Welcome to Lucie Inns who starts a new column on her favourite subject…
No doubt your splendid festive cheeseboard is but a distant memory? So to cheer us all up in these dark days, the lovely Whistler editorial team have asked me to create this new column all about cheese to complement Andrew’s regular wine articles. I am a Hove-based cheesemonger, Cheesology, specialising in artisan cheeses from the British Isles and I’d like to lead you on a journey to celebrate this amazing food and, hopefully in the process, develop your knowledge and interest in it.
Firstly, let’s be clear about what is meant by the term ‘artisan’. The dictionary gives the meaning as ‘craftsman’. In food terms it generally refers to a handmade product as opposed to one manufactured by way of machines. All the cheeses I keep are made by hand – quite literally the curds are cut and ladled into moulds by hand and throughout the maturing process cheeses are turned by hand. Artisan cheese is made in small quantities, whilst most supermarket cheeses (although not all) are produced by large production facilities and on an industrial scale. Some cheeses are described as ‘farmhouse’ which used to mean they were made by small farms and dairies. but these days it has little or no meaning.
Artisan cheese is often made from one milk source, either from the producers’ own animals or with local milk from nearby farms. Factory-made cheese is usually from blended milk from a variety of sources (whatever is available). The precise flavour and texture of each cheese is a result of many factors. These include what the animal has grazed upon, the geography of the pastureland (something the French call ‘terroir’), environmental factors such as weather, humidity levels in the cheese room, time of year, and so on. Milk from a particular source will help create the distinctive character of each cheese and one which a skilled cheese-maker can re-produce, much like the art of wine making – a combination of science and alchemy is involved.
Artisan cheese-making all but died out in the decades following the Second World War but thankfully a few entrepreneurial individuals rediscovered the art in the early 1970s and today we have a thriving handmade cheese industry. That, coupled with the increasingly low prices that farmers get for their milk, has meant that many dairy farms have had to diversify into cheese-making which can only be a good thing for us lovers of handmade cheese.
Although more expensive than factory-made cheese, handmade cheese at its best really does give you a beautiful eating experience. The secret is to buy small quantities and consume it within a week to 10 days depending on the size of the piece. There are now over 700 handmade cheeses in the British Isles so there’s no excuse not to sample some, ones that are new to you and all good cheesemongers should let you try before you buy, so get tasting in 2015!