Sunday, 23 November 2014

Cheese fest

This isn't cooking per se, but I always have to look up the quantities that I once helpfully wrote down for Future Me, along with a shopping list, so I thought I'd share that, as it's coming up to party-time, and share some of my cheese lists courtesy of my Cheese Hero, plus some of his Ineffable Wisdom on the subject of cheese. Also, because I had my Birthday Cheese Fest last night (my birthday's on Monday). So when I scavenge through my recipe files for Cheese Party Quantities, I find this:

Cheese party quantities

for 10 people
150g cheese per person = 1.5 kg total
Biscuits: 5 boxes (you could do 1 packet each water biscuits, digestives, oatcakes, cream crackers, rye crackers, but now I just bite the bullet and get three kinds of Millers Damsels because they serve the cheese so much better)
Grapes: 3 punnets
1 head celery
4 apples
Chocs: 5 per person = 50 chocs
1.5 bottles port, 8 bottles wine (yeah, yeah, whatever, it's a party people)
Cheeses: Thick blue A5 notebook, Nov 2012
And then I scavenge through my stacks of notebooks, for November 2012, and wonder again why I don't label the spines with dates (I labelled this one, this time), and find this:

Choosing cheeses

If memory seves, this features, clockwise, Picos de Europa, Marksbury Extra-Mature cheddar, Langres, Tome des Bauges, Mimolette, and possibly Comte - a hefty board, all on the strong side

Received wisdom on cheese boards is to have a goat one, a soft smelly one, a blue one, and a hard one, and in those latter three get a mix of ewes' milk and cows' milk. A good mix is nice, but let's not be slavish. Lavish, yes, though. Some say you should absolutely never have more than 4-5 cheeses total, because it overwhelms the palate. Pfffft. Maybe, for a cheese board after a meal, or after a long frosty walk, that's very sensible, but when you're having a Gluttonous Birthday Cheese Fest, that sort of joyless sanctimonious sensibility is hardly the point.

Confession: I no longer choose cheeses. (If you want the cheese lists, scroll down to the next heading, cos it's story time up here.) Once, in the queue for the cheese shop in the Covered Market (a queue that I'm willing to stand in for 3 hours, at Christmas time; the newsagent opposite will sell you a New Scientist, and just be sure to hold it so the person behind you can rubberneck and read too), and gazing longingly and bewilderedly at dozens of still-unfamiliar cheeses, despite a significant dedication to the whole matter of cheese,

We interrupt this sentence, to bring you an anecdote. During my Masters, I was social secretary for my college's MCR, which largely consisted of organising Second Desserts. A Second Dessert is a marvellous and splendid thing, being basically masses of cheese, a smattering of fruit, and some chocolate as a sop to the sweet-toothed people, and plenty of port. The MCR president and the finance chap, both from the States, were both needed to sign the cheques, so they had to come cheese-shopping with me. They stood in bewildered amazement before the Covered Market cheese shop's counter, unwilling to believe that the exact type of blue cheese could matter - a Morbier, a Stilton, an Oxford blue, this choice must be considered against the creaminess, sharpness, nuttiness, and saltiness of the other cheeses on the board - and gobsmacked that unpasteurised cheese was even allowed. They told me sad tales of cheese-deprivation, of a country where only three types of cheese even really existed, only one of which I even recognised as being a legitimate cheese. Nor, when it came to their both signing the cheque, as they were there to do, could they entirely cope with how much money I was spending on cheese. I'm schnoep with money in a thousand different ways, but not when it comes to cheese boards. I'm happy to report that they're both much more culturated in the matter of cheese, since those early days.
I suddenly realised, I don't know half these cheeses, but those people behind the counter do! As unutterable good fortune would have it, I was served by the chap with blonde hair. I told him what kinds we usually liked, and instead of buying that, could he recommend some others? And thus I discovered my Cheese Hero.

On my birthday in 2012, I was too unwell to do my usual cook-all-day birthday thing, so I had a Second Dessert, instead. I went to the cheese shop, lurked around like a stalker and let other people go in front of me, until I could be served by the right person, and asked him if he'd help me pick twelve cheeses. He didn't tell me to stick to just 4 and got very enthusiastic and involved planning it all, and kept giving me different cheeses to taste, and advising on the order they should be eaten, and talking about where they came from and who'd made them, having clearly visited all these places, and he was describing a vast underground cave, filled with cathedrals of cheddar, and I could see it, and his eyes were alive with passion for cheese, and I thought - bugger me, that's how I feel when I talk about writing! This man loves cheese. There's nothing in the world like people who love their thing and know their stuff. (On which subject, if you have any DIY projects, especially off-the-wall ones, seek out Bob W. at Botley Homebase. That's all his name badge says - Bob W. He is the genius behind much of the slowly-becoming-steampunk bathroom.)

The 12 cheeses chosen by the Cheese Hero introduced fabulous new favourites into our repertoire, especially Marksbury Extra Mature Cheddar (the four-year-old, currently unavailable, and they keep selling the younger ones so where is more four-year-old to come from, hmm?) and Mimolette. So when we tried to buy cheese and the Cheese Hero wasn't there, we could fall back on our expanded repertoire. I tried asking other people for recommendations, and was met with irritated blankness. Clearly I didn't understand how shopping worked. It worked like this: I told them what I wanted and how much; they gave it to me; I gave them money.

The Cheese Hero never reappeared. No matter what time or day of the week we went, there was no Cheese Hero. At Art in Action 2013, we spotted a cheese van, beelined for it, nommed up tasters, discovered Oxford brown sauce, pounced with delight on some Beenleigh Blue (one of the Cheese Hero's recommendations), and asked mournfully after Marksbury Extra Mature Cheddar. The chap expressed surprise we'd heard of it; it's not terribly well-known, but it's sold in his shop in the Covered Market... Ha! This man's the owner! So we asked after our lost hero ("the chap with the blonde hair"), and were told he'd left. He was setting up his own business. Something about selling allotment veg...? The Cheese Hero was never coming back. Deeply saddened (though very happy about Oxford brown sauce), we went off to look at the welding.

Three-quarters of a year later, we wandered down North Parade in Summertown, stopped to admire a little deli type shop, and I saw a man inside, and tried not to stare as I puzzled away at who the hell was he, and why did I like him so much? He was really very familiar. Surely we'd never...? And then I glanced at the cheeses, and spotted Beenleigh Blue, and... THAT'S IT! THE CHEESE HERO!

So this birthday, when I decided to have another cheese fest, I forsook my long loyalty to the Covered Market cheese shop, to go to the Cheese Hero. Obviously his selection of cheeses is smaller than the Covered Market, but the whole point of having a Cheese Hero is that his choices are amazing, and everything in that selection is his choice. And it was amazing. He chose us 13 cheeses, carefully arranging them from mildest to strongest, and also thinking about the contrast between each one as you progress through it, and advising on what crackers or fresh stuff should go with each, and telling us about the people who made them, and adding in some heavensent sour dough bread... There's still no Marksbury Four-year-old on the market, sadly, but he recommends Montgomery 24-month cheddar as a substitute, and it's a gorgeous, crunchy kicker of a cheddar. (It took me years to recover from nasty plastic South African "cheddar" and realise it can be an utterly brilliant cheese.) So the story ends happily! I still don't know my Cheese Hero's name (yeah, that's a bit crap, but somehow Britishness forbids asking people's names, and I've gone native), but he's at 2 North Parade and you should get him to choose cheese for you. Look for the blonde chap. Or if you're not in Oxford, maybe you'll have the splendid luck to find your own Cheese Hero.

Cheese lists (with taster notes)

The November 2012 list (from the Covered Market, with any notes I hastily scribbled at the time, arranged from mildest to strongest; the ones we liked most have the Special Snowflake next to them T):
  1. Windrush valley goats cheese - mild one to start with
  2. Old Ford - hard goats cheese, made by an 80-year-old woman, Neal's Yard
  3. Lavort - hard sheeps cheese, sparkle T
  4. Vacherin Mont Dor - seasonal, cows milk, cows feed off the end of summer rich grass - rich cheese
  5. Fourgerus - named after the fern put on top to keep its shape
  6. Comte - matured in mountain caves, cathedrals of cheese, 15 months old
  7. Tome des Bauges - earthier T
  8. Mimolette - bright orange, sweet and nutty (hazlenutty), natural colouring from Annato TT
  9. Picos de Europa - blue, cow and goat mixed
  10. Cashel blue - nicely creamy and sweet
  11. Marksbury extra mature cheddar TT
  12. Langres - the ultimate killer soft-smelly cheese
The November 2014 list (from 2 North Parade, plus scribbled notes, mildest to strongest, favourites are the Special Snowflakes T, pregnancy-safe are asterisks cos one of the guests was pregnant, and all British farmhouse cheeses, also a few of my own serving-notes from tasting-pleasure on the night):
  1. South Downs goat cheese – fresh, young T
  2. Doorstone goat cheese – charcoal powder rind, stronger, slightly more acidic
  3. Waymore – soft sheep cheese, lighter, creamy, fuller flavour, made by Ann & Andy Wigmore
  4. *Cotherstone – pasteurised cows milk, Cumbrian, style of Wensleydale, 4 months old, quite young, fresh, lemony, zesty 
  5. Finn – triple cream cows cheese, rich, indulgent, Wye Valley T
  6. Lord of the Hundreds – ewes milk, East Sussex, harder, saltier, akin to Manchego (serve with Quince paste) perfect with quince paste T
  7. St James – washed rind ewe milk, saltier, named for cheesemaker James Aldridge
  8. *Coolea – pasteurised cows milk, Cork (Ireland), akin to Gouda, sweet, nutty, hazelnut, honey
  9. Beenleigh blue – pasteurised ewes milk, sweet, nutty, with sharper notes
  10. *Old Winchester – pasteurised cows milk, New Forest, crystalline, smoky, strong, eat with crisp apple
  11. *Tunworth – pasteurised cows milk, full flavoured Camembert style, mushroomy, from Hampshire, eat with sour dough bread T
  12. Stichelton – unpasteurised cows milk, as Stilton was originally made; rich, buttery, sharp, salty, bliss interchanged with cherry tomatoes T
  13. *Montgomery – 24-month crystalline cheddar, for the final knock-out!                               

Serving notes

We usually get celery, grapes, and crisp apples (Jazz and Pink Lady are both great) to go with cheese, plus now Millers Damsel crackers because when I got a couple boxes the first time, they were so much better with the cheese than any other crackers, and allowed the taste to burst through instead of muffling it with a mouthful of heavy crumbs. Sorry, I try not to be foodie and snobby, but now when I push the boat out on a cheese board, I don't want to sink it with heavy biscuits. The Cheese Hero added a few amendments, so the Birthday Cheese Fest boards were arranged accordingly. Short version:
  • mild & goaty cheeses: charcoal crackers, celery; definitely white wine (and I say this as someone who never otherwise drinks white wine)
  • soft, strong cheeses: buttermilk crackers, grapes; probably still white, or a lighter red, or a dryish sherry
  • blue and hard cheeses: wheat crackers, apples, some cherry tomatoes to have between mouthfuls of blue; happy to take on punchier reds, sweeter sherries, maybe even port

Mild & goaty cheeses: charcoal crackers, celery (South Downs, Doorstone, Waymore, Cotherstone)

Finn, still going with the charcoal crackers, but bringing in the grapes now (the tartest ones)

Two richer, saltier cheeses: Lord of the Hundreds (with its quince), St James; buttermilk crackers to offset them, moving to slightly sweeter grapes

Coolea, still with the middling grapes, moving onto the wheat crackers

The big guns coming out: Beenleigh blue, Old Winchester, Tunworth; apple, wheat crackers, sour dough bread

The Wagnerian crescendo of cheese, the entire orchestra is going crazy now and all the cymbals are banging and the horns are blowing their hearts out and the whole choir is in full-throated roar: Stichelton and Montgomery, with apples, wheat crackers, sour dough bread, the sweetest black grapes, and some cherry tomatoes in the background

Did I mention I love cheese? I love cheese.

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