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
salt
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....

FIFTH PLACE

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. 

FOURTH

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.

THIRD

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.

SECOND

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.


FIRST PLACE & OVERALL WINNER

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.