We should be proud of our native cheeses, and with cheese-making on the up and new cheese-makers coming out of the woodwork all the time, we certainly have plenty to choose from these days.
Many of our farmhouse cheeses are on a par with their European rivals. It's not uncommon now for a restaurant to offer a purely British cheeseboard. Around 15 to 20 years ago, British cheeses would have struggled to compete with their European counterparts.
Although many of our regional cheeses have fallen by the wayside, this country has a long history of cheese-making. Farmers are now diversifying more than ever and, as I discovered on my recent tour of the British Isles researching recipes for my new book, there is a real determination to recreate tradition in the places where it has disappeared.
Randolph Hodgson at Neal's Yard is the man responsible for putting many of these British cheese-makers on the map. On my travels, though, I found a few who haven't quite yet made it because their limited production means that only the local population gets to enjoy the stuff. I also discovered some makers with big plans. One is Freddie de Lisle, who is making a new Stilton at Quenby Hall in Leicestershire, which is one of the first recorded dairies to make what has become a world-famous blue cheese. Just down the road at Upton, near Nuneaton, Jo and David Clarke are making the first recorded real farmhouse Red Leicester in well over 100 years; the others are all mass-produced.
In Cheltenham on Saturday 30 September and Sunday 1 October, Montpellier Gardens will be the venue for the Great British Cheese Festival. It's a fantastic opportunity to taste many of these wonderful new cheeses, and even to learn how to make them - so get yourself and the family up there; more details on www.thecheeseweb.com f
Leek, Stilton and cob nut salad
A simple starter using subtly flavoured young leeks and crunchy cob nuts, which are in season for another few weeks. The useful thing about this dish is that you can get it ready well ahead of your dinner-party guests arriving, and dress it when you're ready to serve.
250-300g young or baby leeks, cleaned
150g Stilton cheese, broken into nuggets
25-30 cob nuts, peeled
1tbsp olive oil
1tsp sea salt
For the dressing
1tbsp cider vinegar
1tsp Dijon mustard
2tbsp olive oil
2tbsp vegetable or corn oil
Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and cook the leeks until they are tender. Drain them and leave to cool but do not chill. Meanwhile, crack the cob nuts and put the kernels into a pan or tray with the olive oil and salt and brown lightly under the grill or in a medium oven, stirring every so often. Make the dressing by whisking all the ingredients together. Season.
To serve, arrange the leeks on plates and spoon over the dressing. Then scatter over the cob nuts and cheese.
Marrow with bacon, onions and goat's cheese
Marrows are such an under-used vegetable. Perhaps, like their pumpkin cousins, they come across as a bit daunting. But they can be turned into interesting dishes very successfully without being watery or tasteless; you just have to be a bit careful about the preparation.
1 medium-sized marrow
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
4 rashers of rindless, streaky bacon, finely chopped
2tsp fresh thyme leaves
3-4tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
150-160g soft goat's cheese f
Cut the marrow into four lengthways, leaving the skin on, and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Slice the marrow into half-inch pieces and lay them on a tray. Scatter liberally with salt and leave for 30 minutes, then drain off any liquid and dry the slices on a clean tea towel.
Meanwhile, heat a couple of tablespoons of the olive oil in a saucepan and gently cook the onion, garlic and bacon for 4-5 minutes, stirring every so often until soft.
Heat a large, heavy-bottomed frying pan (you may need to do this in two batches), season the marrow with pepper and sauté the pieces on a high heat for 5-6 minutes, or until they are nicely coloured and tender. If they are colouring too much, turn the heat down. Once the marrow is tender, mix in the onion mixture and re-season if necessary. Then transfer to an ovenproof dish. Break up the goat's cheese, scatter it on top and place under a pre-heated grill for a few minutes until the cheese melts.
This is a classic dish that brings back memories of college days. It makes a great starter or brunch dish and is an enduring favourite with vegetarians. If you stack it all up on an English muffin, you'll create a sort of vegetarian Eggs Benedict. A good mature Cheddar makes a great cheese sauce, or you can give ordinary Cheddar a boost with a little bit of Parmesan.
4 large eggs
250g spinach, prepared, washed and dried
A good knob of butter
For the sauce
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
60ml double cream
60g grated Cheddar cheese
First, make the sauce. Melt the butter in a thick-bottomed pan, add the flour and stir on a low heat for 30 seconds. Gradually add the milk, stirring constantly and bring to a steady boil. Give the sauce a good whisk at this stage and season. Cover the surface of the sauce with a disk of buttered greaseproof paper, which stops a skin forming, and simmer very gently for about 20 minutes, stirring every so often. The sauce has a tendency to catch on the bottom, depending on the thickness and the quality of the pan. If it does, transfer the sauce to a clean pan and add the cream and continue to simmer for a couple of minutes. The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. If it's too thick, then just let it down with a little milk; if it's too thin, then continue to simmer.
Whisk in the grated cheese until the sauce is smooth and re-season if necessary, covering once again with the greaseproof paper to keep it warm while you cook the spinach and eggs.
Meanwhile, heat the butter in a large saucepan or frying pan and add the spinach. Season and cook on a high heat until it wilts and softens, and then drain in a colander or on some kitchen paper.
While the spinach is cooking, poach the eggs either in an egg poacher or in about 8cm of simmering water. If you're not using an egg poacher, crack each egg into a cup first and slide into the pan. You can cook four eggs at once this way. Simmer for 3-4 minutes until they have set and remove them with a slotted spoon on to kitchen paper.
To assemble, arrange the spinach on warmed serving plates, place the eggs on top and spoon over the sauce.
Charles Campion's sweet pickled greengages
Makes 4-5 half-litre Kilner jars
Charles gave me a jar of his home-made pickled greengages last year, and they somehow found their way to the back of all the other pickles in my cupboard - until now. How I wish I had tasted them earlier. Now Charles has kindly shared the recipe with me, and the greengages are absolutely delicious with most cheeses, but especially with Freddie de Lisle's Quenby Stilton.
2kg greengages, halved and stoned
1 litre white distilled vinegar
500g granulated or caster sugar
Seeds from 20 cardamom pods
2tbsp green peppercorns, fresh or canned
5g mace blades
12 dried red chillies
Pack the greengages into four or five half-litre sterilised Kilner or preserving jars with an equal proportion of the spices in each. You may need more or less depending how tightly the greengages are packed. Meanwhile, boil the vinegar and sugar for a couple of minutes, stirring a couple of times until the sugar has dissolved. Pour the hot liquid into the jars, seal the lids and then turn the jars upside down for 15 minutes or so to seal the lids. Turn them back up, leave to cool and store in a cool place for up to six months.
If you make puff or savoury pastry, there are often leftover bits which end up in the bin. One way to make use of them is to roll in grated cheese (try Red Leicester or Cheddar), and roll it out to about half a centimetre thick. Cut out the biscuits into your preferred shapes, then bake for 15-20 minutes on 190C/gas mark 5.Reuse content