Why the cheese knives are out
Brie or stilton? Cheddar or comté? British or French? Few foods arouse such fierce tribalism. Tim Walker reports from the cutting edge of the fromage affray
Wednesday 21 April 2010
On Saturday 20 March, The Independent innocently reported on the launch of a new restaurant in London. A modestly-sized establishment tucked into a side-street just off Chelsea's King's Road, L'Art Du Fromage bills itself as the country's first speciality cheese restaurant. It is run by Julien Ledogar and Jean-Charles Madenspacher, two fresh-faced 24-year-olds from a small village outside Strasbourg, and it serves French and Swiss cheese under many guises, including fondues, raclettes and three intriguing varieties of ice cream: white cheese, blue cheese and goat's cheese. The news of its opening might not have inflamed great passions among our readers, were it not for the headline: "Cheese-only restaurant opens in London (just don't expect cheddar)."
One of the first threads on our comments board beneath the article had a title typed in angry capitals: "CHEESE THOUGHT POLICE". The user rick400 had foolishly described cheddar as "awful", leading another, sidsnat, to make derogatory allusions to rick400's personal hygiene. "British cheeses cannot compete with French cheese on any level," asserted starlingnl. "If you haven't tried unpasteurised cheddar you haven't lived," shot back media_myths, before dismissing Dutch cheese as "plastic and bland".
The online debate raged all weekend, with one dismissive contributor even inviting the unassuming young Frenchmen to "take [their] acne-speckled cheese imperialism and flush it down the toilet", using the classic French volume of food reference, Repertoire de la Cuisine, as loo roll.
Evidently, cheese is one of those subjects that sets the web alight, like Apple products, Justin Bieber, or Israel. Of all the world's foodstuffs, it is the most divisive and perhaps the most beloved; in common with wine, it has genres, histories, trends. One can hardly imagine a serious argument of any length over the relative merits of the brioche and the croissant, but the cheese enthusiasts who take part in these online flame wars back their favourite varieties with the fervour of football supporters.
"Behind every cheese there's a farm, a farmer, animals, a region and a history," says Juliet Harbutt, self-confessed cheese obsessive and the author of a number of comprehensive books about cheese, including Cheese: A Complete Guide to Over 300 Cheeses of Distinction; The World Encyclopaedia of Cheese and A Cook's Guide to Cheese. "Most farmers don't make sausages or pies; they leave it to a pie-maker or a butcher. But they do make their own cheese. Other foodstuffs are not so distinctive, and don't come from the producer to your plate so directly."
Harbutt founded Jeroboams Cheese Shop in the 1970s, after emigrating to the UK from New Zealand. Later she set up the annual Great British Cheese Festival, too. "I grew up in a country overrun by cheddar and by a very aggressive blue cheese called Blue Vein," she explains. "That was it. So when I came to Europe and discovered cheese properly, I had an epiphany and thought, 'My God, if this is cheese, then I want to sell it.'"
The public's knowledge of cheese, says Harbutt, is not nearly so advanced as their knowledge of wine. "But they tend to think they know far more about cheese than they do. Some people wouldn't dream of eating British cheeses because they think of themselves as francophiles. My favourite cheese changes from day to day, but I do think British cheeses are fantastic. Most people, however, couldn't name 10 British cheeses. If I tell them there are 700 different British cheeses, they say, 'You mean 700 cheddars?'" People's knowledge is improving, Harbutt admits, thanks to the spread of foodie festivals, courses for connoisseurs and improvements in food writing.
There is even, she suggests, a discernible cheese community. One member of that community is the food blogger Chris Pople, who specialises in cheese and whose thoughts are revealed on Cheese and Biscuits cheesenbiscuits.blogspot.com). Gourmands, Pople argues, tend to define themselves by the foods they like – especially when it comes to cheese, which can stand in for all sorts of old resentments: of nationality, of class, of character.
"People are very defensive of things they think that they should like, rather than necessarily things that they actually do like," Pople suggests. "Cheddar is no-nonsense, and it demonstrates your no-nonsense roots if you defend it in the face of a poncey French cheese.
"Anything that's a bit elitist or mysterious, or which seems like it's a class thing that only people of a certain background could appreciate or understand, generates a huge amount of fire. Cheese lovers would disdain people who couldn't handle a strong blue cheese, just like they'd frown on someone who didn't order their steak rare, or only ever drank Rosé Zinfandel. It's all wrapped up in class: you can be snobby about cheese and about wine; you can't really be snobby about broccoli." When it comes to his own allegiance in the old curdish conflict between Britain and France, Pople sounds torn.
"These days, a lot of British cheeses are nice, but ironically the best of them are French-style cheeses like Stinking Bishop. Cheesemakers here have learned a lot from the French and now we're selling their own style of cheese back to them ... Most French cheeses are nicer than cheddar. Good cheddar is nice enough, but it's not a world-class cheese, is it?" Better not tell that to sidsnat or media_myths.
Ledogar and Madenspacher are considerably more conciliatory. "A producer of roquefort in France will tell you that his is the greatest cheese in the world," says Ledogar. "An English maker of cheddar will tell you the same. We don't necessarily think French and Swiss cheeses are the best; there is plenty of nice cheese in Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany, Denmark, Holland."
In fact, their reasons for serving only French and Swiss are straightforward. First, L'Art Du Fromage is a French-themed restaurant (if that wasn't clear from its name, then it ought to be from the Alpine décor and the Amélie soundtrack playing on the stereo). Second, their sole supplier is based in France and sells only his native varieties.
Neither man was born with fine-tuned taste buds, but Ledogar took summer work in restaurants from the age of 14. During the final year of his accountancy diploma, he became a waiter in an Alsacien cheese restaurant, "And that's where I fell in love with cheese," he says. His first love was le maréchal, a Swiss mountain cheese that tastes great paired with figs and a dry white. "I didn't know much about it before then, but learning about all those varieties made me realise that cheese was a part of French history – it's so much more than just food."
Instead of finding work in finance after completing his diploma, Ledogar asked the restaurateur – who was also a cheesemaker – to teach him everything he knew. He spent a year working in the man's cheese caves, producing cheese, and another year in the restaurant, serving and explaining it to customers. Madenspacher, then Ledogar's flatmate, was about to start a new job as a logistical engineer for Peugeot, when his friend returned home one evening with the idea of starting his own establishment in London, a city bereft of cheese restaurants.
If I hadn't been a minor (and distinctly amateur) cheese obsessive before, then a lunch at L'Art Du Fromage might have converted me. The place is pretty quiet at lunchtime, but evenings, its young owners insist, are packed. They're booked up a fortnight in advance and turn around at least 30 covers per night, on just a handful of tables. Plenty of Londoners, then, are risking a night of strange dreams to sample the eclectic menu, which, says Ledogar, he and his partner toiled over for two years.
My meal began with a goat's cheese bruschetta amuse bouche, and the starter proper was munster pané: four cheese bricks coated in breadcrumbs like cheesy fish fingers, accompanied by bayonne ham and a walnut salad. At the next table, an elderly gentleman was very much enjoying his tarte flambée, a French variation on the pizza. But for me the main event was Ledogar's "L'Epicurien" cheese board – a carefully constructed, and impeccably presented, guided tour through the seven "cheese families".
Ledogar took time – as he does for all his customers – to explain how I should proceed, following the 15 or so cheeses in front of me from the delicate goat's cheeses at the tail end of his spiral arrangement, to the bolshy blues at its centre. After all that, I'm afraid I couldn't quite face the blue cheese ice cream. But then nor did I crave a hunk of cheddar. Contrary to our commenters' assertions, I suspect you can have such a thing as too much cheese.
Tomorrow in Living, Families; on Friday, Homes & Design; on Monday, Fashion
Rindcore: choice cheeses for connoisseurs
FRENCH AND SWISS
* Brin D'Amour A Corsican sheep's cheese, which features on L'Art Du Fromage's L'Epicurien cheese board; its natural rind is crusted of rosemary, thyme, coriander seeds and other Mediterranean herbs.
* L'Abbaye de Tamié A soft, creamy washed-rind cheese made for many hundreds of years by the Trappist monks of the titular Alpine abbey.
* Époisses de Bourgogne A pungent soft cheese from Central France, described by 19th century food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin as the "King of all cheeses", Époisses was supposedly loved by Napoleon.
* L'Etivaz A fruity cousin of Comté, L'Etivaz is another member of L'Art Du Fromage's selection. Its name is taken from f the small hamlet in the Swiss Alps where it is made.
* Stinking Bishop A soft cheese with a fitting name, Stinking Bishop is named after the Stinking Bishop pear, the perry from which is used to wash the rind.
* Stichelton Neal's Yard founder Randolph Hodgson, a fan of blue cheeses, wanted to make a Stilton with unpasteurised milk but wasn't allowed to call it Stilton: hence Stichelton.
* Little Wallop Juliet Harbutt and Blur bassist Alex James (an Independent columnist) make this goat's cheese washed in Cider brandy, wrapped in vine leaves.
* (Real) Cheddar Cheddar-style cheese holds more than half of the British market, but real Cheddar from unpasteurised cow's milk is only made by a handful of producers. A reader commented: "If you haven't tried unpasteurised Cheddar you haven't lived."
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