On Cheeses

Earlier this week Branston Pickles released the results of a survey they commissioned to find out, amongst other things, the ten favourite cheeses of the people of Britain. The Telegraph duly obliged and published the press release with little or no comment.

Elitistreview naturally have far higher editorial standards than The Telegraph, so I wanted to not only share my thoughts regarding my fellow Brits’ cheese tastes, but also provide a helpful guide to where you can find some of the best examples of each.

Britain’s Top 10 Cheesy Comestibles

The List
1. Cheddar
2. Mozzarella
3. Red Leicester
4. Brie
5. Parmesan
6. Stilton
7. Wensleydale
8. Feta
9. Camembert
10. Cream cheese

When I first read the list, the first thing that struck me was that my fellow countrymen have surprisingly good taste in cheese. The world of cheese is far too complex and bewildering for me to even be able to contemplate declaring what my personal top ten would be, but six or perhaps seven out of the ten are not obviously out of the running.

I was surprised because I have had many experiences in cheese shops which have led me to believe that the English, at least, are pathologically afraid of cheese. Not only do people buy 75 grams of cheese, but they also make it clear that they are only doing so under protest. They go to great lengths to make the vendor and anyone within earshot aware that they are having a dinner party. Offering your guests a laughably small amount of cheese is apparently an unavoidable part of the horror of the evening.

Of course, there is great cheddar, and there is (an awful lot of) bad cheddar. Merely expressing a preference for a cheese is no guarantee of liking the right kind of that cheese. So, my article aims to offer perpetually perplexed dinner party hosts some help on which particular one of these cheeses they should get to make their dreary event a bit less horrid. Our vast numbers of more culinary educated readers might also find this of interest.

My favourites from the Big List of Britain’s cheesy favourites

Cheddar

Wow, this is a hard one. There are so many good cheddars and cheddar-like cheeses. I like Cheddar a lot. M&S Processed Mature Cheddar slices are good on burgers, but perhaps not for a dinner party.

The cheddar I enjoy the most, the most often, is Lincolnshire Poacher, which like virtually all cheddars is not actually a Cheddar. Lincolnshire Poacher should ideally be very old, but not so old as to has veins of mould in it. I have had several good ones from Neal’s Yard, but the consistently best ones I have bought from the brilliant Cheese Stall, one of the many best things about living in Winchester.

Mozzarella

An Italian friend of mine refuses to eat Mozzarella unless he is in Campania, as he claims it gets ruined by being refrigerated. I have never been further south than Rome, so I cannot attest to the truth of this.

I am not saying that Mozzarella MUST be made from Buffalo milk in order to be great, but they seem to be the best. I have had many marvellous Buffalo Mozzarellas in restaurants as well as from Neal’s Yard Dairy, La Fromagerie, and many other places which have been air-freighted from Italy at great expense but my favourite Mozzarella comes from a lot closer to home. From Hampshire, to be precise.

The unpasteurised Buffalo Mozzarella from Laverstoke Park Farm is utterly, unbeatably delicious precisely because it is so fresh. We bought three balls for a fiver at farmer’s market last Sunday. The cheese had been made that Thursday, and was probably as close to perfect Mozzarella as you can get without the expense of a trip to Naples. They were amazing with Isle of Wight tomatoes, which are right at the start of their peak season.

When at their freshest, biting into a Laverstoke Park Farm ball of very creamy milk, and is extremely satisfying. When they are not quite as fresh, they are still extremely satisfying, just a bit different. If you are not lucky enough to routinely be in the Hampshire Farmer’s Market catchment area, Ocado sell their Mozzarella and other products. Even if you get it from Ocado you will be paying less than half of what you would have to pay for equivalent quality Mozzarella di Bufala flown in from Italy.

My friend Paolo is onto something after all.

Red Leicester

Britons, shame on you! There is absolutely no justification for the existence of Red Leicester. It has a vile texture, perilously little flavour, all of which is unpleasant. It is like biting into a school putty rubber. I doubt even the Mighty Matron of British Cheese, Bronwen Percival, is able to find you a good one. If she could it is certain it would have no association whatsoever with the City of Leicester.


My nomination for my favourite Red Leicester is thus a Double Gloucester, another fairly similar cheese that is also usually as badly made that it lacks any interest. However, Marks & Spencer sell an excellent Double Gloucester which is made by the amusingly-named Hawes Creamery. It is part of their premium range. This means, in Winchester at least, that they sell it in pieces of no more than 120 g. Despite the premium label, it is actually more than reasonably priced.

Whatever you do, try not to get confused into buying the one from their regular territorial cheese range, which is dreary. It demonstrates that you must tread as carefully around British Territorial cheeses as you would with Territorial Army soldiers in a pub, if you want to avoid violently unpleasant consequences.

Brie

The finest brie in the world is made by the hilariously named Monsieur Donge. His Brie is the best and the biggest, but beware, because of its enormous girth it can become dangerously runny when ripe. A bit of a theme is developing here as Neal’s Yard Dairy and The Cheese Stall in Winchester have given me the best Donge experiences, if you exclude L’Arnsbourg, the former three-star near Bitche in Lorraine.

Anyone who seeks the finest food should go on a Bitche pilgrimage and seek out Jean-Yves Klein’s new restaurant at the Villa Rene Lalique. I hope their tasting menu still includes marshmallows as a pre-dessert. After 10 mind-blowing courses (with the meat course inevitably being the best pigeon you will ever taste), you will no doubt still be served M. Donge’s at the peak of perfection. Their Comte is also out of this world. Rene Lalique’s glass monstrosities frighten me so much that I will stay well away from Villa Rene Lalique for the foreseeable future, but do not let me stop you.

Parmesan

Another hard one. Hilaire Belloc wrote “Then there is the Parmesan, which idiots buy rancid in bottles, but the wise grate daily for their use; you think it is hard from its birth? You are mistaken. It is the world that hardens the Parmesan. In its youth the Parmesan is very soft and easy, and is voraciously devoured” in his greatest essay “On Cheeses”. Who am I to disagree? I do know that Parmesan is best at over 36 months old, like Gouda, with which it shares nothing else, except of course being easy to voraciously devour in its youth.

Mr Belloc and I may be au fait with the ground rules, but aside from that Parmesan largely remains mysterious to me, and I bet most people. The best Parmesan I have bought is from a small stall in the street outside Borough Market near the Brindisa Deli, which ordinarily specialises in selling Espresso. It might have been 4 years old, it might have been 5. It was made with special milk from special cows milked at the right time of year. It was totally delicious, salty but not dry. It might still be available there. They also sold divine Coppa.

Stilton

Let there be no doubt, the finest stilton is not a Stilton. It is Stitchelton (a delicious anaphone of “shit stilton”). The reason it is not a Stilton, is because it is made from unpasteurised milk, which Stilton PDO regulations, alone in the world, will not allow. The idiots managing the Stilton PDO need re-educating with a hammer.

Neal’s Yard Dairy and The Cheese Stall in Winchester will happily sell you excellent Stitchelton, although the latter only around Christmastime.

Wensleydale

Another British Territorial which is all too often badly abused. The world does not need Wensleydale with apricots, ginger, garlic and coriander, chillies or anything else. Real Yorkshire Wensleydale is close, but no cigar. A plus is that it is readily available at Waitrose.


Bronwen Percival, the Aristæus of our time, might well be able to guide you to the ultimate Wensleydale, but for availability and quality, I will pick the Hawes Creamery Wensleydale which is available (in ludicrously small packages, of course) from the speciality cheese shelf in Marks & Spencer.

Feta

I have only recently been converted to the charms of Feta, courtesy of The Cheese Stall in Winchester, who have an absolutely amazing Greek PDO Feta for only £1.20 per 100 g.


I have previously dismissed Feta as being a hopelessly bastardised cheese, disconcertingly often made by demented Danish food scientists, sold exclusively to cater for the perversions of unfortunate deluded women whose diets consist exclusively of salad (and cake). Perverted they certainly are, but they still retain enough sanity to want their vile carcinogenic leaves to have some taste.

Sadly their delusions demand that this added ingredient must contain few or no calories. So now the world is awash with pseudo-Feta made with the most advanced water-protein matrices food science can produce, not to mention various corruptions of the already pretty abysmal Tofu. All this so that these hideous creatures can guiltily gorge themselves on cake ten minutes later.

How Feta has suffered at the hands of these wretched witches! As the Economist quipped, albeit in a different context, “Cursed are the cheese-makers”.

Feta should be salty and tangy, with sheep’s and goat’s milk AND enough milk fat. The Cheese Stall Greek PDO Feta is perfect for salads, for pastries, for gratins, on sandwiches and crackers. Have you ever had a Feta you can say that about?

I will finish by saying that Feta, Wensleydale, Le Roule and Jarlsberg are all strength 2 cheeses according to Sainsbury’s. If scoring wine is perverse, that is nothing compared to scoring cheese.

Camembert

Hilaire Belloc also had things to say about Camembert, namely that it “is hard also, and also lives in a little box, but must not be eaten until it is soft and yellow”. I recommend you read all of “On Cheeses” after reading this article. I agree with Hilaire on Camembert, except that I prefer it a la francaise, still a bit chalky in the middle. I bet we would have got along like a house on fire, had he not died 22 years before I was born, once I had got over his incredible neuroticism and his period-casual-racism, of course.


The best Camembert in the world has got a pretty girl on the box, and is sold at The Cheese Stall, Winchester High Street, and presumably in other outlets worldwide. This is Camembert of utter perfection, and is sold in such perfect condition that I have no hesitation in recommending that the downtrodden masses of London take the train to Winchester on any Wednesday, Friday or Saturday to obtain some. Alternatively, you may be able to contact them to arrange to have some delivered. Tell them Dani and Davy sent you!

Cream Cheese

This is, I think it fair to say, an incredibly broad category. It encompasses everything from low-fat Philadelphia with Cadbury’s Milk, through Boursin Poivre to the hedonistic Brillat-Savarin aux Truffes. I am partial to the last two, but I hope never to be forced to eat the first one.

My current favourite, which you may be amazed to hear is available at The Cheese Stall, Winchester High St. is Delice de Bourgogne. Davy shares my enthusiasm!

Accompaniments

Cheese is too important to be left to public relations people, newspaper hacks, and low-fat cultists. The pleasure of cheese is as ancient as it is indescribable, and that is even before getting into the troublesome territory of accompaniments.

As a young man, I was unfortunately afraid of cheese, although I liked Babybel. Having escaped the cheese desert of Sweden, and now a slightly wiser and slightly less young man, I foolishly rejected cheese accompanied by anything other than bread or crackers. Having reached a happy medium, in age and wisdom, I am finally prepared to take condiments seriously.

One can safely assume that when Branston think about cheese, they visualize pickle sales charts. I would avoid Branston Pickles. Not because they are bad, because they are not. Avoid them because there are better ones, surprisingly many of which come from a single producer in Hampshire.

Perfect Pickles are the greatest purveyor of pickles and chutneys in Hampshire, and therefore the world! Run by the ever cheery Dwayne Bartram, his produce is charged with his good humour and zest for enjoyment.

One of his versatile chutneys is the Caramelised Onion Chutney. This is rich with the flavour of slow cooked onions, balsamic vinegar and spices. It is great in a cheese sandwich or with your luncheon plate of sausages.

Not for the lily-livered wet or weed is the Red Hot Tomato Chutney. This is made from the wonderful tomatoes from the Isle of Wight Tomato Company, and their fresh, fruity, acidic flavour sings through. What shows more, perhaps, are the Scotch Bonnet peppers the chutney is infused with. This is a fierce, fiery chutney, but it is surprisingly good with creamy cheeses such as Delice de Bourgogne. It is supremely wonderful.

However, the crowning glory of Perfect Pickles are their pickled onions. Pickled in white wine vinegar with bird’s eye chillies the onions have a fabulous hot, acidic and very oniony flavour that would blow the heads off the kind of people one would not really want as friends. They are truly amazing and you should do, as we try to do, pick up enough jars to last you the whole year in the couple of months around Christmas they are available. We scored fifteen jars last Christmas and I am very sad to report we only have four left to be carefully rationed until November.

Perfect Pickles are one of the food suppliers that make Hampshire so great. If you are unfortunate enough to live outside our fair county and you should serendipitously chance upon a jar of any of Dwayne’s produce you should snap them up without a second thought.

Dwayne Bartram of Perfect Pickles makes perfect accompaniments to cheese, at least for those of us who live in the present, and thus are condemned never to experience the quintessential cheese experience once enjoyed by countless conquering generals in the Near East. A simple victory meal of cheese, fresh Aleppo Figs and the finest Persian Walnuts – referred to by the Romans as Juglans Regia (or Jupiter’s Sacred Acorns) served by newly-enslaved women, accompanied by the screams of their men and children being indiscriminately slaughtered on the banks of the sacred Euphrates.

To comment without logging in, enter your name below and then check "I'd rather post as guest".