Monday, December 28, 2009

The Ultimate Macaroni Cheese Challenge kicks off now!

OK, now you can't face another mouthful of roast turkey in any guise it's time to get cracking on creating the Ultimate Macaroni Cheese as announced in my post of December 17th.

To recap you can enter any of the following 4 categories (I've just added an extra one) though not the same entry in each category

* Best original recipe - meaning original as in invented by you rather than wacky/off the wall. We’re not particularly looking for recipes that include fish sauce though I wouldn’t rule them out.

* Most mouthwatering mac’n’cheese pic
That gives you scope to make someone else’s macaroni cheese (Simon Hopkinson’s seems to be a strong contender so far) and create a drop-dead gorgeous photo - or series of photos - of it

* Best use of artisanal cheese
Let’s celebrate the fact we have some of the best cheeses in the world in the UK by challenging you to use them in your macaroni cheese. A good category to enter if you like your mac'n'cheese plain and unadorned

* Best drink match
This was suggested by Denise Medrano aka The Wine Sleuth for mac'n'cheese loving winos - or beer or cider lovers. Don't feel you have to limit yourself to wine. What's the perfect way to wash down your macaroni cheese?

The judges will be Denise for this last category, cookery writer Xanthe Clay of the Daily Telegraph who will judge the recipe category, food photographer Marie-Louise Avery who will decide who has submitted the best pic or series of pix and Jess Trethowan of Trethowan's Dairy (makers of Gorwydd Caerphilly) who will judge the best use of artisanal cheese. (I've also recruited food writer Marlena Spieler who reminds me she has written a whole book on Macaroni cheese.) There will be a prize for each winner which I'll announce shortly once I've done a bit more arm-twisting.

Post your recipe/photo/drink match on your blog with a link to this post - letting me know, obviously, that you've done so - or send it to me at fibeckett AT live DOT com (see contact details on the blog). The closing date is January 18th. (NOW EXTENDED TO 11.59PM ON THE 24TH as there are a lot of entries in the pipeline that haven't made it through!)

Good luck!


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Vacherin baked potatoes

I was given a Vacherin the other day by the Cheese Detective and was thinking of a new way to serve it when the idea of Vacherin Baked Potatoes came to me. You simply bake your potatoes the normal way, cut a cross in the centre and drop in a quarter of a Vacherin (having first removed the cedar band that encircles the cheese. That should read spruce, as my friend OstreaEdulis has pointed out.)

Rustled up rather hurriedly in between two shopping trips today I admit it doesn't look too elegant but it tasted sublime. A refinement might be to top it a few sautéed mushrooms - ceps would be perfect but chestnut ones would be fine - or simply a sprinkling of salt crystals. The perfect Christmas snack ;-)

Have a happy time everybody.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Woman's Hour, The Cheese Detective and the Hairy Bikers

On Friday I was on Woman's Hour talking about my new cheese book. For those of you who don't know it it's one of BBC Radio 4s flagship programmes presented by one of their most popular presenters Jenni Murray. It has an amazing audience of some 3 million listeners so it's an honour to be invited - well worth the long cold trek from Bristol to Manchester where it's now recorded.

My fellow guest was the self-styled Cheese Detective (above) - a lovely guy called Peter Papprill who I know from way back when I first started in journalism in the early 90s. He sells British artisanal cheese to restaurants and organises various cheesy events. As you can hear if you listen in to the recording which should be up for a few more days he'd been asked to bring along a selection of cheeses that would make a suitable Christmas cheeseboard. I'd been asked to bring along one that would make an interesting cheeseplate.

My choice was a gorgeous two year old Gouda called Reypenaer I found in my local health food shop Stoneground (supplied by the Fine Cheese Company in Bath). Most Gouda - which is pronounced Gow-da by the way, not Goo-da - is so bland in this country that old Gouda comes as a revelation - deep and fruity with intense bursts of flavour from the tiny crystals that have formed in the cheese. A bit like an old parmesan. I suggest accompanying it with dried fruits like unsulphured dried apricots, figs and fresh Medjool dates and a sweet sherry or tawny port.

Peter brought along a Golden Cross goats log from Sussex, a triple-cream cheese called Elmhirst from the Sharpham Dairy in Devon, a Berkswell sheeps' cheese (one of my favourites), a Hafod cheddar from West Wales which I've written about enthusiastically before and Joseph Heler's Cheshire Blue, a new cheese on me - like a Shropshire Blue but creamier. It was apparently featured in a recent series of The Hairy Bikers. It made a good selection - Jenni was particularly taken with the Berkswell as she hadn't tried sheeps cheese before.

Thanks to Peter I now have a fridge full of cheese to play around with in the run-up to Christmas so I'll have to get cooking so as not to waste any. That Hairy Bikers Cheshire soup should be a good start.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Ultimate Macaroni Cheese Challenge

Yesterday’s post on macaroni cheese provoked such an outpouring of passion on this blog and on Twitter I thought it would be fun to have a post-Christmas Macaroni (aka Mac’n’Cheese) Challenge to see if we can come up with the ultimate version.

I’ve decided there will be 3 categories, each of which will win a prize which I will scrounge from various sources including the long-suffering publisher of my cheese book (quick opportunity for a plug) Ryland, Peters & Small. They are:

* Best original recipe - meaning original as in invented by you rather than wacky/off the wall. We’re not particularly looking for recipes that include fish sauce though I wouldn’t rule them out.

* Most mouthwatering mac’n’cheese pic
That gives you scope to make someone else’s macaroni cheese (Simon Hopkinson’s seems to be a strong contender so far) and create a drop-dead gorgeous photo of it

* Best use of artisanal cheese
Let’s celebrate the fact we have some of the best cheeses in the world in the UK by challenging you to use them in your macaroni cheese. A good category to enter if you like your mac'n'cheese plain and unadorned

There will be an appropriate prize for each and a judge for each category who I haven’t yet identified but will announce when I do. The competition will be launched on December 28th to give you something to do after Christmas apart from going to the sales but you can obviously start thinking about it now. Post your recipe/photo on your blog with a link to this post - or send it to me via the contact email on this blog.

Fun, eh? Get thinking . . .

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I say macaroni, you say mac'n'cheese

Apart from the name - mac'n'cheese in the US, macaroni cheese in Britain - is there a difference in this homely pasta dish either side of the pond? The main one, judging from my recent trip to New York is that you Americans like breadcrumbs on the top - you rarely have it that way in the UK.

Yanks being so much better at comfort food than us I was hoping to find the ultimate mac'n'cheese but only one came near that from the cheese-centred brasserie Artisanal (above) which serves it in two sizes for a main course and a side. Having already tried their French onion soup (3 types of onion and 3 cheeses. Very good) I settled for the side which was about the size of a British main course. It wasn't quite piquant enough for my taste - I like a bit of mustard and Worcestershire sauce in there - but it did have this great crust of crispy, buttered, faintly cheesy crumbs - a good addition.

I was even more excited about going to a dedicated mac'n'cheese restaurant called S'Mac in East Village - and so was everyone else it seemed. On a Saturday lunchtime there was a lengthy queue to even get into the place but once I saw the dishes that were being taken to the tables - and spotted one of the chefs coming in with large plastic bags of pre-grated cheese I decided against it. It looked like deep dish pizza - shame as some of the riffs on macaroni cheese looked fun.

Another side of mac'n'cheese (served oddly with a sandwich at City Winery which does a weekly cheese brunch) failed for being too claggy - the sauce should be light rather than dense IMO, which means adding a little more milk than you might think it merits - but without,of course, making it thin.

In my new book I experimented with two types - an Extra-Crispy Macaroni Cheese where you make cheddar crisps and break them up in the sauce for extra crunch and a extra healthy one made with semi-skimmed milk and added greens - both yummy, I think. I also like it made with leeks and bacon or ham but how do these additions go down with you?

In short what makes the perfect mac/macaroni cheese? Best type of cheese(s)? Best added ingredients - or none at all? What type of seasoning? A crunchy crust or a crispy one? Over to you!

Monday, December 7, 2009

A sneak preview of my new cheese book!

If you'd like a glimpse of my cheese book Fiona Beckett's Cheese Course (right) take a look at the Guardian's Word of Mouth section which is currently running a couple of extracts and a new post from me. A perfect Christmas present for that cheese-loving rellie!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

. . . and a side of Welsh rarebit

Following my last post and discovery that St John was offering a side order of Welsh rarebit it's been preying on my mind so when my son Will and I were deciding where to have lunch this week and he mentioned he'd never been I leapt at the chance to check it out.

This is what they serve - a big slab of toast generously topped with what our waitress told us was Montgomery cheddar seasoned with mustard, anchovy essence, Worcestershire sauce and cayenne pepper - with a bottle of Worcestershire sauce on the side.

As you can see Will was so keen to get stuck in he cut into the rarebit before I had a chance to snap it but you can still see it looks pretty tasty - and was great with my main of roast beef. (No, we didn't have potatoes as well!)

It's a great idea which I'm sure will be copied all over London, as so many of St John's ideas have been. (For a full account of the meal which had a few misses as well, read my review on

What do you reckon is the secret of a good Welsh rarebit?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

St Gall and St John's

It's been a quietish time on the cheese front while I've been planning my visit next month to the cheese emporia of New York but last week I made two discoveries: a new (to me) Irish cheese called St Gall and an impressively cheese-studded menu at St John Bread & Wine.

St Gall, which is being sold by one of Bristol's best cheese shops Trethowan's Dairy, is an Alpine-style unpasteurized cow's cheese a bit like Beaufort in taste with an incredibly intense almost fruity flavour. Neal's Yard compares it to an Appenzeller but again it has more flavour than any Appenzeller I've tasted. It's made by Frank and Gudrun Shinnick in Fermoy in Co Cork. Food writer Rose Prince describes it as 'the best cheese yet to come out of Ireland' which doesn't strike me as hyperbole.

It also sounds as if it would be fantastic to cook with judging by this recipe for parsnip, potato and St Gall cheese gratin from Richard Corrigan on the BBC website.

And all credit to St John Bread and Wine for featuring artisanal cheeses to the extent they do in their Spitalfields restaurant. When I passed the other day they had at least five cheese dishes including celery and Strathmore, Stinking Bishop and potatoes and Eccles cakes and Lancashire cheese and four individual cheeses. And at the parent restaurant St John you can have Welsh rarebit as a side order.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Pecorino Toscano

I’ve spent the last couple of days at an organic estate in Tuscany which produces almost all its own food - olive oil, flour, bread, cheese, vegetables and, of course, wine. The cheese, a sheeps' cheese called Pecorino is the most common type produced in Tuscany and comes from milk produced from the sheep who graze the estate.

They have two main types - pecorino fresco, the young cheese which is served with antipasti such as bruschetti and salumi (cold meats) and a more mature one which is aged for 6-9 months and grated like parmesan (which is not made in Tuscany). Both are unpasteurized - the cheeses are subjected to heat treatment but it doesn’t go above 60°C. It’s milder than a parmesan which makes it a good companion for the local Chianti (and for other red wines - a useful attribute). The Tuscans also eat it with honey for breakfast or at the end of a meal.

The whey that is drained off the cheese is made into ricotta. Traditionally that would be eaten very fresh - it only has a shelf-life of 3 days but the LoFranco family who own the estate have found a way to preserve it in various spreads and spoonable desserts like a strawberry and ricotta mousse and ‘briachella’ a tiramisu-like mixture of ricotta, cantucci (traditional hard dipping biscuits) and their own vin santo (the famous Tuscan sweet wine).

Unfortunately I couldn’t see it any of the cheeses being made in the Caseificio (dairy) because the ewes are lambing at this time of year but they normally make them from December to July. You can buy the cheeses - and other products - direct by ordering a catalogue from the website.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cheesy treats at Flinty Red

Last night we went to a new restaurant and wine bar in Bristol called Flinty Red with a fashionable tapas-y sort of menu. Nothing unusual about that you might think except for the larger than usual number of dishes that were based on cheese. In fact I was so overjoyed by this I tried three of them as my starter, main course and dessert.

The first dish was Fontina cheese, toast, speck and Finocchiona (above). In my excitement I zoomed in on the words fontina cheese and toast and assumed it would involve melted cheese but in fact it was a plate of charcuterie and cheese with a toasted piece of sourdough alongisde. Couldn’t fault it though.

Next up - and my favourite dish - was buckwheat and Tallegio ravioli with chard and potato which was a star combination. (Potato and cheese - who could improve on that?)

And finally Perroche crushed with armagnac and Castagnaccio (below - an Italian chestnut flour cake) which I have to admit didn’t quite hit the spot. Perroche is a delicate cheese and lost its character under the assault of the armagnac. The chef, Matt said what he had really been after and had been unable to source had been goats’ curd which I think would have worked. (An accompanying glass of Bramley and Gage quince liqueur was spot on though).

Despite this reservation this is a great little restaurant with a fantastic wine, beer and drinks list and plenty for all foodlovers - not just cheeselovers - to enjoy.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A clever way to serve goats' cheese

I'm always so impressed when I find a restaurant doing something clever and interesting with cheese and this was a stellar cheese course at a small restaurant called Larcen in Agde on the Languedoc coast.

A small disc of goats cheese (pelardon) had been marinated in oil with a touch of dried chilli, a few crushed pink peppercorns and possibly a little garlic and was served in a small tumbler with its oil and a mini-baguette perched on top. There were also a few lightly dressed salad leaves alongside. Pretty and delicious and really all you want - or all I want - at the end of a meal.

Do you like cheese courses like this or do you prefer a 'proper' cheeseboard?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

New discovery: Winterdale Shaw

Finding a new English cheese is always a bit of a thrill especially when it has as resounding a name as Winterdale Shaw. I discovered it in that bastion of Britishness, Fortnum & Mason, whose trading director, Simon Burdess, was enthusing about it.

According to the Winterdale website it comes from a farm near Sevenoaks in Kent and is an unpasteurised, handmade, clothbound cheese similar to a cheddar. It's aged for around six months (I personally think it would benefit from being aged a bit longer) and is attractively rich, tangy and buttery.

Apparently it's been made since 2006 (so it's not that new) and has already picked up a couple of medals at the World Cheese Awards. Perfect for a ploughman's or a good old-fashioned macaroni cheese.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Hafod (aka Glamorgan) sausages

Glamorgan sausages - for this is what they are - are not sausages at all but little sausage-shaped croquettes made of cheese. I remember making them years ago from a Delia recipe and as I had some leftover bread and a tail end of cheese to use up decided to give them a go. Delia may well have got the recipe from Jane Grigson's English Food because that is who Simon Hopkinson acknowledges in this version which is what I based my recipe on, using Hafod organic cheddar rather than the Caerphilly or Lancashire he suggests.

Serves 2-3
1/2 small onion or half a bunch of spring onions, trimmed and finely sliced
150g grated Cheddar, Lancashire or Caerphilly (slightly less if using very strong cheddar)
100g fresh white breadcrumbs + about 25g extra for coating
2 large eggs
2 tbsp fresh parsley or a mixture of parsley and chives
1 level tsp English or Dijon mustard
salt and white pepper
Vegetable oil for frying
Tomato or apple chutney for serving.

Coarsely grate the onion, squeeze to get rid of the moisture and mix with the cheese and breadcrumbs. Separate the eggs and add the yolks, parsley (and chives if using) mustard and seasoning to the breadcrumb mix with just enough of the egg white to enable you to press the mixture together. Take dessertspoons of the mixture and form into small 'sausages' or croquettes.. Lightly whisk the remaining egg white, dip each 'sausage' into it and coat it in the remaining breadcrumbs.

Heat about a centimetre of oil in a frying pan and fry the sausages over a moderate heat, turning them until crisp and golden. Drain on kitchen paper and serve with tomato or apple chutney.

* the proportions will rather depend on how dry/absorbent your breadcrumbs and cheese are. I actually used less cheese as I only had 110g but felt it would have benefited from at least 25g more so I've stuck to Simon's original quantity in the recipe.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Constructing a cheese menu

Just a final note on British Cheese Week: I've posted a few thoughts on a cheese menu that was served at one of London's most fashionable restaurants the Modern Pantry this week on my website (This was the starter, above - baked bee pollen crusted ricotta, pear, sorrel and lucques olive salad, manuka honey and lemon dressing)

My conclusion was that it's quite a difficult feat to pull off. Have any of you attempted or experienced one?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The rising stars of British cheese

Despite my strictures on the Great British Cheese Festival there was one stand-out event and that was organiser Juliet Harbutt’s talk and tasting on the ‘rising stars’ of British cheese. A number of them were ones I’d already discovered, some were new but as it's British Cheese Week I urge you all to track them down:

New Forest White
I wasn’t sure I liked this cheese - a soft goats’ cheese flavoured with honey - when I first tasted it. It grew on me but you’d have to treat it as a dessert cheese. I can imagine it being fabulous with figs and a sweet wine like Samos Muscat

Morangie Brie
My discovery of the day - an ultra-rich buttery Brie with more than a hint of mushrooms which picked up the award for Best Scottish Cheese. Made by the same cheesemaker who makes Strathdon Blue and Harbutt’s Blue Monday (below) - half a mile from the Glenmorangie distillery (hence the name)

An attractive Irish semi-soft Emmental-style cheese from Moon Shine Dairy Farm Co Galway that Harbutt described as tastiing of ‘fermented fruit’ (odd, but I know what she meant - it was a bit peary). Organic and biodynamic

Wyfe of Bath
Another semi soft cheese from Bath Soft Cheese, described by Harbutst as smellling like ‘cheese scones’ (an apt description) Pleasant but didn’t really do it for me.

A sheeps cheese from Sussex High Weald Dairy. I'm a big fan of sheeps’ cheese so this really rocked my boat. Lovely mellow, gentle sweetness but tangy and characterful too.

Stoney Cross
A tomme-style cheese from Lyburn Farmhouse Cheesemakers in Hampshire. Rich and creamy but with a nice, balancing acidity.

A new(ish) organic Welsh cheddar I’ve raved about on this blog before. Less complex (aka funky) than some of the best known artisanal cheddars such as Keens but more approachable. Lovely clean, crumbly texture - none of that ‘soapiness’ you get from block cheddars.

Blue Monday
Launched last year by Juliet and ex Blur guitarist Alex James this sexy-looking blue has the distinction of being sold in a square.More like a Gorgonzola than a Stilton in taste and texture - mellow and creamy.

This cheese, which is made by Joe Schneider on the Welbeck Estate, can’t be classified as Stilton because if’s unpasteurised but it’s Stilton in all but name. Already an oustanding British cheese, if not one of the best blues in the world.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

What's wrong with the Great British Cheese Festival

Having failed to get to Slow Cheese in Bra I decided I mustn't miss the Great British Cheese Festival this year so took the train to Cardiff for the day. What can I say? Basically that I was hugely disappointed though I know that's not a very PC thing to admit.

Most of the problems were organisational. A huge queue (right) to get into the one free cheese tent (which I fortunately missed having arrived early) which made it absurdly overcrowded. Tickets sold out for most of the events I wanted to get to (OK, my fault for not booking ahead but there should be something for people who turn up on impulse.) I managed to sneak into the 'Hall of Champions' which contained the prizewinning cheeses by brandishing my press card but that's not an option open to most of the punters there.

The two other tents - the 'Best of British' market and True Taste of Wales - had nothing to do with cheese and were sadly depleted. There were a few local beer, cider and wine stands but not much in the way of food producers. The food stalls (Pieminister apart) offered the usual dreary festival fare of burgers and fried onions (particularly perverse at a cheese festival) The splendid Trethowan's Dairy which had been at Abergavenny the previous week and is one of the only companies in Britain to offer cheese-centred fast food were notable by their absence - or at least I didn't spot them.

To lay this at the door of the festival's founder Juliet Harbutt would be harsh. A native New Zealander she has done more than anyone else to put British artisanal cheeses on the map and her own 'Rising Stars' workshop at which she showed the 10 cheeses at the festival that excited her most (and on which I'll report later this week) was the highlight of my day. But there were too many dull cheeses including, inexplicably, some award-winners. Where were the shining beacons of the cheese retail world like Neal's Yard, La Fromagerie and The Fine Cheese Company in Bath or the exciting, newly-founded Pong Cheese? Not at Cardiff.

I suspect like many things it's down to funding and Harbutt needs more big money sponsorship and support from the industry if this festival is to regain its position as the ultimate showcase for British cheese. Let me make a few suggestions:

* More big names. Yup, sad to say it's celebs that pull in the punters so let's have a cookery theatre with TV chefs and cookery writers cooking up cheese-based recipes. That applies to the other workshops too - more tastings of cheese with beer, wine, cider and other drinks from well-known experts.

* Insist that the takeaway food stands are cheese-based. (Can't be that hard for goodness sake - really good cheese sandwiches, toasties, pasties, baked potatoes with cheesy toppings, macaroni cheese . . . )

* Have a minimum of two free cheese tents one of which has stands where you can try different styles of cheese (the M & S-sponsored Hall of Champions made a fair attempt at this but it was ticketed and only open to around 50 people at a time)

* A cheese cookery school for kids (there were a lot there) with a competition for the best cheese salad or sarnie

* If money is scarce - and it may be - make it every other year - alternating with Slow Food Cheese

* and I hesitate to suggest this, consider changing the venue back to central England to make it more accessible (it used to be held in the Cotswolds) or at the very least change the date so that it doesn't follow the week after Abergavenny. It can't make sense to hold two Welsh food festivals within such a short period.

End of rant. Did you go? Is this assessment fair? What would you like to see from a British cheese festival?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Assorted cheese musings

I realise it's over a month now since I blogged about cheese - mainly to do with other distractions (books being published, other books being written, student cooking campaigns being launched - gosh, even taking a couple of weeks holiday) but truth to tell there haven't been many earth-shattering cheese experiences. I was going to go to Slow Cheese in Bra but for various complicated reasons didn't make it. I'm hoping to go to the British Cheese Festival in Cardiff this weekend. However here's one or two things that might catch your fancy.

A lovely summery way of serving goats' cheese I came across at a restaurant called La Falaise in Cahuzac. You can read about it here

A simple but perfect cheese plate we were served at a great natural wine bar in Besançon called Les ZinZins du Vin (a local goats' cheese, Tomme de Savoie and sourdough - perfect with a Côtes du Jura called Le Zura, made by the bar owner, Fabrice

Some interesting cheese and wine pairings at an event at La Fromagerie hosted by the American cheese magazine Culture about which I'll be writing more . . . (too dark for photos of that)

Some great buffalo mozzarella from Laverstoke Park I tasted at the Organic Food Festival at the Trethowan's Dairy stand

And - Trethowan's Dairy again - an ultimate toastie at the Abergavenny Food Festival taken by my fellow blogger Scandilicious

Maybe it wasn't such a bad month for cheese after all . . .

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Wild Garlic Yarg and Old Remeker

A couple of other good cheese discoveries this month, the first being Wild Garlic Yarg. Normally Yarg, as I've mentioned before, is wrapped in nettles but this, as the name indicates, is covered in wild garlic leaves which suffuses it with a delicate but unmistakeable flavour of garlic. Oddly it also has a slightly more supple texture than the nettle version - I don't know if that's because the leaves have a higher moisture content or because of the ripening technique. A really nice summer cheese anyway.

By complete contrast you should try Old Remeker a Dutch cheese made in the style of an Old Gouda which I tasted at Paxton and Whitfield the other day. It's hard and crystalline in texture - quite similar to an aged Parmesan but with a rich, fruity flavour. Really superb

I'm now off on holiday for a couple of weeks so won't post unless I come up with an exciting cheese find. Enjoy the rest of August . . .

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Canary Islands cheese

Did you know they produced cheese in the Canary Islands? No? Well, as a matter of fact I did but only because I was involved in the judging for the World Cheese Awards last year when a Canary Island cheese Queso Arico from the Sociedad Canaria de Formento won the top prize.

I recently had the chance to taste a whole lot more thanks to Signe Johansen, one of the students who contributed to my new student cookbook, whose family has a holiday home on Lanzarote and who was studying the island’s cheeses for her MA. She brought back a selection from a producer called Finca de Uga which I thought were really impressive. Full flavoured and tangy despite looking deceptively smooth and mild. Most, interestingly, seemed to have a washed or rubbed rind.

I have to confess my Spanish is almost non-existent so I don’t know if I’ve made sense of the labels and descriptions but here’s what I thought of them and a couple of suggested wine pairings

Washed rind goat. Crumbly white centre - quite strong, salty, tangy - almost Roquefortish without the blue. It went particularly well with a delicious honeysuckle-sweet wine Signe also brought back: Diego Semi-Dulce from Bodega Stratus (10.5%)

Provenzal (Silver in the 2008 World Cheese Awards in Dublin)
Washed rind cows cheese - between semi-soft and semi- hard in texture. Full, fruity, coated in herbs: rosemar and wild oregano?. Tangy. Good with an Argentine Malbec (Dona Paula), Can imagine would work with Spanish reds like Rioja too.

Raw Jersey cows milk. Won a Gold in last year’s World Cheese Awards. Semi-soft, supple paste. Mild, mellow but far from bland. Very nice supple texture. Again Malbec worked well as did amontillado sherry.

Semi-hard goats cheese rubbed with quite smoky pimenton. Very white. Tangy. Gorgeous with the Stratus Diego

Raw cows milk cheese - almost cheddar-like taste and consistency, only slightly paler. More crumbly than the other cheeses though looked from the exterior like a Gouda. Again good match with the Malbec

Panuela de Uga
Gold in 2008 World Cheese Awards: very tangy, slightly smoky, Very good texture - firm, smooth, semi-hard. Very good with Stratus Diego

Unlabelled cheese
A small ball of what tasted like sheeps cheese but was probably goat - very salty and tangy. Rubbed in black pepper. Quite hard. Overwhelmed the sweet wine but great with cream sherry

Unfortunately none of these cheeses is yet available in the UK but it can only be a matter of time. There are plenty of Spanish and Portuguese cheeses on the shelves of good cheese shops now.

Signe's photo of one of the very appealing Finca de Uga goats!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A nice simple cheese course

Just as I was whingeing about how restaurants never seem to offer cheese these days I walked into one that not only had an interesting starter - a porchetta salad with Pecorino - but a model cheese course: not carrying a supplement but as part of a fixed price menu.

The restaurant was Arbutus and the course a couple of slices of Tomme de Savoie (from La Fromagerie, one of the best cheese shops in London), some nice rustic bread and a few lightly dressed lettuce leaves. Simple, delicious and all you really want at the end of your meal. Other restaurants who say it can't be done please take note!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Why aren't restaurants more imaginative about cheese?

I was thinking about this blog the other day and realised that one of the reasons I don't post more often (apart from having too many other things to do) is that I don't often come across an amazing cheese dish in a restaurant. Or a really interesting cheese course that doesn't cost significantly more than a dessert.

There aren't that many chefs who put a named dish with a named cheese on the menu - odd when they are by and large keen to stress the provenance of other ingredients like their meat, fish and vegetables. Food writer and restaurateur Mark Hix is a notable exception and La Fromagerie in Moxon Street in Marylebone does a great job but I haven't come across many others You'd think more restaurants would be offering cheese-based dishes to vegetarians but that doesn't seem to be the case.

It's not good news for Britain's many talented artisan cheesemakers who could do with a showcase for their efforts.

I've come across some great places when I've been travelling, especially in Canada (see picture above) and the States and recently heard about a fabulous-sounding restaurant in New York called Casellula which someone mentioned on Twitter, which offers really imaginative cheese sandwiches and cheese flights.

So come on, restaurant entrepreneurs, why can't we have a cutting edge cheese café in London? Or anywhere else in the UK, come to that. It's not as if there aren't a lot of us cheeselovers out there . . .

If you know of a restaurant where you can get great cheese dishes or an interesting cheese course, do let me know.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

All you need to know about Portuguese cheese

Having been tied up finishing the other book I'm publishing this autumn (The Ultimate Student Cookbook for those of you who know any students who are off to uni) I haven't had much time to explore new cheeses but wanted to draw your attention to this great post about Portuguese cheeses on the Iberian food and wine blog Catavino

I have to admit I don't know a lot about them myself but had previously read how good they are and have a vague recollection of tasting some excellent cheeses on various trips to Portugal. There's a second post in the pipeline which I'll link to as soon as it appears

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Why Cardo is such a special cheese

The buzz at the Bristol Wine and Food Fair, where I've been giving cheese and wine masterclasses for the past couple of days has all been about Cardo, a semi-soft washed rind goats cheese made by Mary Holbrook at Sleight's Farm in Somerset and on sale at the Trethowan's Dairy stand

It's a rare cheese, only made at certain times of year (now) and distinguished by two things: it's set by extract of cardoons, an artichoke-like plant, rather than by animal rennet and its rind is washed with water rather than brine.

Holbrook, who doesn't have a maturing room herself, delivers them up to Neal's Yard and they're matured in a room with other washed rind cheeses but not encouraged to develop their pungency. Basically it turns a bloomy-rinded cheese that would otherwise look like a Brie into one with a slightly crumbly greyish rind (rather than the sticky one you would get with a cheese like Stinking Bishop) and a flowing, gooey centre. The cardoon seems to give a particularly silky texture to the cheese together with a rich, sweet but not at all cloying flavour.

I managed to get a wedge but it was selling like hotcakes, even at the special Fair price of £35 a kilo. You can apparently buy it at the Neal's Yard shops in Borough Market and Covent Garden in London.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

More kitsch cheese!

Funny how when you notice something it often comes popping up again. No sooner had I spotted and blogged about La Vache qui Rit when I get a press release about a new 'Cheese Academy' sponsored by Bel, the French company that produces the 'iconic' Laughing Cow (as they describe it) along with Babybel, Boursin, Leerdammer and Port Salut

Rather worryingly this so-called academy, which is fronted by the ubiquitous Jean Christophe Novelli, is actually designed to teach chefs how to cook with processed cheese.

"We never cease to be amazed by the creativity and ingenuity of chefs when presented with the range of Bel cheeses" trills the website. "Some of the dishes we see are works of art, designed to impress; others are simplicity itself, but with a flavour and texture that are just divine."

Er, yes. Among the recipes that may (or may not) inspire you are Pasta with The Laughing Cow Light, peas and mint which contains an inadvisable 500g of powdered stock (a typo, I hope), Shepherds Pie made with frozen vegetables topped with potatoes and Laughing Cow cheese spread triangles, Leerdammer Light Individual Cheese Soufflés and Mexican Fajitas with Port Salut

Coming to a restaurant or pub near you :(

Monday, June 29, 2009

Cheesy biscuits, biscuits for cheese

Hot on the heels of the Vache qui Rit incident I've rediscovered another old retro favourite, Roka Cheese Crispies which I can remember my parents serving with drinks when I was a kid. Frankly it would be hard to make a better cheese biscuit - they're incredibly light and crispy (as the name aptly suggests) with a real hit of what tastes like Cheddar but is actually Gouda cheese (the biscuits are Dutch). They're very good with a glass of medium dry amontillado which is how my parents served them but I've been enjoying them with red and sparkling wine. And the packaging, which looks as if it hasn't been changed since the company was founded in 1949, is simply great.

The other discovery is some charmingly rustic-looking Swedish crispbread from a company called Peter's Yard. I have to admit I'm not a big crispbread fan but these taste of wholemeal bread rather than cardboard - very plain, crisp and delicious. Because they're not overly salty or coated with seeds you can equally well eat them with sweet spreads like honey as savoury ones but they're obviously a great companion for cheese.

Not every cheese, I should say. I tried them with a strong cheddar that overwhelmed their subtle flavour but spreadable young goats' and sheeps' cheeses, mild Scandinavian slicing cheeses, hard sheeps' cheese and creamier blues would all work well. And cream cheese mixed with a little sour cream, chopped onion and dill topped with a few curls of smoked salmon would be fabulous.

Again the presentation - they come in a very cool tin - is great. A good present to take to a dinner party.

What are your favourite biscuits for cheese?

Monday, June 22, 2009

La Vache qui Rit - the next big thing?

I was really amused to find a triangle of the French processed cheese La Vache qui Rit on the cheeseboard of Eastside Inn, the very posh restaurant in London I went to the other day. Apparently it was the chef Bjorn van der Horst's favourite childhood cheese.

Fortunately the other cheeses were rather more substantial otherwise one would be more than a bit miffed at having to pay £15 for the experience (the cost of a cheese plate and a glass of wine). The others on that occasion were St Tola (a very good Irish goats cheese), Roquefort and what I thought sounded like L'Etivet, a strongly flavoured semi-hard cows' cheese from Switzerland which I hadn't come across before. (I've since been informed by the very helpful Food and Wine Diarist that it's L'Etivaz, so that's that mystery solved.)

Actually I have to admit that the Vache qui Rit - which of course means The Laughing Cow and which has rather a jolly website here - fitted in rather well, adding a mild creamy counterpoint to the cheeseboard.

Sets a precedent though: are we now going to find a bottle of Heinz salad cream served with our side-salad or a bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk chocolate or a few Smarties tucked by our dessert if the chef has a fondness for them? Watch this space . . .

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A good wine and cheese matching session

I went down to the launch of the Bristol Wine and Food Fair this week - literally, as it was held at the bottom of Park Street in the cellars of long-established wine merchant Avery's. (Great place - can't believe I've not got round to going there in my two years in the city)

Instead of just giving everyone a drink they'd set up some tables where you could taste different wines and cheeses together, the latter supplied by Trethowan's Dairy which makes the admirable Gorwydd Caerphily and also sells other cheeses (and great toasties!) from its shop in St Nick's market and various market stalls.

The pairings had been put together by Matt Eggens of Avery's who actually achieved a very high strike rate though, as always with these exercises, some came off better than others on the night. Here are my notes on the combinations:

Berkswell with Avery's NV Champagne
A hit. Champagne is surprisingly good with cheese and this was a rich style (apparently made in imitation of Bollinger!) Berkswell is a tangy, hard sheeps cheese which worked with it in the same way as a Parmesan or Pecorino would have done. I also liked it with the Gorwydd Caerphilly below ****

Gorwydd Caerphilly and Avery's Fine White Burgundy
The best match of the six. The smooth creamy burgundy was perfect with the delicate lactic cheese. A gorgeous combination that shows white wine is often better than red with cheese *****

Keen's Cheddar and Valtorto 2006
I liked both elements of this pairing. Keen's is one of the great cheddars and the Valtorto was a very attractive ripe, almost porty Douro red but not quite big enough to take on the cheese. A vintage port or an amontillado sherry would probably have worked better - or a less strong cheddar with the wine ***

Dorstone and Avery's Marlborough Pinot Noir 2007
A lovely light elegant goats' cheese from Charlie Westhead of Neal's Yard Creamery, very slightly overwhelmed by an incredibly lush Pinot Noir from the Marlborough region of New Zealand. Again a slightly lighter Pinot might have worked better.***

Stichelton and Maury 1928
An interesting variation on the Stilton and Port combo. Stichelton is an unpasteurised cows cheese made in the Stilton style by Joe Schneider at Collingthwaite Farm (all Stilton is pasteurised these days) and in my view one of the great British cheeses. I thought the Maury, a vin doux naturel from the south of France, didn't quite stand up to it as well as a port would have done (it was only 17%ABV compared to 20%) but it was a lovely wine. ****

Tunworth and Les Hautes Vallées Grenache Syrah Vin de Pays d'Oc 2006
The only pairing that didn't work for me. Tunworth is a rich Camembert-style cheese and this one had been well-matured which made it a tough customer for the accompanying robust southern French red (a blend of old vine Grenache and Syrah). It was better with oatcakes but I still prefer cider or a strong apple aperitif like Kingston Black with this type of cheese. *

I'll be running 3 cheese and wine masterclasses at the Bristol Wine and Food Fair which takes place from July 10th-12th. For more information about cheese and wine matching visit my website

Sunday, June 7, 2009

If it's Provence, it must be goats' cheese!

I've just come back from a trip to Provence and was surprised to find that almost all the local cheeses on offer were goats' cheese. Down the other end of the South of France round the Pyrenees it's sheeps' cheese that rules.

I didn't have time to ask the reason for this and haven't been able to find it on the web but it's true they go exceptionally well with the region's light, summery cuisine and their delicate wines, the vast majority of which are rosé.

The best-known Provencal cheese is Banon which is wrapped in vine-leaves but most of the cheeses we sampled (see above, served with honey) were unknown to me. They also serve similar cheeses at breakfast time (below) which work really well with local fruits such as apricots, peaches and figs - in a similar way to a fromage frais. A nice idea for summer eating.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Greek-style potato, courgette and feta bake

I bought a kilo of courgettes at the weekend and, thinking of different ways to use them, remembered this easy Greek-style bake I invented a couple of years ago. I only had salad potatoes (Anyas) whereas I'd normally use a bigger waxy potato like a Desirée but they worked perfectly well.

Serves 3/4
4 medium sized potatoes (about 600g), peeled
Half a bunch of spring onions (about 4) or 1 medium onion, peeled and finely sliced
2 medium to large courgettes (salted if large*)
200g feta cheese
4 sprigs of mint
2 tbsp olive oil
300ml vegetable stock made with 1 rounded tsp vegetable bouillon powder or 1/2 a vegetable stock cube
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F/Gas 5. Trim the roots and the top half of the green leaves off the spring onions. Cut them lengthways into quarters then across into three. Halve and finely slice the potatoes. Cut the ends off each courgette and slice the rest finely. Pull the leaves off the mint and chop roughly. Pour 1 tbsp of olive oil into a large baking dish and smear it round the base and sides of the dish. Put a layer of potatoes over the bottom of the dish (about one third of the sliced potato) top with half the onions, half the sliced courgettes and half the feta, evenly crumbled over the courgettes. Scatter over half the mint and season with freshly ground black pepper. Repeat with another layer of potato, onion, courgette, feta and mint then finish with a layer of potato. Pour the stock over the vegetables then trickle the remaining olive oil over the top of the dish. Bake for an hour to an hour and a quarter or until the potatoes are completely tender (you should be able to stick a knife through them easily) and the top is brown and crispy. (About half way through the cooking time tilt the pan and spoon a little of the juices over the potatoes.) Nice on its own but even better with a tomato salad.

* If the courgettes are rather large and threaten to be watery I'd salt them lightly and leave them to drain half an hour. Rinse and pat them dry before using them.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

My new cheese book

I've just been reading through the proofs of my new cheese book which comes out this October. It's called - rather intimidatingly - Fiona Beckett's Cheese Course and it looks amazing.

It's a standing joke in our family that whenever someone picks up one of my books they say "What beautiful photos!" Of course, that's the worst thing you can say to a writer - a bit like saying to a photographer "Great captions!" The author is the person who comes up with the whole structure of the book, painstakingly researches it and creates the recipes and yet it's the photographer and the art director who ultimately bring it to life.

I can't feel resentful though. Steve Painter of Ryland Peters & Small, who I've worked with on several of my books, is a genius and says himself it's his best book yet!

What is it all about? Well, it's a bit different from most cheese books on the market in that it's not an encyclopaedia of the worlds' cheeses, more a guide on how to enjoy and serve cheese to best effect. It's got some genuinely new ideas for entertaining with cheese (the cheese and wine party re-invented), lots of cheese and drink pairings (not just wine) and some really good new recipes (though I immodestly say so myself) including a terrific macaroni cheese.

The publishing timetable for full-colour books is weird. I finished it way back last autumn and I now won't see it again till September. It's almost like looking at it with new eyes, as if it's been written by someone else. Finishing a book is always a bit of an anti-climax. I always inclined to feel it didn't quite live up to the ideas I was carrying about in my head. Seeing it again makes me feel that actually it's pretty good. I hope you agree when you see it!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Swedish cheese

I don't know if you've noticed but Nordic is becoming the new Mediterranean. Chefs like Trina Hahnemann and Rene Redzepi, whose restaurant Noma was voted the third best in the world in the recent 50 best restaurants awards, have hit the international foodie radar. Nordic shops and food companies like Scandinavian Kitchen and Malmo Nordic Dining are springing up in London. So it was only a matter of time before the spotlight fell on Scandinavian cheese.

I tried four Swedish cheeses at the Real Food Festival in London yesterday, all of which are very much better than anything I've tasted before. Two - Herrgard and Präst reminded me of a medium and strong cheddar respectively (apparently there are whisky and vodka washed versions of the latter, according to Wikipedia)

I preferred Svecia which had a lovely crystalline texture and Grevé, a Swedish version of Emmental - with holes but more tangy and less waxy. I'm not sure where you could find them in London - possibly Scandinavian Kitchen - but it's worth asking more established cheese suppliers like Paxton and Whitfield or Selfridges for them as they'll probably stock them if they think there's a demand.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cheese at Lido

It's been a bit of a barren time for cheese lately. I was expecting to find some interesting cheeses in Priorato in Spain where I've been for the past couple of days but it was just the usual Manchego. But I came across a couple of really nice dishes last week at one of our local Bristol restaurants called Lido which I've mentioned on the blog before.

The first was a salad of deep fried artichokes, fresh herb labneh (remember labneh?) and crisp flatbread (above) a simple fresh and delicious starter for this time of year. You could use a young soft goats' cheee if you didn't have time to make labneh.

The second was billed as a 'small plate' for sharing at the beginning of the meal but I took it instead of a cheese course - a mixture of Gorgonzola (and cream, I think), sliced celery and walnuts with a drizzle of honey. I don't know why more restaurants don't do cheese plates like this. Cheaper for them than keeping a big cheese selection and cheaper for the customer. (I paid £3.00 for it instead of £6.50 for a piece of Gorgonzola served at the end of the meal). So easy to rustle up at home too.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Crazy Cantal

This is not a piece of arid desert or crazy paving but a cheese. A 5 year old Cantal, according to the stallholder at Agde market who was proudly displaying it the other day.

I have to say it didn't taste like a very old cheese. I've sampled 4 year old parmesan and Oude Gouda and that they both had an incredible intensity that this lacked (it was more like a mature Cheddar). And I'm not sure a well-made cheese should break up internally like this.

But it was quite a spectacle. I've never seen a cheese quite like it!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The cheese with no name

I guess most people would still think that France was one of the best places in the world to buy cheese. I hate to disabuse you but it's not - or not down in the Languedoc anyway. The choice is either between the industrially produced cheeses that fill the supermarket shelves or nameless cheeses like the ones above that sell from small market stalls. You can actually buy better French cheeses in my home town of Bristol - and wouldn't pay a lot more for them.

The one above - a semi-hard goats' cheese similar to Pecorino in style - was actually quite tasty with a pleasing firm texture and tang - as indeed it should have at around 24 euros a kilo, roughly the same price as a good piece of steak. But the other day I came across an ill-made very 'cowy' cows' cheese for much the same price that wasn't appealing at all.

All the fabulous little cheese shops I remember from 20 or so years ago in France seem to have disappeared - unless you're in a big city like Paris or Lyon. Sad.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Hurray - it's grilled cheese month!

We've all got quite used to dedicated food days and even weeks but what genius came up with the idea of Grilled Cheese Month? Not that I and my fellow cheeselovers need a great deal of encouragement to eat grilled cheese - or toasted cheese as we'd call it in the UK.

Needless to say the idea is American and restaurants there are taking maximum advantage of the promotional opportunity involved. A Los Angeles restaurant called Clementine for example is offering 25 different versions of grilled cheese sandwiches created by prominent LA chefs. Each week the menu is presented on a specially designed retro postcard with a 'cheesy' theme.

At Artisanal, the specialist cheese shop and restaurant in New York, there's a different grilled cheese sandwich for every day of this month offered with a matching wine. Today's being Bra Tenero, an Italian cow's cheese with arugula (rocket) pesto paired with a Yalumba Eden Valley Viognier from Australia.

Just wish I was there.

Have also just discovered a great photo-collection of grilled cheese sandwiches on a blog called Pithy and Cleaver!

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The weird and wonderful world of Canadian cheese

One of the things that made the greatest impression on me on my visit to Toronto last week was how fantastic Canadian cheese is - both the quality and the way chefs use it. This despite the fact that Canada, like the US, bans the production of young raw milk or unpasteurized cheeses. However many of the most interesting cheeses come from Quebec whose government has recently reversed that position to allow the sale of raw milk cheeses under the age of 60 days.

Cheesemakers in Ontario also labour under the additional handicap of not being free to choose the style of cheese they make. If they want to use cows' milk (the restriction doesn't apply to sheep and goats') they must be able to prove to the province's Dairy Farmers' Association that no similar cheese is being made. Popular styles are on allocation so you can’t for example make a cheddar if the cheddar quota is already taken up. Mad - or so it seems to me at least

Despite this discouraging commercial climate some excellent cheeses are being made, particularly in Quebec. Ones I tasted and liked included Grey Owl goats cheese, Le Riopelle (a white-rinded triple-cream cheese), 1608 a slightly floral semi-hard cows' cheese from Laiterie Charlevoix and Tiger Blue (above as served at Annona) which is made by Poplar Grove in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. And I'm sure I barely scratched the surface of what Canada has to offer.

I was also really impressed by the way chefs were presenting them with accompanying flatbreads, dried fruits and highly original jams and fruit compotes and by the sort of dishes they were making with artisanal cheeses such as the goats' cheese and beet salad that chef Dylan McLay of The Epicurean in Niagara-on-the-Lake makes with the local Ontario Chevre (below)

For more about Canadian cheese visit Cheese of Canada, the website of Canadian cheese expert Gurth Pretty, the website of the Ontario Cheese Society, and that of Quebec Cheese

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Finn and Mushroom Melt

One of the problems about being a cheeselover is that cheese is not exactly slimming - or at least not in the quantities that I eat it - so I'm always on the lookout for ways to reduce the overall calorie load of any cheese-based meal. Leaving out or reducing the amount of bread, pasta or potatoes is one option. Skipping an accompanying glass of wine another.

At lunch today I fell upon a new way to do a melt. I fried up some sliced portabella mushrooms with a little garlic and parsley then added some sliced Finn, a gloriously rich triple cream-style unpasteurised cow's milk cheese made by Charlie Westhead of the Neal's Yard Creamery in Herefordshire*. It had been at room temperature for an hour so melted beautifully into the mushrooms. The meal was completed by a lightly dressed watercress salad and a small slice of potato bread and frankly was just as good as if I'd made the whole thing on toast (which would probably have gone soggy).

If you can't find Finn, which is available from Neal's Yard and new on-line retailer Pong (from whom I got it) you could use Brie.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In praise of Irish cheese

Even if you're not doing anything particular to celebrate St Patrick's Day today I do urge you to go out and buy some Irish cheese. If, of course, you can find some. My own rather fruitless hunt in Bristol yesterday resulted in just one - a Cashel Blue. You'd have thought that cheese shops and delis would have been quicker to latch on to the chance to mark the occasion, an opportunity seized by the famous New York cheese shop Artisanal (though the fact they include Gorywdd Caerphilly in their selection shows their geography is a little hazy!)

Anyway Cashel Blue, a blue cows' cheese made in Co. Tipperary by Jane and Louis Grubb, is a great cheese - on a par in my view with the best Stilton and Gorgonzola but somewhat more sympathetic to any accompanying red wine. You can read more about it on the very helpful Teddington Cheese site here.

Other Irish cheeses I would single out are Ardrahan, Durrus and Gubbeen (all washed-rinded cheeses), the Gouda-style Coolea and St Tola organic goats' cheese but there are many more.

If you're in London today a good place to find them is Neal's Yard in Covent Garden and Borough Market, or in Dublin at Sheridan's (above) a tiny boutique-like shop in South Anne Street.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Two brilliant cheese dishes

It’s been a good week for cheese. Not individual cheeses for once but two brilliant cheese dishes I’ve eaten in restaurants. (Apologies for the dreadful quality of the pictures - both places were very dark)

The first was an oyster rarebit at Wright’s Oyster and Porter House in Borough Market. Such a simple and brilliant idea. The rarebit which had a good mustardy kick was cut into three fingers, each topped with an raw oyster - presumably well drained of its juice. Both elements - oyster and rarebit were perfect with the accompanying cool, velvety glass of Guinness. Bliss.

The second was last night at Bell’s Diner in Bristol, one of my favourite locals and was frankly the best macaroni cheese I’ve ever eaten. Outrageously rich and creamy, it came in a small cocotte, sprinkled with shavings of Perigord truffle and surrounded by wild mushrooms (chanterelles at a guess) over a scattering of cress. The sommelier Lionel partnered it with a glass of 2004 Chateau de Chorey Chorey-les-Beaune which was perfect.

The great thing about both dishes was that neither was expensive - even with the truffles and mushrooms the macaroni cheese was only £15.50, cheaper than any of the other mains. And both would be do-able at home. (If I manage to prise the recipe out of Chris Wicks, the chef I'll let you know . . .)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Lovely Little Rydings

Since my husband is dairy intolerant - well, more specifically cows' milk-intolerant - I'm always on the lookout for interesting sheeps' cheeses, the type of milk he seems to tolerate best and this was a cheese I found at the Bristol Slow Food market last Sunday I've been meaning to share with you.

It was created by Mary Holbrook, one of the best cheesemakers in the south-west, but is now made by Wootton Organic Dairy in Somerset. It has a wonderful flavour: fresh-tasting, slightly sharp and citrussy with a light moussey texture that almost seems to melt in your mouth. Much lighter than Camembert which it otherwise resembles

Apparently it's just coming into season so do look out for it. You can buy it online from The Cheese Gig though the Slow Food market, which takes place on the first Sunday of the month, is of course cheaper (£5 a whole 200g cheese, compared to £6.99 though the latter is by no means unreasonable for a cheese of this quality)

When young like this I'd accompany it with cider though I'm sure it wouldn't pose any problems for a medium-bodied red wine like a Rioja.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

New places to buy cheese

I've just been checking out a couple of new places to buy cheese in the UK, one shop, one online.

The shop (to the right) is called La Cave - an ambitiously large cheese shop and café just by South Kensington tube station in London. It's got a pretty good selection though I do find it depressing to see a display of cheese wrapped in clingfilm and one or two of the cheeses looked as if they had seen better days.

They do however hold regular cheese tasting events in the form of a fortnightly cheese and wine tasting session which might be a fun thing to do if you're in the area. (They cost £35.)

The other is a new on-line cheese retailer called Pong - a brave move, I feel given that not everyone is into stinky cheese - but it has a very funky site with some sexy photography, some imaginative and fairly priced cheese selections and some appealing recipes. I love the sound of the Westcombe Cheddar and bacon stuffed baby baked potatoes as a party nibble.

It's a difficult time to be selling artisanal cheese which suddenly seems very expensive. The other day I bought some sheeps' cheese at my local farmers market that cost more per kilo than fillet steak - although of course you don't need quite so much of it.

I can't help but feel that La Cave must be struggling in such an expensive location and in competition with cheese meccas like Neal's Yard and La Fromagerie. But not everyone has a good cheese shop near them and for them the answer could well - if they hold their nose - be Pong.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

How does Emmental get its holes?

I bought a nice piece of Emmental from the local deli the other day which had the biggest holes I’ve ever seen in the cheese. When I was writing my cheese book I discovered how it gets them - the cheesemaker introduces a bacteria which reacts with the lactic acid in the cheese to create carbon dioxide gas. And that creates the holes (The Teddington Cheese company has a good description here)

Most Emmental comes from Switzerland (an AOC was created there in 2006) but this one came from the Savoie region of France. The only thing that surprised me was that it dried out pretty quickly (maybe because of the size of the holes? The size of the Swiss ones are regulated apparently!) so once it’s a day or two old you need to use it for cooking. It’s a good addition though to a fondue or for toasted cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Argentinian and Italian cheese

Apologies for the gap in posts on the blog - I've just spent 10 days away in Argentina which I think it's fair to say is not one of the world's great cheese destinations. At least not so far but if the wine business carries on the way it's going an artisanal cheese industry can't be far behind. Surely not all the milk can go to make Dulce de Leche.

It's not that they don't eat cheese, it's just that it's not massively exciting. There's quite a lot of Cheddar-style hard cheese and pasteurized Camembert which tends to be served before meals along with ham and chorizo (see above) and some slightly rubbery Mozzarella though it did form the basis of one of the most appealing dishes I had while I was away: a mozzarella and fig salad with toasted almonds at 1884, the restaurant of the country's best known chef Francis Mallman.

I also had a very tasty cheese and onion empanada and some seriously good Brie at one of the posh dinners though I suspect that was imported from France. (The Park Hyatt at Buenos Aires has its own cheese room)

I was intending to post about Valentine's Day cheeses before I went away but somehow missed the boat but I did come up with the perfect cheese for a romantic dinner - a caprino tartufo from Piemonte in Italy (below).

It's a very delicate, creamy goats' milk cheese decorated with fine slivers of black truffles which lend their flavour to the whole cheese. Of course romance shouldn't begin and end on Valentine's Day so there's no reason why you shouldn't serve it whenever you want to give your Significant Other a special treat. It goes fabulously well with champagne or a sexy red burgundy.

* Just remembered another good cheesy thing in Argentina: grilled provolone. They take big slices and put it on the asado (barbecue) for the tiny minority who are not into steak.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

What’s happened to French cheese?

Having spent the past week in the south of France, I ‘ve been forcibly struck by the fact that I have a better selection of French cheeses in my home town of Bristol than I do in the Languedoc village where we have our long term holiday home. There the only way to buy cheese without making a special expedition is to go to the local village shop which is supplied by Casino or the Intermarché down the road. True there are local markets but the choice of cheese there is limited and not always in good condition. Even the nearest big town of Beziers - a 25 minute drive away - doesn’t have a really good cheese shop.

The French cheese industry now seems dominated by the big companies like Lactalis which have squeezed the small cheesemakers out. You might find a couple of local goats’ cheeses in your local supermarket but that’s about it. Even Roquefort which is produced not far away on the plateau de Larzac comes from one of the big producers or packaged for the supermarkets' own brand range.

The resulting cheeses are not necessarily bad (there are advantages in having a less complex cheese, as I pointed out on my matching food and wine website the other day) just lacking in character. And for a cheeselover that’s a crime.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Welsh rabbit leeks

A recipe from my book An Appetite for Ale - an adaptation of a great idea from cookery writer and top London chef Mark Hix: pouring a Welsh rarebit over cooked leeks. (Pic by Vanessa Courtier)

Serves 2-3
6 even-sized leeks - about 500g in total
5 tbsp full-bodied English ale, such as Ridley’s Old Bob
150g strong cheddar cheese, grated
1 level tbsp plain flour sifted with 1/2 level tsp powdered English mustard
1 1/2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 large egg yolk
3 tbsp double cream
Freshly ground black pepper

Trim the leeks removing any damaged outer leaves. Cut vertically half way down each leek, fan out the leaves and rinse under cold running water to remove any grit. Cut the leeks across in half and arrange in the basket of a steamer. Steam for about 4-5 minutes until just cooked. Pour the ale into a saucepan, add the cheese, sprinkle over the sifted flour and mustard and stir. Heat over a low heat until the cheese has melted and formed a smooth sauce. Take off the heat and beat in the egg yolk then add the Worcestershire sauce and cream. Season with plenty of freshly ground black pepper (you shouldn’t need salt). Heat the grill. Arrange the leeks in a baking dish and pour over the rarebit. Place the dish under the grill for about 2-3 minutes until brown and bubbling. Serve with crusty bread.