Rethinking English Cheese

18Reasons' cheese tasting

18Reasons’ cheese tasting

I thought I knew English cheese.  Turned out I’d never tasted it before–until the 18Reasons event “Stichelton and Hafod: Modern/Traditonal British Cheese”.

Britain isn’t known for its cuisine, but we have our national treasures.  Beer, stodgy puddings and two cheeses: Cheddar and Stilton.  Cheddar was a staple in my kitchen growing up, grated into sauces and baked with macaroni.  No party was complete without it pierced on cocktail sticks.  Cheddar formed the backbone of many meals–Ploughman’s lunch, cheese and pickle sandwiches – even on the common spud.

As for Stilton, its sharp blue veins and strong smell have polarized Britons for centuries.  A particular favorite at Christmas (served with port) – and instigator of countless arguments for stinky cars, fridges and pantries.

Yet, like many people, my experience with both varieties is through supermarket purchase – wrapped in plastic and appealingly inexpensive.  This exposure is a far cry to what’s on offer through small-scale artisan producers–and shops like Neal’s Yard.

To a layperson like me, the tasting at 18Reasons was eye-opening (and mouthwatering).

©Neals Yard Dairy, Covent Garden

©Neals Yard Dairy, Covent Garden

NEALS YARD DAIRY

The evening was presented by Jason Hinds, Sales Director for London’s Neals Yard Dairy.  Located in Convent Garden and Borough Market, it purveys the best of British cheese.  They stock a few brands from the US, but shipping is uneconomical.

Sam Holden and Jason Hinds.

Sam Holden and Jason Hinds.

Jason guided us through the sampling ritual–a sensuous experience that combined sight, smell and taste.  As with wine, cheese examination follows a method for critical evaluation:

  1. Examine against the light.  Look for color changes along its length and differences between rind and center.
  2. Break off a chunk and press/roll between thumb & forefinger.  Notice whether it gives, its texture, or how moist/greasy it may be.  Repeat at different sections along the spear.
  3. Sniff.  Variations in aroma can be detected in the sample (throughout its length).
  4. Taste.
Cheese plate

Cheese plate: Cheddar on top, Stichelton on bottom.

HAFOD CHEESE

First up was Sam Holden from Holden Farm Dairy, producer of Hafod Cheese.  Hafod is made in small quantities using raw milk from their herd of Ayrshire cows.  After grazing organic pastures on their farm in West Wales, the milk is rich, sweet and high in butterfat.

Sam detailed the production process of his “Welsh Cheddar”–a tried and tested story which finally drew inspiration from antique methods. On our plate were three spears of cheese – each representing different samples from evolving batches.   As we pinched, sniffed and sampled we were counseled on what to look for.  Most noticeable was an evolution of texture and depth in flavor between batches.  It was definitely unlike any Cheddar I’d tasted–a bit like experiencing real vegetables after only having had tinned.

Stichelton cheese.  ©Stichelton Dairy Ltd.

Stichelton cheese. ©Stichelton Dairy Ltd.

STICHELTON

The biggest surprise came from Joe Schneider’s Stichelton.  With the help of Randolph Hodgson (Neal’s Yard) Joe rediscovered the traditional method of producing Stilton cheese–using raw milk.  Due to an EU protection order, products calling themselves “Stilton” have to be made using pasturized milk.  As a result, Joe uses the Anglo-Saxon spelling for his brand (coined from the town of Stilton in Cambridgeshire).

Hailing from Nottinghamshire–the heart of English blue–Stichelton cheese is also produced in small batches. The delicate balance between cream cheese and blue mould was explained, and our sampling focused on its maturation process.

First we examined a young cheese, completely pale with no veins–resembling a Lancashire with a citrusy/crumbly feel.  Then we moved to a mid-phase cheese, with some blue introduced, but not enough to do its job.  We were told that penicillin helps cut into the proteins, but at this stage it still retained the “bitterness of youth”.  Finally, the aged Stichelton. Completely unexpected and different to anything I’d tasted before.  Sweet, nectary, savory and smooth – melting on the tongue.

I left the evening with a greater appreciation for the craft of cheesemaking, and was excited that part of England’s food heritage is undergoing a resurgence.  If the tasting event was anything to go by, they can’t fail to find a hungry audience.

Links:

Hafod Cheddar – Information sheet.  http://www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk/cheeses/Hafod.pdf

Hafod website – http://www.hafodcheese.co.uk/

Stichelton Dairy – http://stichelton.co.uk/

Neals Yard Dairy – http://www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk/

18Reasons – http://www.18reasons.org/

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