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.

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