FOOD & DRINK / Our choicest cheeses

LYMESWOLD made its European debut at the Salon International d'Alimentation in Paris in 1983. It was designed to be the British answer to Brie, and was made in a factory which had cost millions of pounds to convert.

At a flag-waving lunch given at the George V Hotel in Paris to celebrate the British stand (featuring for the most part beef, lamb, smoked salmon and biscuits), I saw what happened when a piece of Lymeswold was offered to eminent French guests. 'What is this?' they asked with interest. 'Cheese,' our man replied. They rolled it on their tongues, searching their thesaurus of gastronomic adjectives for inspiration. 'Ah,' they said.

Lymeswold is no more. Last month Dairy Crest closed down the factory, barely 10 years after its launch. It will not live on in the supposed village of that name, which is a good deal less real than Ambridge, being a fiction of an advertising agency's collective brains. They test-marketed many names before hitting on this one - which summoned up a picture of limestone caves, and rhymed with old, gold, mould and brindled Guernseys

grazing on the wold.

We need not mourn its loss, for farmhouse cheeses in Britain and Ireland are in the ascendant. In the last 10 years there has not only been a renaissance of traditional cheeses but many completely new ones have entered the market, made with sheep's and goat's milk as well as cow's, and of all kinds - hard, soft, blue.

The volume of farmhouse cheese is not large, perhaps 3,000 tons against the 300,000 tons made in factories. That you cannot buy all these wonderful cheeses in every town and village in the country is our deprivation. But it's no surprise that sales of hand-crafted cheese increase steadily while sales of the factory- made stuff do not, even though the former costs two or three times as much.

When Dairy Crest pulled the plug on Lymeswold it was also closing down the Wensleydale creamery at Hawes, North Yorkshire, and shifting production to a factory in Lancashire on the grounds that no one wanted Wensleydale any more. 'That's not true,' says Randolph Hodgson, who owns the Neals Yard Dairy in Covent Garden, London. 'I could sell more of their Wensleydale if it was made to the original recipe. People still love hand-made Dales cheeses. What happens usually is that the supermarkets ask for a cheese with a longer shelf-life, they start tampering with the recipe, and out goes the essential

quality of the cheese.'

Most commercial cheese is the factory version of what used to be made on farms - Cheddar, Cheshire, Lancashire, Wensleydale, Derby, Gloucester, Leicester, Caerphilly, Stilton. These cheeses are to a well-made farmhouse product what vin ordinaire is to a Grand Cru Classe wine; perfectly adequate but incapable of lifting the heart and the spirit.

Over 8,000 tons of farmhouse cheeses were made last year in the British Isles, about one-twentieth of the whole output. Altogether, nearly 400 different farmhouse cheeses are now being made in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England, one for every day in the year. The best are outstanding and some are very good; but to be honest, some aren't any good at all.

In an attempt to identify some of the best, I asked Randolph Hodgson to arrange a tasting of the new generation of handmade cheeses. We were joined by Juliet Harbutt, a New Zealander who launched Jeroboams, another London shop dedicated to craft cheeses. About 30 varieties were on show, and we struggled to find words to describe their wonderful, evocative flavours. Wine bibbers have a massive word-hoard of adjectives at their disposal: flowery, perfumed, fruity, plummy, jammy, smoky, nutty, blackcurrant, mint, grass, hay, leather, liquorice, toffee, coffee and so on. We cheese-tasters tend to use a couple of words of definition - mild and strong. (Some would regard even this scant vocabulary as unnecessarily rich to describe the modern supermarket slabs of plastic cheese, where one word, 'bland', says it all.)

We were looking to extend the cheese-tasting vocabulary, which was not something Randolph was anxious to do. When he's comparing notes with his partner, Jane Scotter, he'll talk of the odour of damp caves and sweet meadows, of stagnant pond and smelly byre. 'I daren't use this language to customers for fear of frightening them off,' he says.

We looked at the cheeses: they came in all shapes and sizes, from the slice cut from a 56lb drum of linen-wrapped Cheddar to small ash-coated pyramids of goat's cheese. They ranged through the colour spectrum from Persil white via cream, buttercup yellow and orange to greeny-brown, volcanic grey and charcoal black.

Randolph showed us how to smell a cheese - slicing off a segment, holding it to the nose before breaking it and allowing the aromas to drift free. He examined the crumb, the way the dried curds had come together, some loosely pressed, others hard-packed. Some came apart like school rubbers. One stuck to the fingers like paste (not good cheese).

We tasted. One was so salty it was 'like a bucket of salt water,' he said. He mused over the possible reasons: it could be the lush grass in May making the protein content of the milk low; the cheese might have started working too fast and the cheese-maker might have been too slow, resulting in a curd which held moisture. An accident. Commercial cheese-makers often deliberately hold moisture in, using wax coatings or plastic wrapping, because moisture loss is also profit loss.

As we tasted, we summoned up more and more exotic adjectives: Juliet discerned the taste of pineapple in one cheese, pears in another. We found common accord with descriptions like sweet, sour, nutty and bitter. In several we believed we could smell the mossy, damp caves that the cheeses had been kept in, and sometimes we picked up the fragrance of the meadows, or a whiff of the farm. We used words such as 'creamy', 'buttery', 'runny', 'waxy', 'salty', 'fatty' - and wished for a better vocabulary.

Patrick Rance, who ran famous cheese stores at Streatley in Berkshire (and whose Great British Cheese Book won him the Glenfiddich Trophy), explored the taste of cheese and concluded that much depends on the pasture and feed. Fattier cheeses will carry more flavour than low-fat ones, since fatty acids or glycerides are able to absorb aromatic esters.

We couldn't find words for the Cheshire cheeses, which had been made on four consecutive days, all tasting good but markedly different. 'Anything can affect the flavour of a cheese day by day,' explained Randolph Hodgson. 'It could be what the cows are feeding on, the weather, the quality of the sour milk starter, dirty milk.' The cow flaps the dung on its tail against its udder, and when it is milked some bacteria will come through and leave a taint in the cheese.

These discussions brought us to an outburst earlier this year by that well-known organic farmer the Prince of Wales, who lambasted the bureaucrats of Brussels for sending 'bacteriological police' to spy on cheese-makers. 'It was a great speech. The general tone was just right,' said Randolph warmly. 'But you'd need to be a pretty awful cheese-maker not to meet the Brussels standards. A worse problem is that some environmental health officers who visit farms don't have the technical knowledge of cheese-making.'

Derek Cooper, presenter of Radio 4's The Food Programme, reported recently the case of Jean Wallace, an elderly lady in the Orkneys making one cheese a day using traditional wooden utensils; she packed up when she realised she would have to buy modern stainless steel equipment. The cost of laboratory testing for listeria alone was enough to absorb her modest profits.

Listeria was an issue, Randolph Hodgson agreed. But the cases which had panicked most supermarkets (except Sainsbury) into banning cheese made from unpasteurised milk were based on the wrong evidence. Listeria had been due to cheese made from pasteurised milk (in the case of Swiss Vacherin) and from a cheese where pasteurisation machinery had failed.

'You're more likely to make an excellent cheese with unpasteurised milk,' he said. 'But it creates a challenge to the cheese-maker to do just as well with pasteurised milk, and the Colston Bassett Stilton is a good example.'

This brought us to the art of the cheese-maker. A large orange-coloured wheel of soft, rind-washed Milleens was then cut open with reverence. 'The soft cheese-maker is like a gardener,' mused Randolph. 'They will seek to control the kind of flora which grow on the rind. These start to digest the cheese from the outside, giving it its flavour. By washing it in brine you weed out the wrong sort. The important bacterium in Milleens is B Linens, and it grows happily in salt water.'

This was cheese we all found absolutely delicious; and we struggled in vain to put its perfection into words. It was everything you could ever hope a cheese might be - soft, melting, a balance of acidity and sweetness, rich but not cloying. And, as is said of truffles, it had an unmistakable hint of the boudoir.

Behind almost every great cheese is a woman, and in the case of Milleens it is Veronica Steele. Her husband, Norman, gave up his job as a philosophy don at Trinity College, Dublin, to help to create what is now recognised as Ireland's first serious cheese for 1,000 years. It is made in a modest cottage beneath the mountains of West Cork. Magnificent as this was, and as were the many other 'new' cheeses with washed rinds such as Gubbeen, it was the traditional cheeses that were to me the revelation of our tasting.

Taste a cheese made from pasteurised milk side by side with one made from unpasteurised milk, and the difference hits you. We tasted a Lancashire cheese made by Ruth Kirkham from unpasteurised milk which was crumbly, buttery, slightly sour, with a distinct tang, the result of mixing three kinds of cheese curd together. It was cheese of great complexity, suggesting nuts, berries, and mushrooms in the woods.

The orange-coloured Cheshire cheeses made by the Applebys of Nottingham were fiery, rasping, with the astringency of raw onion, the slight pepperiness of rocket leaves and a marked anchovy-like saltiness, perhaps due to the fact that Cheshire is made from the milk of cows which graze on meadows with a salty subsoil.

Other traditional cheeses made from unpasteurised milk were as exciting in different ways - full-flavoured, rich Cheddar with real bite and a soft, crumbly, yoghurty Cotherstone, a typical Dales cheese the way it used to be made on the farms.

A two-month-old Caerphilly fooled most of us, because it was so unlike its poor cousin that's made in blocks and wrapped in plastic. This one had been made in Somerset by Chris Duckett, whose grandfather was a market trader selling Caerphilly. Normally a fast-maturing cheese, sold at a week old, this had been matured to produce a mouldy, grey rind, causing it to ripen gradually to sweet, slightly acid creaminess.

The more we tasted the cheese the more the personalities of cheese-makers emerged: Veronica Steele's Milleens, Ruth Kirkham's Lancashire, the Applebys' Cheshire, Chris Duckett's Caerphilly, Mary Holbrook's goat's milk cheeses, Humphrey Errington's Lanark Blue, a fine attempt to replicate a Roquefort. It takes character to make cheese of character, Randolph Hodgson believes. He remembers when he first started, travelling to Yorkshire to buy lovely Swaledale cheese from Mrs Longstaff. Her husband never spoke, until one day Mr Hodgson was marvelling at a particularly ripe specimen. 'Call that ripe?' said Mr Longstaff. 'It's ripe when you put it to cook in a pan and the maggots pop out. Pop. Pop. Pop.'

Where to find fine cheese

The Cheeseboard

1 Commercial Street, Harrogate, North Yorkshire HG1 1UB,

tel: 0423 508837

The Cheese Shop

17 Kensington Gardens, Brighton, East Sussex

BStreet, London SW7 3EX, tel: 071-225 2232

The Fine Cheese Co

29 Walcot Street, Bath BA1 5BN, tel: 0225 483407

James and John Graham

Market Square, Penrith, Cumbria CA11 7BS, tel 0768 62281

Harrods

Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7XL, tel: 071-730 1234

Jeroboams

51 Elizabeth Street, London SW1W 9PP, tel: 071-823 5623;

and 24 Bute Street, London SW7 3E, tel: 071-225 2232

Langman's Fine Cheeses

13 Wood Street, Stratford-upon- Avon, Warwickshire CV37 6JF, tel: 0789 415544

The Mousetrap

2 St Gregory's Alley, Pottergate, Norwich NR2 1ER,

tel: 0603 614083

Neals Yard Dairy

17 Short's Gardens, London WC2H 9AR, tel: 071-379 7646

Paxton and Whitfield

93 Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6JE, tel: 071-930 0259

Valvona and Crolla

19 Elm Row, Edinburgh EH7 4AA, tel: 031556 6066

The Farmhouse Cheese Shop

Carmarthen Provision Market, Carmarthen, Dyfed

Magill's

14 Clarendon Street, Dublin 2, tel: 010 353 1 713830

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