28 Feb 2012

Paxton & Whitfield: 200 years and counting

Paxton & Whitfield had been selling cheese for nearly 30 years when a financial crisis known as the 'Panic of 1825' saw the British stock market crash and the Bank of England saved from collapse by a massive bail-out from the French.

Since then the retailer has seen the rise and fall of the British Empire, two World Wars and the Great Depression, so today's economic woes are nothing new to what is probably the oldest cheesemonger in Britain, if not the world.

First recorded as a partnership in 1797, but with history that can be traced back to 1742 and a stall at Aldwych Market, Paxton & Whitfield is today owned by entrepreneur Andrew Brownsword, who made his money in (cheesy) greetings cards and also owns Gidleigh Park Hotel. There are shops in Bath and Stratford upon Avon, but it's the London store in Jermyn Street that is a must for cheese fiends.

Anywhere between 150-200 cheese are crammed into the shop's counters at any one time, many of which have been matured in the temperature-controlled ripening rooms under the store. British cheeses rule, but there are plenty from elsewhere, including an amazing selection of French classics from Paris' most famous fromagerie Androuet (which is a paltry 103 years old).

If you haven't been to the Jermyn Street store recently, you'll be in for a shock. What was a dark cramped space that belonged in a Dickens novel has been transformed into an open contemporary shop with a nice tasting room at the back. The clever trick is that it still feels like a traditional cheesemonger. The gorgeous black and gold frontage has wisely been left well alone and staff still sport smart black aprons.

Keeping a 200-year-old business fresh is a tricky balancing act. Go too modern and you alienate the old boys with red trousers (and faces) that still totter around this part of London, but fail to move with the times and you won't attract the next generation of cheese lovers.

“I doubt there's a cheesemonger that has the history and heritage that we have. We're really proud of that and we would never want to forget it, but equally if we are going to continue for another 200 years we need to reflect what customers expect in the 2010s, “ MD Ros Windsor (below) told me for a recent article in Fine Food Digest.

She took over the running of the business 10 years ago and has since introduced a new brand and swanky website with an excellent online ordering section. One of the shop managers even tweets on behalf of the company here: @Paxtonscheese

The cheese counter has also moved with the times. Top sellers remain old school favourites like Montgomery's cheddar, Cropwell Bishop Stilton and Brie de Meaux, but new cheeses developed directly with cheesemakers also get their chance.

Cropwell's new blue Beauvale was trialled in Paxton stores last year and Robin Skailes developed his traditional rennet Stilton in conjunction with the shop. Other recentish additions to the range include 18-month Mossfield Organic – an Irish Gouda-style cheese apparently loved by Bruce Springsteen – and goats' cheese Windrush.

“The UK market is about as vibrant as it gets at the moment,” says Windsor. “Lots of youngsters are coming through, with Welbeck (School of Artisan Food) helping to develop a new generation of cheesemakers, but even the old established cheesemakers are bringing new cheeses to the market. That's really exciting.”

23 Feb 2012

The Scottish blues explosion

Blue cheese buffs should check out Scottish producer HJ Errington, which has all bases covered after launching a new blue goats' cheese. 

Based at Walston Braehead farm in Ogcastle, just south of Edinburgh, the company is best known for its Lanark Blue ewes' milk cheese, which has been dubbed Scotland’s answer to Roquefort. But it has also long made a powerful blue cows' milk cheese called Dunsyre Blue, and has just completed the 'milk set' with a goats' cheese called Biggar Blue, after the nearby town.

I haven't managed to get my hands on it yet, but, according to Scottish distributor Clarks Speciality Foods, it has a “clean sharp taste with strong but pleasant goaty notes”.

It's made with unpasteurised milk and and vegetarian rennet and joins HJ Errington's other new cheese Corra Linn – a Manchego-style sheeps' milk cheese, which was launched last year. 

The cheesemaking business was set up by Cambridge graduate Humphrey Errington in 1985 and today has a 500-strong flock of Laucane sheep. Humphrey's daughter Selina Cairns, and her husband Andrew, took over four years ago, although Humprhey does keep a watchful eye over proceedings.  

Selina told me the new goats' cheese had initially just been an experiment, but Clarks had been so enthusiastic she decided to add it to the range.

“Clarks keep asking for it and it's been selling well at Gleneagles hotel, so we've decided to keep producing it,” said Cairns. “It means we now have a blue cheese made with all three different milks – goat, cow and sheep.”

17 Feb 2012

Why Stilton can't be made in Stilton

Under EU laws, Stilton cheese can only be made in the three counties of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, but a pub in the Cambridgeshire village of Stilton is on the warpath to get the rules changed. 

The Bell Inn has started making its own version of the famous blue in an effort to be included in the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), which currently limits who can make the cheese.

Stilton-based amateur historian Richard Landy and Liam McGivern, owner of the Bell Inn, have long argued that historical evidence shows the cheese was once made in the Cambridgeshire village and it should therefore be included in the PDO.

The pub, which used to be an important trading post for Stilton cheese, has now started producing cheese to a Stilton recipe in an effort to get the PDO changed – a process that requires them to prove they make the cheese commercially on a regular basis. Legally the cheese cannot be called Stilton, but will instead be served in the pub under the name Blue Bell.

The first batches of the cheese, made to a white Stilton recipe, were produced in the pub's kitchen at the beginning of February with an official application to Defra to amend the PDO due soon after. “We're starting on a small scale, but hopefully we can scale up production and make the cheese available to others,” said Landy.

Historians have long thought that Stilton cheese was named after the village of Stilton because that is where it was first sold, with production taking place in Leicestershire. However Landy says his research proves the cheese did in fact originate in the village in the early 1700s and was made there for many years before its production gradually shifted to Leicestershire and beyond.

Nigel White, chairman of the Stilton Cheesemakers' Association, said that he was “not convinced” there was a strong case for changing the PDO. He argued the new historical evidence showed that a cooked, pressed cream cheese was once produced in the village – a very different product to the semi-hard, uncooked, unpressed blue veined Stilton.

“As far as we can tell no cheese has been made in Stilton for 250 years,” he added. “The dispute is not between them and us; it's up to them to persuade Defra that the terms of the PDO should be changed. We are not convinced there's a strong case, but until we see what's put on the table we are not in a  position to say 'yay' or 'nay'.”

* Based on an article first published in the Cheeswire section of Fine Food Digest's Jan/Feb 2012 issue. Click here

8 Feb 2012

Beauvale: a new blue from Cropwell Bishop

If you love Stilton, you will know Cropwell Bishop. The company has been hand making the so-called 'King of Cheeses', along with Shropshire Blue, at its Nottinghamshire creamery for three generations and is rightly hailed as one of the country's best Stilton makers.

But for pretty much the first time in its history, Cropwell Bishop has ventured beyond its core range to launch a new squidgy blue cheese called Beauvale, which draws inspiration from Continentals such as Dolcelatte and Gorgonzola.

It's a big move for such a traditional company, which is why owners Robin and Ben Skailes (they are cousins), have spent two years developing the creamy, soft blue cheese.

Beauvale is made with pasteurised cows' milk, traditional rennet and a different strain of Penicillium roqueforti to the company's Stilton. Curds are hand-ladelled so it has a silky, rich texture that fills the mouth. It's the kind of cheese that is so soft you could literally eat it with a spoon.

“To our knowledge there isn't a British cheese out there like this. Beauvale is a British cheese to rival Continental blues,” Robin Skailes told me. “It's an entry-level blue rather than the stronger Stilton and, without sounding sexist, we've found that it's very much a ladies' cheese when we've been doing tastings.

Cheesemonger Paxton & Whitfield provided feedback during the development process and is currently the only place you can buy the cheese. The retailer has shops in London's Jermyn Street, Bath and Stratford Upon Avon, and is willing to deliver nationally - just phone your closest shop for details. Alternatively, Cropwell Bishop will also deliver.

The cheese retails at around £18-£20 per kilo.

2 Feb 2012

Rediscovering Sussex cheese

I know people bang on about the wonders of local food all the time, but I confess that I fell out of love with Sussex cheese a few years ago.

Maybe it's because I've lived in Brighton for so long and it all got a bit too familiar, but at a certain point I started taking the local cheese for granted. Instead of appreciating what I had at home, my wandering eye got the better of me and I would find myself betraying my county for sexy little numbers like Barkham Blue from Berkshire or Cerney Pyramid goat's cheese from Gloucestershire.

Somehow they seemed more exotic and glamorous than anything I could get on my doorstep, partly because they were that much more difficult to find. You always yearn for what you can't have.

But I've been reconsidering things in the past week ever since I was served a rather good cheeseboard at the Sussex Food and Drink Awards. It was made up of some of the county's lesser known cheeses and they were remarkably decent with a couple showing real potential for the future. There's more about them below.

They got me thinking about some of the other great cheeses of Sussex that I haven't paid enough attention to recently. Fantastic products like Golden Cross, Lord of the Hundreds, Flower Marie and Duddleswell, which can hold their own against the UK's best cheeses.

When you add it all together, it's obvious that this is actually a pretty amazing place for cheese, especially goat and ewes' milk. I just hope Sussex can forgive me.

Sussex Food and Drink Awards 2011/12 cheese board

Mature Charlton
Mature Charlton: This new organic cheddar-style cheese from the Goodwood Estate is made with pasteurised milk from the estate's herd of Shorthorn cattle and is rubbed in lard. On the Awards night, it was pleasantly sweet with a nice tang at the end. Not a patch on Montgomery's, but could be the start of something exciting.

Alsop & Walker's Sussex Blue
Burwash Rose: A rich unctuous unpasteurised cows' milk cheese, which is washed in brine and rosewater. This was the star of the show with a lovely floral depth from the rind. It's made by the Traditional Cheese Dairy.

Sussex Blue: This straight forward blue cheese from Alsop & Walker was smooth and creamy with tiny little blue veins. Would be good for people who struggle with powerful blues.

Sister Sarah: High Weald Dairy was named Sussex Food Producer of the Year for 2012 at the awards and they supplied this sweet, mild semi-soft goats' cheese.

Mark and Sarah Hardy (centre) of High Weald Dairy
collect their Sussex Food Producer of the Year award