Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Judging the World Cheese Awards

I spent yesterday morning in Dublin as one of 150 judges who had been invited to taste 2000 of the world's top cheeses. Fortunately not all 2000 of them otherwise I doubt I'd be blogging today but about 50-60 (I didn't count).

We were divided into teams of four from different backgrounds. I was in a team with two retailers - a guy from Fortnum and Mason and the owner of a cheese shop in Nottingham - and a Canadian cheese judge (every team had one technical expert) It was fascinating the different perspectives we brought to the task. The cheese judge, as you'd expect, assessed cheeses for cheesemaking faults, the two retailers worked on the basis of how they looked on the counter and whether they could sell them and I, representing the cheeselover in the street, judged on the basis of the cheeses I liked.

So that our palates didn't get jaded we had two different types of cheese to judge, a batch of goats cheeses (above) and one of 'new cheeses', a category only marginally more popular than flavoured cheeses, the type that every cheeselover dreads. We had a couple of those, including one flavoured with chilli which I have to admit wasn't too bad.
The most interesting thing was how important texture turned out to be, dividing the well-made cheeses from the poorly made ones just as surely as taste. With the hard cheeses Louis, the cheese judge, used a cheese iron (above) to extract a tasting sample from the heart of the cheese. You could see in a second whether it was going to be any good or not.

We tasted the cheeses blind so I have no idea what the ones we liked were - at the time of writing we're still waiting for the final results but I have a tip-off that we're in for a big surprise!

The most depressing thing was that all the cheeses were destroyed at the end of the judging process which seemed the most terrible waste (about which I've had a bit of a rant on my other blog The Frugal Cook).

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Barkham Blue is the best cheese in Britain!

According to this year's British Cheese Awards the results of which you can find on The Cheeseweb. It also picked up the award for Best English Cheese and Best Blue.

These are not the first accolades for this creamy blue which is made by Sandy and Andy Rose of Two Hoots Farm in Barkham in Berkshire. It has picked up awards every year since they started making it in 2003

It also performed really well in a tasting I conducted for Decanter a couple of years ago where it ended up as one of the panel's top three cheeses for a Christmas cheeseboard. You can apparently now buy it in branches of Waitrose (though our branch in Bristol doesn't have it) and Paxton & Whitfield, along, I'm sure, with many other specialist cheese shops.

Other winners this year included Montgomery's cheddar and Fairleigh Wallop No. 2 which is made by awards organiser Juliet Harbutt and former Blur bass guitarist, farmer and food writer Alex James.

The best British cheeseboard went to Allium restaurant at Fairford in Gloucestershire.

Friday, September 26, 2008

What do chefs know about cheese?

Not a lot if the results of a survey recently published in Restaurant magazine are anything to go by. Of their top ten cheeses (which the magazine rather overexcitedly dubs the 'world's best') eight were from France and two from England. None from those great cheese producing countries Italy or Spain (Hello! What about parmesan and Gorgonzola?) let alone Portugal or Greece. Could it be because the survey was commissioned by the French cheese promotional body Frencheese which is currently running a feature on the poll on their website? Perish the thought!

The fairly predictable list included Montgomery's Cheddar, Brie de Meaux, Colston Bassett Stilton, Camembert de Normandie, Roquefort Cartes, Comté, Mont d’Or, Beaufort, Chaource and Ossau Iraty from Fromagerie Agour (did the chefs actually specify the producer, unprompted? Unlikely. I wouldn't have done.)

I wasn’t over-impressed either with the dishes cited in the piece as examples of what ‘modern cooks’ are doing with cheese. Pork and Brie Gateau, onion soup with fried Camembert and (yuk) Brie and Mussel Stew. I love Brie and I love mussels but please, not in the same dish.

Frencheese had arranged for journalists to go and taste the cheeses at what many consider the best cheese shop in London, Patricia Michelson’s La Fromagerie in Moxon Street. She obviously considered the selection slightly unbalanced and sneaked in an ash-coated goats’ cheese and an Epoisses. All were superb, as you’d expect, especially the Beaufort, one of my own favourite cheeses. And I discovered an interesting wine match for Brie (always a tough cheese to pair) with a crisp dry Hirondelle Bianco Greco from Puglia that Michelson stocks in her shop and café.

She also served a small bowl of Fontainebleau, a delicious mixture of fromage blanc and whipped cream topped with a few wild strawberries. Now that’s a creative use of cheese!

Maybe a few more chefs should hang out in her shop ;-)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Eating Raclette in Abergavenny

Yesterday we went off to the Abergavenny Food Festival. A great day - the weather was glorious - but a bit disappointing on the cheese front. I was hoping to discover a few new Welsh cheeses but most of them seemed to be flavoured with apricot brandy, ginger or other weird stuff.

The saving grace was a fantastic stand which was run by Trethowan Dairy which ironically has a stall in St Nicholas Market where I live in Bristol. They were serving some brilliant toasties made with sourdough and their own Gorwydd Caerphilly but, better still, little takeaway cartons of Raclette: cooked new potatoes, sprinkled with cheese and grilled on a contact grill then smothered with Raclette which had been melted on a purpose-built toaster then scraped onto the potatoes (above). If one were being picky, which I wasn’t inclined to be, the potatoes were a touch on the floury side (smaller, waxier ones would have been better) but who can quarrel with crispy and melted cheese in a single dish? Not me.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Travels with a stinky cheese

Smelly cheese, it has to be said, does not make a good travelling companion.

It was barely 20 minutes since I'd bought a selection of artisanal cheeses from Paxton and Whitfield in Jermyn Street, including what I subsequently discovered was a particularly smelly beer-washed cheese called Saulxurois* that I began to be conscious of their presence. In a café (embarrassingly). On the train - despite being up in the luggage rack. In the kitchen even though I'd wrapped it in a plastic bag and encased it in a box in the fridge. The smell still seeped out.

I consulted Ruaridh Buchanan the cheese buyer for P & W. "Ah, yes" he said. "I am afraid that particular cheese is a very smelly one. It's best to consume it soon after purchase. I think you should invest in some Tupperware, if a second fridge is not an option. It would be fine for about a week if you can handle the smell though. Serve it with a glass of dark continental beer.

Four days on I finally plucked up the courage to remove the cheese from the fridge and its wrapping and try it. Barring the smell I have to say it was magnificent especially with a glass of Orval (dark Belgian beer). And even better, a glass of . . . no I'm afraid I can't tell you that. You'll have to wait for the book ;-)

* Confusingly it's also labelled Carré de L'Est, a style of cheese that is also associated with the Champagne region whereas this one comes from the town of Saulxures which is in Lorraine. The recommended wine pairing, in my copy of Les Fromages, incidentally, is a Pinot Noir d'Alsace - in my view a potentially disastrous combination. The French are still wedded to red wine with cheese.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Events for fellow cheeselovers

The end of September/beginning of October always seems to be the highlight of the cheeselover's year with the results of the British Cheese Awards, The Great British Cheese Festival which this year is being held in Cardiff Castle (see above, sculpted in cheese and also on YouTube) and British Cheese Week. This runs from September 27th to October 5th and will be celebrated in cheese shops and delis all over the country.

Juliet Harbutt who set up the Cheese Awards and Alex James (ex-bass player of Blur, now a food writer and farmer) who have collaborated on a cheese called Little Wallop will also be holding a series of 'Cheesy Rider' masterclasses and dinners at three venues round the country on the dates below:

Tuesday 30th September 2008
Dinner @ Lords of the Manor Hotel, Upper Slaughter, Gloucestershire
Starts 7pm until 11pm. Tickets £65 each. Call 01451 820 243

Thursday 2nd October 2008
Dinner @ Wensleydale Dairy, Wensleydale, Yorkshire
Starts 7pm until 11pm. Tickets £37.50 each. Call 01969 667 664

Friday 3rd October 2008
Dinner @ Jesmond Dene House, Jesmond, Newcastle Upon Tyne (AA Hotel of the Year 2008/2009)
Starts 7pm until 11pm. Tickets £55 each. Call 0191 212 3000

There will also be plenty of opportunity to taste cheese at the various food festivals which are taking place over the next few weeks such as the Abergavenny Food Festival which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this weekend and the 10 day York Food Festival which starts on Friday.

And I'm off to Dublin at the end of the month to help judge the World Cheese Awards which are taking place in Ireland for the first time.

Should be a great couple of weeks! I'll report back on what I find, starting in Abergavenny this Sunday . . .

Friday, September 12, 2008

Is this the cheese recipe of the year?

If you judge the success of a recipe by the number of times it's mentioned in reviews or newspaper articles Rowley Leigh's parmesan custard would already run away with the prize.

For those of you who don't know Rowley, he's one of London's longest-serving and best-loved chefs, former chef of Kensington Place and now of the wonderful Le Café Anglais, an Anglo-French brasserie in Bayswater

Part of its retro charm is its selection of hors d'oeuvres of which this dish is one. It's a warm, slightly wobbly pot of wantonly delicious cheesy custard into which you can dunk fingers or 'soldiers' of toast sandwiched around an anchovy filling. Pure comfort food - I think I could eat one every day for the rest of my life without tiring of it, although there probably won't be any anchovies left to make it in a few years time if reports are to be believed.

It stems, Rowley explains in his weekly Financial Times column, from a chicken and goats' cheese mousse with olives he had on his menu at KP (as it was affectionately known by its regulars) which was almost equally delicious.

The beauty of it is that it doesn't look that difficult to make apart from the fact that the recipe suggests 100g of freshly grated parmesan. That's an awful lot of parmesan as any of you who have weighed parmesan will know. I suspect you can get away with rather less.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A fantastic new cheddar

I spent a day meandering around at the Organic Food Festival on Saturday where I was tipped off by a fellow food writer about a young couple who were making cheddar from Ayrshire cows on a farm in West Wales.

Didn't sound massively exciting - how many cheddars are there in the world for goodness sake - but as I trust his judgment I tracked them down.

What a cheese! It was full of flavour but incredibly pure tasting with none of the funky flavours you can get in artisanal cheddars like Keens and just a hint of that deliciously crystalline texture you get in an aged parmesan.

The cheesemakers, Sam and Rachel Holden, admittedly have an impeccable foodie pedigree. The organic farm on which they're making it is managed by Sam's father Patrick, director of the Soil Association. But that doesn't make it any less of an achievement

Apparently Randolph Hodgson, buyer for Neal's Yard Dairy (and brains behind the fabulous Stichelton - of which more later) was so impressed that despite the fact he initially told Sam Neal's Yard didn't need any more cheddars they're taking it on.

Look out for it. It's called Hafod and I predict it's a star of the future.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Why I love cheese . . .

Hello, and welcome to The Cheeselover. Especially to those who've been following my adventures on The Frugal Cook.

Now it's time to move onto a new project and happily my other regular publisher, Ryland, Peters & Small has given me the chance to write a book on one of the foods I love best. Cheese, heavenly cheese . . .

Those of you who are fellow fans will need no convincing that this is the perfect subject for a blog but just in case I'm preaching to the unconverted let me tell you the five reasons why I think cheese is possibly the greatest food on earth:

* It's the ultimate no-junk, fast food.

* It has the most incredible range of flavours and textures. There's a cheese for every time of day, every season, every mood . . .

* It lends itself to an amazing variety of recipes

* It's pure comfort food. Especially when it's melted. (Better than chocolate IMHO)

* Some fabulous people make it.

Over the next few months I'm going to be writing about the cheeses I'm tasting, cooking with and pairing with a whole range of delicious drinks (not just wine). Come along for the ride . . .