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.