In Praise of Cheese

Cheddar? Camembert? Andrew Polmear has a little nibble

LAST TIME I wrote about the wine that goes with cheese but what about the cheese itself? There are similarities with wine: they both start with a fairly uninteresting and pretty uniform product (grape juice or milk), they are acted on by micro-organisms to ferment or, in the case of milk, curdle. Then they are handled by artisans, or factory hands, to be made into a final product that can be so specific it is unique to that vineyard or farm. 

At our house we have three cheeses on a cheese board: a soft cheese, a hard cheese and a blue. How do they come to be so different? Let’s start with my favourite soft cheese, Camembert. The French were quick off the mark with Camembert de Normandie, which has been protected since 1983, which means it can only be made in Normandy using traditional methods. They all have that distinctive round shape, are wrapped in grease-proof paper and sold in little wooden boxes. But that doesn’t stop the rest of us from using the word Camembert. 

Two things are crucial in the manufacture of any Camembert: when the curds form the whey is drained off, but not forced off, so the cheese has that creamy texture, almost liquid in the middle; and once the cheese has come out of the mold it is coated with Penicillium camemberti. It then sits in storage while the penicillin penetrates to the heart of the cheese, giving it that distinctive mouldy flavour. It’s ripe after one month and goes off soon after that; women in France can be seen taking the wooden lids off the Camembert and pressing it with their thumbs till they’ve found one that they think is perfectly ripe. 

For a hard cheese, how about a Cheddar?  Any bland, hard cheese wrapped in plastic can be sold as Cheddar, but real Cheddar is widely sold and it’s a marvellous cheese. Belatedly, we have protected the title West Country Farmhouse Cheddar for cheese from the West Country made in the traditional way.  It originally came from cows fed on the lush grassland of the Mendip Hills and matured in the limestone caves around Cheddar. But the truth is, they can make wonderful Cheddar as far away as Scotland. The crucial things about it are that the liquid whey is expelled from the curds to the utmost degree, and then the curds are minced and tossed and poured into their molds and pressed. This gives that distinctive hard but elastic texture. Mild Cheddar may be sold at two to three months. Pay a little more for a supermarket version marked Extra Mature and you’ll get a cheese that’s at least nine months old and worth the extra money. In a Which? blind tasting in 2016 Cathedral City Extra Mature (available at Tesco) and M&S Cornish Cruncher three-year-old Vintage came out top. For a blue, in England, the one to beat is Stilton. It’s amazing to be able to report that it’s been protected since 1910 and still only six dairies are licensed to make it. More whey is drained off than in Camembert but not as much as for a Cheddar, so it has a buttery, smooth texture. And, crucially, blue penicillin mould is added to the bacteria used to curdle the cheese. After storage for six weeks it’s pierced with up to 20 needles to let in the air that’s needed for mould growth. 

Again, supermarket Stilton is fine. Good Housekeeping reviewed Stiltons available for Christmas 2019. Lidl came top, with M&S and The Fine Cheese Co. runners up. Only Iceland really disappointed.

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