day.

* Cheese was historically so valuable that it was used as collateral and to store wealth, like gold. Large cheeses like Gruyere and Parmesan would be kept in underground vaults as they matured and increased in value - just like money accrues interest in banks today.  

Leiths School of Food & Wine in West London holds regular tasting classes on a variety of subjects. They last for two hours (although ours lasted more like three) and cost £75. See here for more details.

9 Nov 2012

The London Cheese & Wine Guide

Last week saw the launch of this great little guide to the best places to buy cheese and wine in London. You often see small sections in guide books on where to buy good food and drink, but it's weird that that no-one has thought to do something more specific and comprehensive before. It seems like such an obvious good idea.

The book is split into sections on cheesemongers, delicatessens, wine merchants, wine bars and food halls with concise reviews and photos of the venues, plus useful information on prices, types of cheese and opening hours.

My favourite sections were dedicated to the best cheese stalls at London markets (it must have taken the editors Lucy Gregory and Jeffrey Young ages to put that bit together), as well as a nice selection of restaurants that do good cheeseboards, such as Le Gavroche, Medlar and Brawn. Some of the chefs have also supplied some excellent cheesey recipes like Baronet and Cauliflower Bavarois (The Square) and Parmesan Biscuits (Chez Bruce).

The book was launched at Harrods, which not surprisingly appears in the Food and Wine Halls section (its cheese counter stocks around 135 cheeses apparently), with some interesting cheeese and wine matches from Gregory and wine writer Matthew Jukes (pictured below), who has also contributed to the book.

The standout tipple was a 2008 Chablis (Pinson Grand Cru Les Clos), which was full of zest and minerality, and was just too good for the Beaufort. There was also an amazing sherry-like Vin Jaune from the Comte region, served with some 24-month aged cheese.

I really liked a mysterious blue cheese soaked in alcohol (red wine?) called Blue 61. I can't tell you anymore about it, except that it was rich, creamy and boozy, and probably Italian. There was also a strange 'Dolce Blu' cheese (pictured), which had been matured in whiskey and was covered in chocolate. I love chocolate, whiskey and cheese, but just not all at the same time.

The London Cheese & Wine Guide (169 pages) is published by Allegra Publications and has an RRP of £11.95 (although it's cheaper than that on Amazon.)


31 Oct 2012

A coastal cheeseboard

The seaside seemed like an obvious theme for the Brighton Food Society's most recent culinary shindig, which saw us put on a five-course 'Beyond the Pier' meal for 40 people during the Brighton and Hove Food and Drink Festival

It meant we could plunder Sussex waters for fish and seafood and take inspiration from the junk food served on Brighton pier. It also gave us the chance to mess about with inflatable dolphins and our own crazy golf course as we took over the Brighthelm Centre for the evening.

The only tricky bit was coming up with a coastal cheeseboard, but with a bit of help from Paxton & Whitfield, we managed to put together a pretty decent selection.

Here's what we went for:

Isle of Mull Cheddar
Cow's milk, unpasteurised, trad rennet
During the summer the Reade family's cows graze on peaty pastures close to the sea on the beautifully rugged Isle of Mull, which helps lend the cheese a salty tang. The cheese we had on the night was quite pale in colour and had a strong fruity, almost fermented flavour, which suggests it might actually have been made with winter milk. This is when the cows are brought inside and fed on a diet of silage and spent grain husks – called draff - from the whisky distillery at Tobermory, which lends the cheese a yeasty sharpness.

Fleur de Maquis
Ewe's milk, pasteurised, trad rennet
Another island cheese, made with ewe's milk in the Bastia region of Corsica and coated in dried herbs, juniper berries and sweet bird's chillies, which the sheep feed on as they wander the rugged terrain. It's a semi-soft sweet and nutty cheese with quite intense aromatic and spicy flavours from the herbs.

Cow's milk, pasteurised, trad rennet
This washed rind cheese is made on a 250 acre coastal farm in West Cork with the Atlantic Ocean bordering one boundary and Mount Gabriel to the North, sheltering the pasture where Gubbeen's herd of cows graze during the summer. Made by Tom and Giana Ferguson, Gubbeen is a very mellow washed rind cheese Gubbeen, which has nice fresh dairy flavours and smooth texture. Paxton and Whitfield reckon it could almost be described as an Irish Reblochon.

Cornish Blue
Cow's milk, pasteurised, vegetarian
Finding a coastal blue proved to be a bit tricky, so we ended up plumping for this buttery delicate blue, which is made in Upton Cross, near Liskeard, about 10-15 miles from the coast. The high rainfall, mild climate and relatively high humidity provide a nice environment for maturing blue. Philip and Carol Stansfield mature Cornish blue for 12-14 weeks and in 2010 it was named Supreme Champion at the World Cheese Awards.

Chatting to guests afterwards, the Isle of Mull and the Fleur de Maquis seemed to be most people's favourites. I definitely, thought the Isle of Mull was the stand out of the night. Really intense and complex with an almost alcoholic kick to it.

29 Oct 2012

Washing cheese in a Bermondsey cave

It doesn't have quite the same romance as the caves of Roquefort, but the cool, damp climate of a railway arch on an industrial estate in South East London is proving to be the perfect place to make a new washed rind cheese called Bermondsey Spa. 

Taking its name from the local neighbourhood (it's hard to believe that this inner city area was once home to a natural spring), the cheese is the brainchild of cheesemonger and maturer Tom Harding. His company Mootown is one of a new breed of micro-businesses that have sprung up over the past five years as London's street food scene has blossomed, selling everything from cupcakes to beer at London's trendy farmers' markets and food festivals.

Bermondsey Spa is actually washed with a pale ale from a fellow urban food producer - a micro-brewery called the Kernel, which is housed in the railway arch next door. “We wanted to put our own mark on the cheeses that we sell and the Kernel's beer is so yeasty and full of character that it seemed the obvious choice for making a washed rind cheese,” says Harding.

Bermondsey Spa starts out life as a Welsh cheese called Golden Cenarth, which is made by Carwyn Adams of Carmarthanshire-based Caws Cenarth. Mootown has long sold this organic washed rind cow's milk cheese on its stalls at Herne Hill market and North Cross Road market in East Dulwich, but by washing it even more with pale ale over two to three weeks it turns into a very different product altogether with a darker, stickier rind and a stronger fruity flavour.

L to R: Golden Cenarth and Bermondsey Spa
“One of our customers said in a nice way that is smells like death. It has got a very big meaty smell, but actually the flavour when you eat it is much more mild and creamy,” says Harding. “We took advice from Carwyn about washing the cheese and the environment we should keep it in. We don't claim it's perfect, but we're quite happy with it.”

Tom Harding
To continue reading this article, which was published in the October issue of Fine Food Digest, click here and turn to p30. 

10 Oct 2012

James Aldridge: the Godfather of British cheese

If you love British cheese, then you should read up on a chap called James Aldridge who died in 2001. He was a key figure in the resurrection of farmhouse cheesemaking in Britain in the 1980s and 90s, and his influence can still be felt today.

A former mechanic and scaffolder, Aldridge was a skilful maturer of cheeses (or affineur, if you prefer the French term), taking other people's cheeses and making them all his own by ageing and washing them in the cheese equivalent of alchemy.

His most famous creation was Tornegus (pictured above), which was made by washing Caerphilly in wine, but he also developed an amazing number of other cheeses that are still regarded as British classics today. Working at his dairy, the Eastside Cheese Company in Surrey, with his partner Pat Robinson, he invented cheeses such as Lord of the Hundreds, Flower Marie and Celtic Promise, among many others, sharing his recipes with fellow cheesemakers, who continue to make them today.

The end of his life was marred by an e-coli poisoning health scare, which brought him to the brink of financial ruin after officials ordered him to destroy £50,000-worth of perfectly good cheese without any compensation. The then public health minister, Tessa Jowell, acted in a pretty shameful way during the incident. There's more about it and Aldridge's life in these excellent articles in The Telegraph and by cheesemonger Carl Bennett.

Even though it's eleven years since he died, Aldridge's influence can still be seen in new cheeses being launched today, such as Francis (left), which has just won best new cheese at the British Cheese Awards. Made by James McCall of James' Cheese, who worked with Aldridge for 17 years, the washed rind cow's milk cheese is named after his former mentor (Aldridge's Christian name was actually Francis), while Martin Gott at Holker Farm in Cumbria also paid homage to Aldridge (who he met while a young boy) by calling his washed rind ewe's milk cheese St James.

Charlie Westhead of Neal's Yard Creamery
with his James Aldridge Memorial Trophy
The Specialist Cheesemakers' Association also organises an award called the James Aldridge Memorial Trophy to recognise the best raw milk cheese each year. Last year's winner was Berwick Edge and this year the accolade went to the ever excellent goat's cheese Ragstone, made by Charlie Westhead (pictured right with his SCA trophy) and Haydn Roberts at Neal's Yard Creamery.

Westhead was lucky enough to meet Aldridge on several occasions. “He was a great guy. He was extremely blunt and didn't put up with any rubbish. If he thought something was shit, he would tell you,” he recalls. “But he had a huge love of cheese and cheesemaking and was one of the first people to really get into the science side of things rather than doing things by feel. He would visit dairies free of charge and was happy to pass on advice.”

* I never met James Aldridge, so I would love to hear from cheesemakers and mongers who knew him and how he influenced the cheeses they makes and sell. Leave a comment below or drop me a line at patrick.mcguigan (at) yahoo.co.uk

30 Sept 2012

Stichelton: raw passion

L to R: Joe Schneider and Randolph Hodgson
Like most good ideas, Stichelton was conceived over several pints in a pub. The pub in question was the Wheatsheaf at Borough Market and the inspired drinkers were Randolph Hodgson of Neal's Yard Dairy and American cheesemaker Joe Schneider. As one ale led to another, the pair hatched a plan to create a raw milk version of the King of English cheeses - Stilton.

While most booze-fuelled brainwaves evaporate in the cold light of morning, this one continued to gnaw away at both Hodgson and Schneider to such an extent that in 2006 they opened a new dairy in conjunction with the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire.

The only problem was that despite making blue cheese to a Stilton recipe in the heart of Stilton country, they weren't allowed to use the name. Under EU rules, Stilton must be made with pasteurised milk, so they were forced to call it something different. They ended up with the cheekily similar Stichelton - the earliest-recorded name of the village of Stilton.

 It's a much-told story in cheese circles, but what's not so well known is that Stichelton has written to Defra to try to get Stilton's Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) amended to include unpasteurised milk. So far, Defra have yet to make a decision on the matter. “I could make Stilton with bananas, but a raw milk version isn't allowed. That's obviously perverse,” says Schneider. “The PDO should never exclude a cheese like ours. It's the only PDO in the whole of Europe that stipulates a cheese should be made with pasteurised milk. All the others stipulate the exact opposite.”

Stichelton consulted with the Specialist Cheesemakers' Association (SCA) when it was setting up and relations between the two groups remain cordial, if a little strained. The SCA included pasteurisation in the terms of the PDO in 1996 and the organisation has been known to send stiff letters to people if they refer to Stichelton as Stilton in print.

“I understand their point of view. They really don't want some yahoo farmhouse cheesemaker making a Stilton that's not safe and have an incident that might besmirch their brand, which they've worked really hard at building,” says Schneider. “But our argument is that the PDO isn't there for that reason. The PDO doesn't address issues of branding or hygiene. It's simply there to protect regional traditional foods.”

* To continue reading this article, which was first published in the September issue of Fine Food Digest, click here and turn to p27.

9 Sept 2012

Morbier: Last of the winter milk

Cheesy jokes don't go down well in the Jura mountains. They take their fromage seriously in this picturesque part of eastern France, and for good reason. It wasn't so long ago that cheese was an essential ingredient in surviving the region's long harsh winters that would bring life to a standstill. A well-stocked larder makes all the difference when the temperature is well below 0oC outside.

Spanning the border with Switzerland in the Franche-Comté province, the Jura's most famous cheeses are arguably Comté and Vacherin, but no cheeseboard from the area is complete without a slice of Morbier – a supple ivory-coloured cheese with a distinctive line of ash running through the middle.

Named after a small town high up in the spruce-covered hills and wide valleys of the Jura, the cheese is also affectionately known as 'Comté's little brother' because it was traditionally produced by Comté farmers as a way of making the most of winter milk.

During the summer, the farmers would work with each other, combining their small herds of Montbéliarde cows to produce enough milk to make large wheels of hard Comte that could be aged for years. But when the snow began to fall the red and white pied cattle would be brought back to their individual farms to be tucked up in barns for the winter. Reduced milk yields meant Comté was out of the question, so instead the farmers would make smaller, softer cheeses to see them through the cold months.

Morning milk would be turned into a curd and sprinkled with a layer of ash from the sides of the cooking cauldron to protect it from flies and bacteria. Later the same day, evening milk was used to make a second curd, which was pressed on top of the first ash-protected layer to make Morbier.

“Morbier comes from the history, the climate and the people of Jura,” explains Marc-Antoine Ducoulombier, who works for French cheese exporter Fromi. “It's been part of people's existence in this region for over 200 years and they take their cheese very seriously.”

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

20 Aug 2012

Quake cheese scheme helps Parmesan producers

John Savage-Onstwedder of Welsh producer Teifi Farmhouse Cheese is doing his bit to help Parmigiano-Reggiano producers in Italy after they were hit by two earthquakes in May.

The quakes in the Emilia-Romagna region, which killed over 20 people, caused significant damage to the warehouses where the region's PDO-protected cheeses were stored. Around 10 per cent of the annual production (over 600,000 cheeses) were damaged as the maturing shelves tumbled to the ground.

Around half of this had to be destroyed because the wheels had broken into pieces and mould had developed, while those that had suffered less severe damage were destined to become generic cheese for grating and making cream cheese.

That was until John came up with the idea of the Save a Cheese Campaign in support of his fellow raw milk cheesemakers. He is offering Brits the chance to buy their own piece of 'quake cheese' at www.saveacheese.com, which will be delivered to their door.

The bulk of the money will be paid to the individual cheesemaker with one euro per kg going to the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium for distribution to other cheese producers affected by the earthquakes.

The cheese retails for £22 per 1kg wedge (incl postage and packaging) and is stamped with the ‘Save A Cheese’ logo.

14 Aug 2012

Obikà: the restaurant built on mozzarella

There's chicken and steak at Tramshed, hot dogs at soon-to-be-opened Bubbledogs and burgers and lobsters at, erm, Burger & Lobster. But the trend for restaurants focused on just one or two dishes has surely reached a pinnacle with Obikà – a new buffalo mozzarella bar and restaurant in South Kensington.

As much as I love the soft milky cheese, which is made by stretching and kneeding the curd in warm water, opening a restaurant devoted entirely to a single type of formaggio sounds like the kind of business plan that would send Nick off the The Apprentice into one of his trademark scowls.

It turns out that the new flagship branch on Draycott Avenue is actually Obikà's second in the UK (there's a smaller outlet in the City) and the 19th opened by founder Silvio Ursini with restaurants in New York, Rome, Istanbul and Tokyo. So much for my business nous.

So how do you build an international restaurant chain on cheese? The answer is that Mozzarella di Bufala Campana is not the only thing on the menu. Yes, you can sit at the sushi-style bar and order three different types: 'classica', 'affumicata' (smoked) and burrata (mozzarella and cream), but you can also order tapas-like sides of grilled aubergine, anchovies and tomatoes, and even smoked salmon from Forman & Field. 

Then there are antipasti boards of mortadella, salami and Parma ham, pizzas, pasta dishes, such as ravioli stuffed with pumpkin and Grana Padano, and 'carne' and 'pesce' mains from the grill.

In other words, it's not that different to a lot of other Italian restaurants, but with added mozzarella, which is no bad thing in my book. Prices are pretty reasonable for this part of town (pizzas start at £10.50, pastas at £8 and the mains are all under £20), staff are friendly and they've done a good job with the interior, which is a cross between a smart neighbourhood Italian and a sushi bar. Definitely a step up from Carluccio's.

The food is also in a different league to the big chains. We were invited on the launch night and got to try different options from the menu. I liked a lot of the little side dishes, such as spicy nduja, homemade focaccia and a smoky Sicilian aubergine stew that accompanied a plate of charcuterie. The grilled veg and mozzarella (naturally) pizza had a proper thin and crispy base, although the 'pasta gentile' wasn't for me. Mint and egg don't normally hang out together for a reason. They just don't get on.

But what about the mozzarella? The key to good buffalo mozzarella is that it has to be super fresh, preferably eaten within a day of being made. If cheese is milk's leap towards immortality, mozzarella is more of a tentative step. You should still be able to taste the delicate sweetness and yoghurty tang of the milk, and it should ooze when you cut into it.

I got a bit of that with Obikà's 'classica', which is flown in three times a week from Italy, but I have had better. It was good, but it didn't leave me glassy eyed and drooling like some Mozzarella di Bufala has in the past.

Still, Obikà is definitely worth a visit if you've only ever tried those rubbery balls of mozzarella in plastic bags that the supermarkets sell.

31 Jul 2012

Yet another cheese named 'best in the world'

Another week, another cheese heralded as 'the best in the world'. This time it's a German blue cheese with an Italian-sounding name - Montagnolo Affine - which was named supreme champion at the International Cheese Awards. 

If I sound a little jaded, it's because there are now so many awards set up to find the best cheese in the world each year that it's starting to get confusing. Earlier this year an American competition called the World Championship Cheese Contest crowned a mass-produced Gouda as 'world champion', which I was a tad cynical about. 

With the ICAs in Nantwich now over, we still await the Global Cheese Awards in Frome in September and then the World Cheese Awards in November in Birmingham. That's four world/global/international cheese competitions each year. What next? The Planet Earth Cheese Awards?

To be fair to the organisers, they don't actually claim their winners to be 'best in the world'. They call them 'supreme champion' or 'world champion'. But the inference is pretty clear, which is why the newspapers almost always use those five dreaded words - 'best cheese in the world' - in their headlines.

Perhaps all four events should get together to set up a Champions League style competition, pitting each supreme champion against each other to find the one, undisputed heavyweight champion cheese of the world.  

Anyway, rant over. Time for a little info on Montagnolo Affine. It's a soft blue produced from pasteurised cow's milk by a massive German manufacturer called Kaserei Champignon. The company has group turnover of around E500m and employs around 1,000 people across five factories. It says the cheese is aromatic, creamy and has a spicy flavour. 

It was named Supreme Champion ahead of of more than 3,927 other cheeses, which were entered in a total of 226 categories. In total there were cheeses from 27 countries.

Until next time... 

26 Jul 2012

Mozzarella snow at La Cave a Fromage

Cheese on toast is about as far as it goes when it comes to cooking with cheese in my house. Montgomery's on sourdough (if I've got it) with Tommy K or Worcestershire Sauce and lots of black pepper is pretty much the perfect lunch in my opinion.

So I was intrigued when Hove-based cheesemonger La Cave a Fromage announced they were teaming up with a chef called Chris Bailey to put on a 'taste of cheese' meal with every course featuring cheese in some way.

Bailey has recently moved to Brighton and is currently gauging the lie of the land before hopefully opening his own restaurant. It's an exciting prospect because he has a pretty decent CV that includes The Bentley, Chez Bruce and more recently The Black Rat in Winchester, where he won and retained a Michelin star.

The menu at La Cave featured a succession of fun dishes with cheffy twists, such as a playful take on a Ploughman's complete with a Brillat Savarin toastie and pickled onions, a Bleu de Basque risotto and 16-hour slow-cooked Angus beef cheek with a Beaufort rarebit and tangy blonde beer ‘air’.

But the star of the show was a pretty dish of mozzarella 'snow' and smoked anchovy, which came with an arty arrangement of baby carrots, radicchio and celery shoots laced with a sweet ice wine vinegar.

The 'snow' was essentially just frozen cheese, shaved into into icy particles. It sounds a bit gimmicky and Italian mozzarella purists might disapprove, but I liked the sensation of the icy flakes melting in my mouth before the milky flavour of the cheese came through. It was like a savoury cheese sorbet and it looked amazing against the dark slate. 

Speaking to Chris after the event it turns out that mozzarella snow is really easy to make. Here's the recipe: 

Mozzarella snow
300g   Fresh buffalo mozzarella
100g   water
1/2no. lemon juice
black pepper

Blitz the mozzarella and and water to a smooth puree in a liquidiser. Season with lemon juice and season well (frozen food needs more seasoning). Freeze in a plastic tub till solid. Shave as you would a granita with a fork and store in the freezer till needed (use that day).
Use the best mozzarella you can for flavour. If using cheaper mozzarella which is usually drier, add a little more liquid to compensate.

22 Jul 2012

Martin Gott: a bit of a cheese fascist

I first spoke to Martin Gott last year about his new Brother David washed rind cow's milk cheese. It ended up being less a new product story and more a discourse on how retailers treat washed rind cheeses as the 'joke' of the cheese counter.

The outspoken Cumbrian cheese maker and monger doesn't disappoint second time round, airing opinions on everything from why local cheeses are often “crap” to how being “a bit of a fascist” is a good thing in the cheese shop. “I enjoy turning people's perceptions on their head and stirring things up a bit,” he admits.

It might sound like youthful bravado (he has only just turned 30), but Gott has more experience in artisan food than most people 10 years older. The son of well-known Cumbrian pig farmer and retailer Peter Gott, he worked with his dad from the age of 14 selling cheese and meat at country fairs and Borough Market. He left school at 17 to go full-time with his father, before striking out on his own as a cheesemaker, learning his trade with Graham Kirkham at Mrs Kirkham's and Mary Holbrook at Sleight Farm in Somerset, where he also kept his own sheep and started to make his own cheese.

Gott and his partner Nicola Robinson moved back to Cumbria in 2006, taking a 20-acre holding on the Holker Estate near Cartmel and setting up their own business, Holker Farm Dairy. In 2007 they went through the traumatic experience of having to cull their entire flock because of disease, but today have just under 100 Lacaune sheep and seven Shorthorn cows. They produce two unpasteurised seasonal ewe's milk cheeses (St James and Swallet) and the raw cow's milk Brother David.

St James was named in honour of legendary cheese maker and maturer James Aldridge and, in a nice turn of fate, won the James Aldridge Award for 'Best Unpasteurised Cheese of the Year' in 2005. Washed in brine, the ewe's milk cheese has an intense smoky, meaty flavour with a texture that can range from crumbly to creamy.

The company produces around 10 tonnes of cheese a year, the majority of which is sold to Neal's Yard in London and through its own shop, Cartmel Cheeses. This was set up with Nicola's father Ian Robinson in 2010 and has just been expanded by buying the bakery next door.

Gott says he set up the shop because he has always loved the interaction that comes with retail - “I don't do well put in a room on my own for seven hours making cheese” - but he was also “frustrated as hell” by local delis and farm shops. “They couldn't handle a specialist cheese like ours. They just wanted something with a local stamp on regardless of what it tasted like. I spent increasing amounts of time ranting at deli owners about how they should sell cheese and eventually realised I was wasting my time. I thought, 'I'll show them.'”

The shop sells around 50 mainly British cheeses, including well known names such as Innes, Stichelton and Tunworth, and follows a strict policy of only stocking products that are 'on form'.

“It can be a soul-searching question. Do you stock stuff because customers keep asking for it or do you stock it because you think it's a really good cheese. If we put a pile of Baby Belles on the counter, people would buy them, but that doesn't mean we should be selling them. You've got to be a bit of a fascist at the end of the day,” he says.  

* To continue reading this article, which was first published in the June issue of Fine Food Digest, click here and turn to p17.

18 Jul 2012

Top five cheese and cake matches

If you've got space for dessert after working your way from nose to tail at St John in Smithfield, the stand-out choice for cheese chaps and chapettes is the Eccles cake and Lancashire.

Eating cheese with cake might sound a bit weird at first, but it makes sense when you think about it. The intensely sweet raisins in the Eccles cake act a bit like chutney to the crumbly cheese, balancing out the curdy tang.

I've long liked a slice of Stilton on my Christmas cake – a festive tradition that I thought was practised throughout the country, but after asking around nobody else seems to have heard of it.

Anyway, I decided to dig a little deeper into the world of cheese and cake matching by consulting the hive mind of Twitter. It turns out that I'm not actually the only person out there who likes a bit of bakery and curd action because my time line was soon flooded with suggestions.

I put them to taste with the help of cheesemongers Paxton & Whitfield and Gail's Artisan Bakery, plus bakery journo Andy Williams and bad taste cake queen Miss Cakehead. This essentially involved spending an afternoon eating and pontificating about cake and cheese.

Here we are getting philosophical at Gail's Bakery in Soho.

Here are the cheeses, which included: Windrush Valley; Smoked Lincolnshire; Cropwell Bishop Stilton; Kirkham's Lancashire; Appleby's Cheshire; Berkswell; Barkham Blue; Tymsboro; St Wulfstan; Pecorino; Epoisses; Paxton's Cheddar; Golden Cross. 

And the cakes, including: Chelsea bun; dark chocolate brownie; parkin; walnut cake; Eccles cake; fruit cake; Wiltshire fruit loaf; plum bread; Madeira cake; apple crumble cake; lemon drizzle. 

We tasted around 15 different cakes and 15 different cheeses, trying combinations that had been recommended on Twitter or we thought would be interesting. In total we probably tried around 30 different matches. Here in ascending order are our top five... drumroll....


Epoisses and Botham's plum bread
Plum bread is a speciality of Lincolnshire and is traditionally eaten with a slice of Lincolnshire Poacher. Fair enough, but we felt the plum bread acted as a good neutral base for the spicy meaty flavours of Epoisses. 


Pecorino and Gail's lemon drizzle cake
The Pecorino was quite austere with a hard almost crunchy texture and salty tang, which was brilliant at cutting through the cake's sweetness. It also matched up to the intense citrus flavour.


Roquefort and Paxton's fruit cake (pictured above)
We'd almost given up on finding a cake that could match the might of Roquefort. Most combinations were pretty disgusting, until we broke out the fruit cake. The sweet candied fruit contrasted beautifully with the salty sharpness of the cheese. Potent.


St Wulfstan and Gail's apple crumble cake (above)
One is a yoghurty organic cow's milk cheese. The other is a moist, spicy apple cake that crumbles at the slightest touch. Squish them together and you have something that transcends the crude and simplistic categories of 'cake' and 'cheese'. It should have its own name, like 'chake' or 'cheeke'. An almost spiritual experience.


Tymsboro aged goat's cheese and Gail's chocolate brownie (above)
Yes, you read that right. Goat's cheese and chocolate brownie was the clear cake and cheese champion. In the cake corner, with a steely glint in its eye, was an insanely rich brownie made with three types of chocolate at 53%, 70% and 100% cocoa content. In the curd corner, wearing the white trunks, was a 6-7 week aged pyramid of Tymsboro, with almond notes and a proper goaty tang. You might think they would beat seven bells out of each other, but the flavours were actually perfectly attuned to each other. Rich, silky and intense, it was a sexy Argentine tango rather than a punch up.

A few hints and tips on cake and cheese matching

● You need a surprisingly large slice of cheese to balance out the sweetness of the cake. A 50/50 ratio is about right, although perhaps a bit less cheese with big boys like Epoisses and Roquefort.

● You're generally on to a winner if the cake contains dried fruit and spice. Fruit cake, Eccles, Plum Bread worked with most cheeses.

● Not all cakes are created equal. Generally the cakes I bought in Waitrose and M&S like the walnut and the parkin were a real let down compared to those from Gail's, which were much fresher. Good cheese should not be wasted on bad cake.

● I'll probably get some stick from irate Mancunians over this, but Eccles cakes go better with Stilton than Lancashire cheese. There I've said it.

● Finally, Chelsea buns and Stilton should not mix. Ever.

With thanks to the following Twitterers, whose suggestions were all definitely worth a try (except for the smoked cheddar with brownies, which was just wrong on many levels).
@MatthewTDrennan Berkswell and pear tart.
@zannawansell Fresh goat's cheese with lemon polenta cake
@designfrontuk Smoked cheddar and brownies
@CurdNerd Lancashire & Eccles.
@ApplebysCheese Applebys Cheshire and Staffordshire oatcakes; pecorino and panettone.
@JasonTTHurwitz Barkham Blue lightly grilled on parkin.
@brightonseagull Cheddar and Battenberg.
@tentspitch Wensleydale and parkin
@Martink10 Walnut cake and roquefort.
@MissCay Apple pie and cheese. It's big in Wisconsin apparently: “Apple pie without cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze.”
@AoaFoodie Lancashire with Eccles cake.