Friday, October 31, 2008

The perfect Hallowe'en cheeseboard!

If you're hosting a Hallowe'en supper tonight and wondering what to put on the cheeseboard, let me make a couple of suggestions.

Hallowe'en's all about kitsch so I would certainly colour-theme my board. It would have to be largely orange as there aren't many black cheeses though you could serve one of those black wax coated cheddars if you could find one. And some ready-to-eat prunes and charcoal biscuits on the side!

Perfect candidates for orange cheeses would be Mimolette, a very good dark orange-coloured cheese from Northern France, a washed rind cheese such as Epoisses or Stinking Bishop (the idea of a stinky cheese seems particularly suitable for Hallowe'en, I feel) and red Leicester from England

There's certainly no orange or black wine that I know of but port is pretty dark in colour or you could serve a pumpkin ale.

Have a fun evening!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A good Morbier

I've always loved the look of Morbier with its striking band of ash down the centre but have frequently been disappointed at the taste. However I bought a good one the other day (right) which was delicious, with a nice semi-creamy texture. Better news still it went very well with a glass of the red wine we had open, a ripe, generous garnacha called Higueruela from a relatively unknown denomination called Almansa east of La Mancha. (Semi-soft cheeses of this style usually struggle with reds.)

According to the Morbier website - yes it has it's own dedicated one - it has been produced in the Jura for some 250 years. Traditionally it was made with leftover curd from Comté cheese which was covered with a light vegetal ash to stop a rind forming overnight before the mould could be topped up with the next day's leftover curd. You can see on their step by step slides of the cheesemaking process how the distinctive layer of ash is added these days. It has to be matured for 45 days, according to the AOC regulations, but is more commonly matured longer

If you're a fan you can even send a Morbier e-card. I don't think I'd go quite that far though I rather like the ones of the cows ;-)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Cheese Nun

Knowing I was writing a cheese book, a friend sent me a DVD of a PBS programme called The Cheese Nun. It's a remarkable documentary about an American nun called Sister Noella Marcellino who not only learns to be a cheesemaker but leaves her closed Benedictine community to study at the University of Connecticut and travel all round France to become one of the world's leading cheese microbiologists.

She's a wonderfully engaging, joyous character (with, incidentally, a beautiful singing voice) and the footage of the traditional cheesemaking methods she adopts is quite fascinating.

It's a bit like a cheeselover's Sound of Music but then that was pretty cheesy too ;-)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Top tips for a perfect fondue

I had a press release this morning from the makers of a pre-mixed Swiss fondue called Emmi claiming that dipping was 'this autumn's biggest food trend'. I don't know quite where they got that from but if I were to get back into fondue I certainly wouldn't make it from a packet.

It's one of those things that's ridiculously easy to do once you get the hang of it - a bit like swimming or riding a bike. Basically it's simply a question of stirring grated cheese into hot wine, cider or beer but there are a few things to remember that make all the difference between success and disaster:

* you need good quality cheese - including Gruyère - though you can blend two or three

* your cheese should be at room temperature before you start

* you should add a little cornflour or arrowroot to stabilise the mixture

* you need a cast-iron pan rather than a stainless steel one

* your liquid should be almost boiling but off the heat when you start adding the cheese. (You can put it back on the heat when you've added around a third of it)

* you should stir the cheese with a zig-zag motion rather than round and round which makes the cheese more likely to ball up and separate

* you need to add a dash of something strong at the end - kirsch is traditional, apple brandy great with cider-based fondues

* you need good quality rough-textured country bread to dunk in it. Cheap bread will go soggy

* you need a glass of dry white wine, cider or beer to drink with it (depending on the alcohol you use to make it). Never drink iced water with a fondue - it will give you indigestion.

Fondue's fun but I can't really see it taking off again. It's too rich, too expensive and, to be frank, too unhealthy for today's lifestyle. It's great as an occasional treat especially on a cold winter's night but I doubt people are really going to develop a big-time fondue habit.

Or maybe I'm wrong. What do you think? Are you a fondue fan or do you think they're overrated?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Oh-so-tempting Tartiflette

This week I made a wickedly rich, indulgent cheese and potato dish from the Savoie region of France called Tartiflette which is not, as you might imagine, a tart but a dauphinoise-style dish of layered potatoes, onions and bacon topped with Reblochon cheese. I dread to think what the calorie count is but boy, is it good!

Serves 6
2 tbsp sunflower or other light cooking oil
200g/7oz smoked lardons or diced smoked streaky bacon
2 large onions, peeled and finely sliced (about 400g/14oz)
2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
700g/1lb 8 oz waxy potatoes e.g. Desirée, well scrubbed
A sprig of rosemary (optional)
1 small or 1/2 a large Reblochon cheese (about 275g/10oz in weight)
150ml/5 fl oz double cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
You will also need a large buttered ovenproof baking dish

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and fry the lardons until beginning to brown. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon. Tip in the onions, stir and fry for a low heat for about 20-25 minutes until they have collapsed right down and are beginning to brown. Add the garlic about 5 minutes before the end of the cooking time. Meanwhile cut the potatoes, unpeeled, into slices about 1/2 cm/1/3 inch thick, place in a saucepan with a sprig of rosemary if you have some and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and boil for 2 minutes then remove the rosemary, drain the water and set the potatoes aside. Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas 6. Cut the Reblochon into thin slices, removing the rind if you prefer*. Tip half the potatoes into the baking dish, cover with half the onions and bacon and season with black pepper. Repeat with the remaining potatoes, onions and bacon and pour over the cream. Cut the Reblochon into thinnish slices and distribute over the top of the dish then bake for 15-20 minutes until the cheese is brown and bubbling. Serve with a green salad.

*It depends on the cheese. If you have a very mature cheese with a sticky rind you may prefer to remove it. I prefer to use a slightly younger cheese and keep the rind which adds colour and texture.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Fruitcake and cheese

I've always been slightly resistant to the idea of serving fruitcake with cheese but it's a long-established British tradition. And if you're happy to eat dried fruits with cheese it's illogical not to, really.

Of course it depends on the cheese. I certainly wouldn't enjoy a washed rind cheese like a Munster or a Stinking Bishop with a piece of cake but a mild hard English cheese like Wensleydale or Cheshire goes rather well. Or a creamy Stilton.

Anyway I'm coming round. The other day I picked up a cake from a West Country producer called Marshfield Bakery. It looked rather dry but was actually quite moist with a pronounced mixed spice flavour. It worked really well with a piece of Gorwydd Caerphilly which had quite a buttery taste. It's called a Maggie Ramage cake if you want to try it and you can order it from Real Food Direct or buy it, as I did, from a West Country branch of Waitrose.

A nice little tea-time treat

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A tasting from Country Cheeses

Strolling around Topsham in Devon earlier today in the late autumn sunshine we passed a cheese shop that looked a bit out of the ordinary and turned out to be something of an Aladdin's cave.

Gary Jungheim the proprietor not only sells cheese, or 'real cheese' as he describes it, but gets involved in making it as a result of which his firm Country Cheeses stocks a whole lot of West Country cheeses I'd never even heard of before.

I'm on a quest to find cheeses that work with red wine at the moment (you may be surprised to hear that many don't) and here's how they fared:

Pennard Ridge
A hard Caerphilly-like goats cheese from Phil Rainbow of the Somerset Cheese Company. Attractively firm and crumbly in texture (firm to cut, light and fresh in the mouth) but with a full, tangy, nutty flavour. 7/10 with our red (a 2006 Domaine Gauby Les Calcinaires Côtes du Roussillon Villages). A more than creditable showing but a Sauvignon Blanc or Loire red like Bourgeuil or Saumur Champigny would have respected the cheese's integrity better.

Tamaracott Boyton
A tangy Pecorino-like sheeps cheese made by Terri Rasmussen in North Devon. Sheeps cheese is always pretty good with red wine and this was no exception. 8/10

No Name*
A delicious washed rind cows milk cheese with an unctuous creamy texture. Not nearly as pungent as most French washed rind cheeses but with plenty of rich, full flavour. Just about survived our red but would be considerably happier with a white such as an Alsace Pinot Gris. 5/10
* In fact the cheese is normally named Morn Dew and comes from one of my favourite local producers Pete Humphries of White Lake Cheeses of Somerset.

We also tasted a sample of the Beenleigh Blue from Ticklemore Cheese in Totnes they were selling, a ewes' cheese I had tasted before. It's deceptively mild looking without much veining but packs a similar punch to a Roquefort so is better suited to a sweet wine such as Sauternes. Not good with red anyway - 3/10

The problem with strong and blue cheeses is they tend to strip the fruit out of reds leaving you with a slightly bitter taste in your mouth. More on this subject, if you're interested, on my website Matching Food & Wine.

Anyway Country Cheeses is a gem and I'm glad to have discovered them. They also have branches in Tavistock and Totnes.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

In search of the perfect cheese soufflé

I can't remember when I last made a cheese soufflé. Actually I think I can but I'm not going to tell you because it was a long, long time ago.

I decided there needed to be one for the cheese book and came up with an interesting twist which again I can't reveal or my publisher will kill me (this must be a very frustrating post for you but bear with me . . .) I checked out the basic method with a few books and then the problems began. Because they all suggested different proportions of flour, milk, cheese and eggs.

I followed the majority and used 150ml of milk but it made rather too thick a panade (the posh term for a soufflé base). Elizabeth David recommends using 284ml but as she's habitually vague about quantities I overlooked her advice. But I now find that that's the amount Leith's, one of the top cookery schools in London, recommend to their students.

The soufflé rose beautifully and didn't collapse but just wasn't quite light and airy enough. Nevertheless it's a wonderful dish to impress with and a delicious light supper accompanied by buttered new potatoes or crusty bread and a green salad. Will just have to make it again to refine the technique. At least that's my excuse . . .

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Two unsung cheese heroes

About the last place you expect to find real experts on cheese is behind a supermarket cheese counter but I was amazed to find not only one but two such paragons in my local branch of Waitrose in the Henleaze neighbourhood of Bristol.

First there was Hilary Margolan (in the rather fuzzy picture above) who knowledgeably discussed the fat content of different curd cheeses, compared two different red-wine washed cheeses (the fact that Waitrose stocks two is pretty remarkable in itself) and discussed which goats cheese would be best for crumbling over a pasta

Then she was joined by her boss Richard Perry who turns out to give talks on cheese to local groups as diverse as the girl guides and the local twinning committee.

Neither is - how shall I put this tactfully - a spring chicken (Hilary told me she was a nurse for 40 years) but both have a real passion for their subject you'd be lucky to come across in a specialist cheese shop. Clever Waitrose and lucky me.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

And the world's best cheese comes from . . .

No, not France, not Italy, not the UK or the US, not Spain but you're getting warmer. The Canary Islands!

Well I told you it would be a surprise. It's a goats' cheese called Queso Arico curado pimentón’ made by a co-operative, Sociedad Canaria de Formento. The cheese is pressed and regularly brushed with paprika and gofia, a powdered cereal unique to the Canary Islands, before being matured for around six months.

Apparently it was a close run thing. The other finalists were a soft cows’ milk cheese from Canada called Cendré de Lune which tied with a Von Muhlenen Le Gruyere and a Fourme d’Ambert, produced by Morin Père et Fils.

The result is hugely fortuitous as the Canary Islands are hosting next year's event - pure coincidence according to the organiser Bob Farrand. "I'm sure people will think it's one of those Eurovision Song Contest type fixes but the final votes were cast in sealed envelopes" he assured me.

Apparently the highest ranking British cheese was a Colston Bassett Stilton which just failed to make the top four.