Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Christmas cheeseboard

Last week we had what is becoming our annual Christmas Cheese School - an evening of cheese, wine and beer tasting which to be honest is more of a jolly than a class. But I put together this festive cheeseboard just to show you don't have to go down the conventional route of featuring 5 or 6 cheeses.

It was inspired by sprays of decorative crab apples I found in our local greengrocer (most of my time was spent trying to persuade people not to eat them - not that they were poisonous, just bitterly sour). I added a brightly coloured persimmon and a pomegranate which I halved to show the seeds, some of the Fine Cheese Company's Toast for Cheese I told you about recently and a large hunk of Stichelton, the unpasteurised version of Stilton. It was unbelievably simple and looked really pretty in the glowing candlelight.

Have a happy Christmas, one and all.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Australian cheese scene part 1: Yarra Valley Dairy

The Aussies are so good at everything food and wine-related I expected them to be brilliant at cheese too. It's coming but they still have a way to go, judging from my recent visit. Admittedly I didn't visit some of the best areas for cheese such as Gippsland and Tasmania but I'd say they were 4-5 years behind the states*.

They're hampered of course by the fact that they can't make unpasteurised cheeses, an extraordinary situation. Government intervention gone mad. They're campaigning against it as you can see from this poster in the cheese room at De Bortoli but until they get the right to work with raw milk they'll never make great cheese.

That was certainly the problem with the camembert-style cheeses I tasted at the Yarra Valley Dairy, one of the highlights of the trip in cheese terms but in every other respect it was a model modern dairy turning out interesting and innovative cheeses.

I particularly liked their marinated cheeses, Saffy and Cardi (Australians abbreviate everything!) made with saffron and cardamom respectively. They're softer than most marinated cheeses I've come across - more like a spice-infused spreadable cheese - and absolutely delicious. Saffy is made from cows milk and flavoured with saffron, cumin and lemon zest. Cardi, which is slightly smokey, is based on goats' milk. There's also a cheese called Juno (short for juniper, of course) which I didn't get to taste.

Jack Holman the cheesemaker also make a delicious Persian Fetta (sic) which is flavoured with olive oil, thyme and garlic and packed in rather dinky tins which are apparently served in Emirates first class. (I didn't get to experience that, sadly!) It would also be great crumbled into a salad or on pizza or flatbreads.

I also liked their Black Savourine - a Valençay-style ash-coated goats cheese though again this would have been better made from unpasteurised milk.

If you're in the area do visit them. They have s fantastic shop which also sells a lot of wines from small producers who don't have a cellar door. We tried the Bird on a Wire Marsanne (perfect with the Saffy) and a very good chardonnay called Salo which you can also buy from the excellent Barrique wine store in Healesville.

*For a more complete rundown on artisan cheeses in Australia read this recent feature in The Age.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Toast is the new biscuit for cheese

I'm always struggling to find the perfect biscuit for cheese. I really don't like digestive biscuits and even find oatcakes a touch too sweet (except with blue cheese). I'm not a big fan of crackers and water biscuits though I do like crisp Italian-style flatbreads. Now along comes Toast for Cheese, the brainwave of the inventive Ann-Marie Dyas of the Fine Cheese Company in Bath (below).

I must confess I'm a huge fan of Ann-Marie's. She was the first to create biscuits and pastes to complement different cheeses, the first to devise attractively packaged cheese selections to sell online, the first cheesemonger - so far as I know - to sponsor a cheese festival and now she's discovered toast.

And not just any toast. Three different kinds studded with dates, hazelnuts & pumpkin seeds (for creamy cheeses such as Brillat-Savarin, Brie de Meaux and Vacherin Mont D’Or), apricots, pistachios & sunflower seeds for goats’ cheeses such as Valençay, Crottin de Chavignol and Ragstone and cherries, almonds and linseeds for blue cheeses such as Fourme D’Ambert, Stilton and Gorgonzola Dolce. Of course you can try other cheeses with them. I wasn't at all sure the apricot and pistachio biscuits wouldn't have been better with a slightly stronger washed rind cheese but the main point is that they look absolutely stunning and would make a great present for anyone you were visiting over Christmas. You can buy all three boxes for £7.50.

Here's what I did with the date, hazelnut and pumpkin seed ones at Cheese School the other week.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Camembert roaster - the gadget you didn't know you needed

I love it when a small producer writes and tells me about something they've created especially when it's as off-the-wall as this handmade Camembert roaster which is made by Sussex blacksmith, Alex Moore.

It's designed to roast boxed cheeses like Camembert on the embers of an open fire, or log burning stove. You simply unwrap your cheese, place it back in the bottom of the box and put it in the roaster's pan. Needless to say I immediately wondered what would happen if the box caught fire but, as you can see, the base is really thick so as long as you don't have flames flickering round it you should be fine, Alex told me.

If you don't have an open fire, you can apparently use the roaster on the top plate of an Aga or put into a conventional oven with the door ajar. You can also use it for chestnuts.

Let's face it, no-one actually needs an object like this but it's amazingly beautiful and a lovely thing to use for roasting cheese with the family around Christmas or any cold winter's night. The perfect present for a cheeselover.

The price is £58, including delivery to a UK mainland address and you can order it from

PS have also spotted that they make some pretty funky garden benches and this lovely tree seat.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Knockdrinna Kilree goats cheese

I'm always slightly sceptical about food and drink awards. What does it mean that a particular cheese is the 'supreme champion' in the British Cheese Awards for example? That it's better than any other cheese in the UK and Ireland? Surely not. More like it's an interesting cheese that deserves our attention and Knockdrinna's Kilree goats cheese is certainly that.

I got to taste it at the Fine Cheese Co's cheese festival in Bath a couple of weeks back and it's a delicious cheese by any standards. Not obviously goaty but with a really savoury tangy edge and a lovely clean faintly crumbly texture - firmer than a normal washed rind cheese. We made short work of the piece I brought home - it's the perfect nibbling cheese with a glass of light to medium-bodied red wine like a Saumur-Champigny or other Loire red.

The only problem is it's incredibly hard to get hold of outside Knockdrinna's farm shop in Co. Kilkenny and, I would guess, top Irish cheesemongers like Sheridan's. I presume the Fine Cheese Co has some, and maybe Neal's Yard. Saturday morning, when I'm peversely writing this post, isn't the ideal time to ring a cheese shop and check but I'll update on stockists as soon as I find out. (15th November: finally managed to confirm that the Fine Cheese Company does have it but Neal's Yard, Paxton & Whitfield and La Fromagerie don't! Odd for an award-winning cheese.)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Our idyllic autumn cheese school

On Sunday we held our second all-day cheese school this year in the romantic and atmospheric surroundings of the Barley Wood Walled Garden at Wrington.

It was held in an decorated antique tent with cheesemaking demonstrations by Tim Homewood of Homewood Cheeses in the cider barn. (We were incredibly lucky that it was so mild for the end of October and that the rain held off!)

The tent had been decorated by Toast with candles, storm lanterns, bunting and apples

We had two visiting cheesemakers, Tim Homewood and Joe Schneider who makes the legendary Stichelton as well as our resident cheesemakers Todd and Maugan Trethowan of Trethowans Dairy.

We tasted all different kinds of cheeses and had our popular beer vs wine smackdown with Bristol Beer Factory and Matt Eggens of Avery's

We put together cheeseboards and seasonal cheeseplates like this one I based on Sparkenhoe's mature Red Leicester.

Tom Herbert of Hobbs House Bakery brought along a selection of his amazing breads and even handed out cupfuls of his 76 year old (I think!) sourdough starter.

Jack and Matt of The Ethicurean who run the cafe at the venue cooked a lovely lunch of beetroot and curd soup, Old Demdike (sheeps cheese) and pear salad with leaves from the vegetable garden and a gorgeous sticky toffee apple cake about which I've raved already.

And Jack and Peter Snowman of the Bristol Cider shop talked to us about apples and cider and cheese.

I also bought the most beautiful wooden cheeseboard which would make a lovely Christmas present. If you want one like it email wayneyedgeATyahooDOTcoDOTuk (he'll have a website soon)

A special day. All credit to Jess Trethowan and Cathy Gremin the heroic organisers of the event.

The next Cheese School is a special candlelit evening of cheese (and wine and beer, of course) in the beautiful medieval setting of St Thomas the Martyr church, Bristol on December 15th.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why plastic doesn't do cheese any favours

One of the things that most saddens me about cheese shops is seeing a counter full of cheese wrapped in cling-film. It may be wonderfully hygienic but it does nothing for the texture and consistency of the cheese. You can see soft cheeses like Brie bulging out of their packaging, struggling to breathe, emerging sweaty and oily - how did such a practice become standard?

I don't think vac-packing cheese does them much good either. I recently received a selection from the Northumberland producer Doddington (above, for which many thanks) which didn't taste a fraction as good as the version I tried in Neal's Yard* (below). A real shame as it's a lovely, lovely cheese with a rich deep taste and a crumbly, almost Parmesan-like texture.

In the new Hawksmoor at Home cookery book with which I've been involved they add it to mashed swede which is totally delicious.

Doddington also makes a range of other cheeses including one washed with Newcastle Brown. I suspect your best best would be to buy them somewhere local to the dairy.

* where, incidentally you'll see they don't totally cover the cheese just the paste (interior) which allows the cheese to breathe.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The perfect Brie de Meaux

Brie has become so devalued as a cheese you forget what it's like when it's perfectly matured. Too often it's too cold and slightly chalky in the centre or allowed to age to the point where it's oozing over the cheeseboard and the rind has acquired a bitter, slightly ammoniac smell.

But this is how it should be, as served at a Parisian bistro called Le Baratin I've just reviewed on my natural wine blog. Beautifully rich and buttery with a delicate mushroom flavour, evenly matured right the way through, it was just a joy to eat and shows the benefit - as if it needed pointing out - of buying cheese from a supplier or shop where they know how to treat it.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

So what on earth is the House of Castello?

I had a flurry of emails on Friday offering me all manner of goodies from the House of Castello® (note the trademark) "an adventurous world of extraordinary cheeses". Not only would they send me some cheeses to try, including, presumably, their "rich and feisty Creamy Blue"and "fiery and experimental Black Pepper Halo" but a hamper, a bottle of wine, a cheese slate and a set of cheese knives*.

There's obviously some serious money behind the brand which has an expensively-made ad screening at prime viewing time during Downton Abbey tonight involving a bunch of rather louche aristos "celebrating the decadence of Castello®". According to the industry website the campaign is directed by Jonas Akerland who makes videos for Lady Gaga, apparently the inspiration behind the campaign.

So who on earth are House of Castello of whom, I confess, I'd never heard? Turns out it's Castello, the fourth largest speciality cheese brand in the UK which is owned by a large Scandinavian company called Arla, according to this report in The Grocer. Arla also owns Lurpak and apparently aims to do for cheese what the New World has done for wine.

I haven't tried the cheeses, admittedly, and they may for all I know be insanely delicious as well wildly decadent but since one of them is Danish Blue I somehow doubt it.

I'm also not sure how they can claim, as they do on their website, that there actually was a cheesemaker called the Marquis de Castello who was "renowned not only for his amazing cheeses, but also for his outrageous and indulgent parties". All a bit of fun, I guess they'd say.

But following on from the Alex James Asda range I commented on recently it certainly indicates that there's some serious money to be made in cheese - and indeed in dairy as Yeo Valley's rather more stylish new YouTube video shows. I suspect we'll be seeing more of the same.

How do you react to this kind of campaign? Would it be likely to make you try a new cheese?

* and just in case you were wondering, I decided to resist the gifts but will try the cheese when I get the opportunity ;-)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

More on macaroni cheese

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will remember the Ultimate Macaroni Cheese Challenge a couple of years ago which was won by Helen Graves of Food Stories.

Now the Guardian's excellent Felicity Cloake has turned her forensic eye on the subject in her 'Perfect' series exploring what indeed it is that makes the perfect macaroni cheese. You'll need to read the piece for the full lowdown and recipe but a couple of useful tips which is rinsing the pasta in cold water once you've cooked it and using a fair amount of sauce, a conclusion I've come to myself after trying a Simon Hopkinson recipe for baked pappardelle with pancetta and porcini the other day. I thought there must be a mistake it contained so little pasta but he was - of course - right.

She's on more controversial ground with her breadcrumbs and tomato topping which Guardian readers, a vocal lot, weren't all sure they approved of. Which is one of the joys of a recipe like this: people defend their corner so fiercely.

Anyway, you can find Felicity's recipe here (scroll down to the bottom of the article).

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

St James washed rind sheeps' cheese

I passed Neal's Yard Dairy in Borough Market last week which has found a fiendish new way to lure you into the shop (not that I need a great deal of encouragement): a table outside with cheeses to try.

The one that appealed to me most was St James, an unpasteurised, brine-washed sheeps' cheese that's made by Holker Farm Dairy in Cumbria. It's not new - it won the James Aldridge Award for 'Best Unpasteurised Cheese of the Year' back in 2005 but it hadn't entered my radar.

I'm not even sure I've had a washed rind sheeps' cheese before but like most sheeps cheeses it wasn't quite as rich as cows' cheeses - a benefit when you have the unctuous texture of a washed rind cheese to contend with. As you can see it was in perfect condition - wonderfully rich and savoury, but not over the top flavour-wise. So not particularly 'stinky'.

Further proof, if proof were needed, that British cheeses are up there with the best in the world. You can read more about it here.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Guest post: Gen's cheddar & wholegrain mustard croquetas

It's been a while since I've posted a recipe but when I heard about the cheddar croquetas my friend Gen cooked for her supper club the other day I begged her to tell me how to make them.

Gen's a very talented food stylist and writer whose blog ‘An Egg a Day’ charts her adventures in urban hen keeping and egg cookery. She recently started an occasional supper club with a menu that includes as many eggs as possible. This is how she describes it:

"Saturday night saw the second ‘egg supper’, planned as an early autumn feast of fruit, cheese and meat. On the menu was a rabbit and prune pate, served with spiced apricot chutney, Keen’s cheddar & wholegrain mustard croquetas, pork & pears braised in cider, a mojito sorbet and a plum, almond & amaretto crumble served with glorious homemade custard.

Undoubtedly one of the stars of the show were the croquetas. The recipe started out as a germ of an idea, constructed in my mind as an anglicized version of the gorgeous Spanish jamon croquetas I love so much. I used Keens cheddar for this recipe as it's one of my favourites. I knew it would be smooth enough to melt gorgeously but robust in flavour with a strong earthy taste that wouldn’t be overpowered by the mustard. If you can’t get hold of Keens, substitute any other extra mature cheddar.

I was so pleased with the result, they were quite delicious - rich, crunchy and deeply savoury - just as I imagined them to be in my edible daydreams!"

Cheddar & wholegrain mustard croquetas
Makes 28-30, enough for 4-6 generous helpings.

800ml milk
1 small onion, peeled & cut into quarters
1tsp whole black peppercorns
2 sprigs rosemary to infuse in milk
100g butter
150g plain flour
200g extra mature cheddar, grated
2 tbsp wholegrain mustard
200g fine dried breadcrumbs
2 eggs, beaten
Vegetable oil for deep frying

In a heavy based plan, bring the milk up to boil along with the onion, peppercorns and rosemary. Reduce the heat to as low as possible and simmer gently for 15 minutes to allow the flavours to infuse.

In a clean saucepan, melt the butter, then add the flour and stir together to form a roux. Strain the milk and pour onto the roux and whisk until combined. Cook until thickened, stirring all the time to prevent lumps or sticking. You will end up with a rather unappetizing thick and gloopy white sauce - have faith. Add the cheese and mustard mix throughly until combined, scrape into a flat dish and spread out to cool, pressing down a layer of cling film to prevent a skin forming. Once cool, chill in the fridge for an hour or two to firm up.

When you are ready to begin shaping the croquetas, set yourself up a production line with the beaten egg in a small bowl and the breadcrumbs on a large plate. Take a generous dessertspoonful of the chilled mixture and shape into a little rugby ball. I found it easiest to do this with a combination of the scoop of the spoon and the palm of my hand. Drop gently into the egg then lift out and roll in the breadcrumbs until coated all over. Transfer to a clean plate. Repeat with the remaining mixture then chill again for at least 30 minutes. They will rest quite happily in the fridge for 24 hours making it a good fiddly job to do ahead of time.

To cook, heat a deep fat fryer to 180°C and fry in batches for 3 minutes until crisp and golden. Drain on kitchen paper. Alternatively heat a litre of oil in a large saucepan. When a cube of bread dropped in takes 60 seconds to turn a deep golden brown the oil is hot enough to cook. Cook in batches, taking care not to overcrowd the pan as this will result in a dramatic drop in temperature.

These croquetas are really rich and great served with something a little crisp and sharp, like a peppery watercress salad. As an added bonus, the croquetas, shaped and rolled, freeze really well. Cooked from frozen - they will take a little extra time to fry - they make a gorgeously indulgent and quick supper. Lovely with a glass of chilled dry sherry, or even an icy cold beer straight from the fridge.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Are you scared to try new cheeses?

According to a survey by the British Cheese Board released today one in 10 of us is scared of trying a new cheese.

I suppose one should be heartened that 9 in 10 of us aren't but I always find it surprising that anyone is scared of food. I only have to find out about a new cheese - or new anything - and I want to try it and I guess that applies to many of my regular readers too.

But suppose you do feel like that? How do you move out of your cheddar (and, I suspect, brie) comfort zone?

A lot of it I suspect has to do with intensity of flavours. I know many people - my husband is one - who don't like strong blues like Roquefort or stinky cheeses like Epoisses. But the answer is not to avoid that style of cheese completely but find a milder example of it.

If you find Stilton too strong for instance try a milder, mellower Barkham Blue or Gorgonzola Dolce.

If you run a mile from pongy cheeses try something like a Tallegio which has that gorgeously gooey interior of a washed rind cheese without its pungent smell.

You could also think of trying a sheeps' cheese like Manchego or Berkswell which doesn't tend to be too strong or a mature Gouda or Mimolette which has a nicely rounded nutty flavour. (Waitrose does unscary examples of all these.)

And what about the many other English regional cheeses, many of them mild and mellow - Caerphilly, Wensleydale and Red Leicester to name but three?

Of course the best way to extend your knowledge of cheese is to go to a cheese shop or deli that will let you have a taste - or, if you're in the vicinity, head for the British Cheese Festival in Cardiff this weekend. Or come to our Cheese School on October 30th, says she, ruthlessly grasping the opportunity for a quick plug!

You can also identify the British cheeses you might like on the British Cheese Board's new flavour map. Click on the pins near the centre for milder cheeses.

Try one new cheese a month and you'll soon be an expert.

Do you stick to the same few cheeses? If you tell me what they are I'll suggest a new cheese for you to try!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Nopi's courgette and manouri cheese fritters

The big boom in restaurants doing breakfast has resulted in many more places offering inventive cheese dishes to start your day. This was an amazing dish I came across at Yotam Ottolenghi's Nopi last week where I attended the launch of David Lebovitz's glossy new book Ready for Dessert - an odd venue, really, when you think about it when it's all about puddings not cheese. Although I don't see any reason why you shouldn't make his delicious Ricotta Cheesecake with Orange and Aniseed for breakfast. Apart from the fact it contains a good slug of marsala, perhaps.

Anyway, back to Ottolenghi's fritters which were amazing. Lighter than fritters have any right to be though I'm not sure if you followed the recipe which I happily came across in the Guardian here they would be the puffy balls in the restaurant rather than the slighly flat burger-shaped patties in the recipe shot. They come with lime flavoured yoghurt which was wonderfully refreshing and some punchy bitter leaves.

They also served some really delicious chard and feta (I think) pastries at Nopi with black and white sesame seeds on the base which look really easy to knock up.

Sometimes the cheese thing gets a bit out of hand, though. This rather unlovely dish with house braised beans, salted ricotta, lemon, mint and poached egg at the hip Clerkenwell breakfast spot St Ali was less well thought out. Particularly as you had the rather weird option of ordering it with a kipper.

Have you come across any good breakfast dishes that include cheese lately?

PS you can see many more beautiful pix of the breakfast delights at Nopi on David Lebovitz's blog here. Meaning more beautiful pictures than mine ;-)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The ultimate cheeselover's weekend

If you love cheese, visit the West Country the last weekend of October.

There are two great all-day events on.

On Saturday 29th there's the Fine Cheese Company's cheese festival at Milsom Place in Bath which features over 20 artisanal cheesemakers. I went last year and it was fab. You get a fantastic chance to taste the best of British cheeses.

And on the Sunday Trethowan's Dairy and I have our latest Cheese School which is being held for the first time in the beautiful Barley Wood Walled Garden (above) at Wrington, just outside Bristol. Inspired by the surroundings - there are also some amazing orchards there - we are going to focus on cheese and apples and apple flavoured drinks including, of course, cider and local cheesemaker Tim Homewood of Homewood Cheeses will be showing you how to make your own cheese in the old cider barn.

There will also be talks from Joe Schneider producer of what I think is currently Britain's best blue cheese, Stichelton, an unpasteurised version of Stilton, a French v British cheese tasting and a wine and beer 'smackdown' to see which is the best drink with cheese - or at least the cheeses we field on the day.

You can find more information and booking details on the Cheese School website including some recommended places to stay. The picture below, by Rob of Eat Pictures, is of our 'Amazing Tastes' session where you get the chance to create your own cheese plates and boards!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Two new ways of serving goats cheese

Our fortnight in France has produced a couple of new ideas for serving cheese - as it usually does.

The first was an elegant course in a restaurant that should by rights have had a Michelin star, La Renaissance in Argentan which is also considerably more interesting than it looks from the website. Small balls of goats cheese were mixed with apricot and chopped lavender and set in the centre of fine, crisp savoury biscuits. There were also shards of apricot alongside and some kind of apricotty syrup, hard to determine, admittedly, in the rather fuzzy low-light picture above.

You almost certainly wouldn't want to go to that trouble but you could easily prepare the cheese that way and serve it with homemade breadsticks or biscuits. We'd finished our wine by that point but it would have been perfect with a sweet wine like a Jurançon or a Pacherenc-de-Vic-Bilh.

The other was at a wine bar in Bédarieux called Chai Christine Cannac where they served goats cheeses of different ages with honey, fleur-de-sel (coarse, unprocessed sea salt) and olive oil. The rather dishevelled appearance of the slate is due to the fact that it was ordered not by us but the next door table. When I was asking Ms Cannac about it she said she was sure her friends wouldn't mind if I took a snap of it. So I did.

Serving cheese with salt is of course not the healthiest option but I can imagine it would add an appealing crunch. A bit like that gorgeous French butter with salt crystals.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Why Alex James's Asda cheeses are a rip-off

Having been away this week I've only just picked up on the debate on ex Blur guitarist Alex James' foray into flavoured cheese. Apparently he's collaborated with Asda in developing a range of cheeses flavoured with tomato ketchup, salad cream and tikka masala paste among others.

I'm not going to rehearse all the arguments here as they've already been well covered by the Guardian Word of Mouth blog and fellow blogger Chris Pople's Cheese and Biscuits. And to be fair I haven't tried the cheeses but it seems to me there's a principle at stake.

Which is why does a (presumably) rich ex-rock star who has already established a reputation for making artisanal cheese need to get into bed with a supermarket? Couldn't he have used his clout, as he initially did, to boost Britain's small cheesemakers?

I imagine the justification is that it encourages kids (and, given the retro nature of the flavours, unhealthy adults) to eat cheese but is it not more about creating a 'value added' product for which Asda can charge more than its basic cheddar?

Even James's own 'Best Ever' cheddar at £10 a kilo is £2.50 a kilo less than his ready sliced Cheddar with Salad Cream 'blankets'. You can buy Cathedral City mature cheddar at Asda at the time of writing for £5.71 a kilo while Asda's own mild cheddar will only set you back a fiver. A whole jar of Asda Smartprice salad cream which you could slather all over your sarnie costs just 50p.

And the free publicity from the controversy must be worth several hundred thousand pounds for the chain.

At least Jamie Oliver in his collaboration with Sainsbury's tried to raise the bar for their customers.

Maybe James has run through his millions. Maybe they all have. Blur has apparently got together to record a new album. But I still doubt, despite his protestations of being 'hugely passionate' about his new range, that he eats Asda cheeses at home.

James hits back at his critics on Asda's blog by labelling them 'food prigs' and 'snooty imposters' so what do you think? Should he be using his influence this way or would you do the same in his place?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Where to buy cheese at a service station (in France, of course)

One of the redeeming features of French service stations is that they almost all sell a good selection of local products. At the aire Les Volcans d'Auvergne on the A71 just north of Clermont Ferrand, however, they go overboard selling giant packs of dried mushrooms, industrial-sized jars of potée, Puy lentils (of course) and all manner of weird and wonderful liqueurs and eaux de vie. But the main attraction is a full-blown cheese counter where you can buy the Auvergne's many excellent cheeses.

On Thursday as we were passing through there were whole Saint Nectaires and piles of garlicky Gaperons, Salers and Cantal, Bleu d'Auvergne and at least half a dozen goats cheeses. And not just from one cheesemaker. Several local producers were represented.

The only downside in this heat (38°C today) is how to transport them without them deteriorating or stinking the car out. But if you've got tightly sealed cool box and are travelling down to - or back from - the south take advantage.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A simple sheep and goats' cheese board

Cheeseboards, as I've said, before don't have to be massive affairs featuring six or seven different cheeses. In fact it's far less wasteful if they're not.

Here's a simple one based on sheep and goats' cheeses from one of our two good local cheese shops Chandos Deli in Bristol. Top left a fresh young pecorino, at the bottom a silky-textured Montenebro goats' cheese and top right (and below) a slightly Roquefort-ish Beenleigh Blue ewes cheese from Robin Congdon of Ticklemore Cheese in south Devon. All have character but none are too strong which makes them a good selection for a red wine such as rioja. And equally good for someone who's intolerant to cows' milk.

And I like their paleness against the dark grey slate.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

An interesting veggie lasagne

I'm never totally convinced by veggie lasagnes but this open lasagne, ordered at our local Italian Rosemarino, was a cracker. Granted it doesn't look much (though my hastily snatched low-light picture doesn't help) but the combination of ingredients - spinach, walnuts and fontina cheese - was spot on.

I found some similar recipes on the Bon Appetit site here and this recipe site so it's probably just a question of adding some chopped toasted walnuts to your spinach (along with some other ingredients, obviously) and using a mild, melting cheese like Fontina. Or maybe making a walnut paste as Georgio Locatelli does in his superb Made in Italy Food and Stories. Walnuts seem to be a much more common element in savoury dishes in Italy than they are here.

Anyway I've asked the restaurant for the recipe. Cross fingers they're willing to share it! (And they've come up with the goods! See below though I reckon it would serve at least 8)

Lasagna Vegetarina
Open lasagne of spinach, ricotta, walnut & fontina
(serves 6)


For the filling:
1kg of baby leaf spinach
1kg of Ricotta cheese
200g of toasted, chopped walnuts
4 large shallots
3 cloves of garlic
250g of Fontina cheese
Salt, pepper & nutmeg (to-taste)

For the pasta dough:
550g of plain flour
4 whole eggs & 6 egg yolks
2 tbsp of good olive oil
Pinch of salt
Semolina for dusting

(Good fresh lasagne sheets can also be used as a short cut but if you have a pasta machine it’s nice to use it)

• Combine all ingredients in a food mixer until the dough forms a ball • Rest in fridge for at least an hour • Roll by hand to a thickness of 3mm • Feed through a pasta machine dusting with semolina if necessary until you get to the second thinnest setting • Cut into squares of roughly the same size, approximately 10cm
• Blanche in boiling water for 3mins then refresh in iced water • Pat dry and coat lightly with olive oil, chill until required

• Thinly slice the shallots and garlic and cook gently in olive oil until soft but not coloured • Add the spinach and cook until wilted • Cool quickly and use a sieve to squeeze out any excess water • Mix in the ricotta & chopped walnuts
• Grate in a little nutmeg and season with salt & pepper • Thinly slice the Fontina cheese

Assembly: • Place a pasta sheet on an oiled tray • Spread 3 tbsp of the spinach mix evenly over the pasta and top with a slice of Fontina • Repeat twice, (its nice to place the pasta sheets at different angles), bake for ten minutes • Serve with good Italian bread (we recommend fresh focaccia) and a salad of your choosing.

For an English twist ‘Rachel’ goats cheese, from the White Lake Cheese Co. in Somerset, makes an excellent alternative to Fontina.

Rosemarino is at 1 York Place, Bristol BS8 1AH.

Monday, July 25, 2011

How I learned to love brown cheese

It's been a standing joke for a while between me and my friend Norwegian-born author and blogger Signe Johansen of Scandilicious that I Don't Do Brown Cheese. She has constantly maintained it's delicious while I - on the strength of tasting it some 25 years ago - felt equally strongly that it was an abomination. Or I did until last Thursday when I finally got round to tasting the real thing - Ekte Geitost.

It comes in a drum and you slice off slices with a Scandi-style cheese slicer - either to top crispbread or to melt into a sauce as she did with the meatball gravy she served at her pop-up supper.

It taste not like soap, as I remembered, but more like salted caramel or the Mexican goats milk caramel, cajeta. In other words, delicious though I'm not sure I would go as far as to top it with lingonberry jam as Sig does, a peanut butter and jelly-ish combo that obviously appeals more to Norwegians than it does to me. There's a heart-tugging advertisement for it here on YouTube which somehow seems especially poignant after the tragic loss of all those young lives over the weekend.

Anyway I take back all the sneery things I've said about it over the years. To dismiss it out of hand is like saying that cheddar is rubbish on the basis of tasting Kraft cheese slices. Sure it's not hugely cheesy but then nor is mascarpone or even some of those triple cream cheeses. It's different. And it's good.

I'm going to buy some next time I'm in London (they sell it at the Scandinavian Kitchen in Great Titchfield Street) and experiment with it, starting with brown cheese and bacon baked potatoes which I reckon would be terrific made with sweet potatoes. You heard it here first . . .

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Berkswell, tomato and bobby bean salad

Here's a great idea for a salad I came across the other day at a Restaurants in Residence event in Docklands which was hosted by the supper club Shacklewell Nights.

It was put together by Jonathan Woolway, who's a sous-chef at St John and bore its trademark stamp of simply cooked seasonal ingredients.

This how he prepared it. (I've left it as he wrote it as I think it reads admirably well.)

Large vine tomatoes halved and roasted long & slow (with xtra virgin, s&p, bay, thyme) till they start to yield on the sides.
Bobby beans are blanched and then refreshed to maintain bite and colour.
Pea shoots
Olive oil croutons
Sherry vinaigrette (1 part sherry vinegar, 3 parts olive oil)
Grated Berkswell [sheeps' cheese] tossed through the salad and shaved Berkswell on the top.

I had a go at it last night sans pea shoots which I couldn't find locally and it worked almost as well but would suggest a couple of tips:

* Make the croutons out of a light bread like ciabatta so they go crunchy without getting hard

* I don't think you need sherry vinegar necessarily. A good red wine vinegar would do, possibly with a few extra drops of balsamic.

* the Berkswell I used didn't quite add the piquancy I was looking for and tasted in the original. If you can't find a really nutty one, try an aged pecorino or even parmesan.

But a great salad - fresh and seasonal. Just lovely at this time of year.

You can see my write-up of the other dishes and wine pairings on my website

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Serra da Estrela - Portugal's Mont d'Or

I've been in Portugal for the last few days finding out about cork and spending a day in the Vinho Verde region. I remember from my last visit a few years ago that there are some amazing Portuguese cheeses but this time found only one - Serra da Estrela, which is named after the highest mountain range in Portugal.

It's a totally delicious semi-soft sheeps' cheese that's served with the top cut open so you can dunk your bread or toast in its gooey interior. The milk comes from Bordeleira sheep which feed on wild mountain plants and herbs. It's coagulated with cardoons rather than animal rennet which makes for the silky flowing texture - not unlike a Vacherin Mont d'Or.

It's actually quite mild and buttery so you could drink it with a mature red - which is what the Portuguese themselves would do but we enjoyed it with a 2007 Alvarinho from Quintas de Melgaço.

Do try it if you get the chance.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Two summery cheeses from Homewood

Today has been the best day of summer so far. Gorgeously sunny but not too hot - just the sort of day to go to Bristol's weekly farmers' market.

I haven't been for a while - I always seem to be up in London midweek - so it was good to see some old friends including the Angela's Kitchen and Homewood's Dairy stall which sells delicious cheeses, jams and jellies.

They had two today that I thought really suited the weather - a fresh, not over-salty feta-style cheese (above) which I think would be great with beets and broad beans and a 'pickled cheese' of unpasteurised ewes cheese in Somerset sunflower oil (top), a great storecupboard ingredient which lasts a couple of months. I doubt if I can wait that long though. I'll probably open at the weekend and have it with flatbread, slow roast tomatoes and olives though I've just spotted they have a recipe for a spinach and pickled ewes' cheese slice and also serve it with nasturtium flowers which sounds very pretty.

They're also selling some tasty pickled sheeps' cheese and spring onion tarts

Apparently they also do Bath Farmers' Market on a Saturday. You can also buy their cheeses from the Trethowans Dairy shop and from Abel & Cole.