FOOD / Cheese shop that swept the board: You will find perfectly kept cheeses and friendly, informed service at Britain's leading supplier, says Chris Arnot

How can I describe Cotherstone cheese from Co Durham? The words 'sublime' and 'superb' spring to mind. But let me try to be more specific. Cotherstone is made on two farms during the period between May and the first winter frost. It is creamy, almost waxy, with a lactic tang and a soft crust.

I can say this with some authority, partly because I have sampled it (and intend to sample much more), and partly because I have read one of the informative labels, which helped to win Langman's of Solihull, near Birmingham, the title of Britain's best cheese shop.

Langman's, tucked away in a yard off the high street, is, on the face of it, an unlikely winner. It opened just five years ago, yet has beaten more illustrious names from the capital - Randolph Hodgson's shop in Covent Garden, for instance, and Paxton and Whitfield of Jermyn Street, suppliers of cheese to the Queen Mother.

The award comes from Good Cheese, a consumer magazine with a circulation of about 30,000 and a small but dedicated panel of judges. Between them they visited 121 delicatessens and specialist shops selected from an initial entry of 491. 'We have a number of stringers around the country who helped us to separate the wheat from the chaff,' says the publisher, Bob Farrand, who is also chairman of the UK Cheese Guild, which trains staff and buyers.

He personally visited more than 60 shops. 'I would have a good look at the window display, then wander up and down inside to see how long it would be before I was asked if I needed any help. I would explain that I had a group of people coming for supper and needed three extremely nice cheeses. I never bought anything until I'd sampled at least six.'

This was a time-consuming process, as he became uncomfortably aware at the Horsham Cheese Shop, a regional winner. 'It was a busy Saturday morning and the queue stretched right outside. There was some tut-tutting behind me, but the staff were marvellous.'

So what swung the national title towards Langman's of Solihull?

'The labelling was so good that no customer ran the risk of looking foolish. Too many shops presumed knowledge in their customers. Cheese should be approachable, not frightening. The two young ladies who served me (Sarah Randell and Joan Beeson) were both knowledgeable and helpful without being pushy. And their display was top class. It's difficult to make cheese look good and still meet the hygiene requirements.'

The range available at Langman's was a deciding factor. About 70-80 per cent is British, but some of the great European cheeses are prominently represented. 'Randolph Hodgson in Covent Garden in London has the best selection of British and Irish cheeses anywhere,' Mr Farrand says. 'But without the ability to supply the wonderful products of France, Italy, Switzerland and elsewhere, he's denying his customers great delight.'

Mr Hodgson's response? 'I like to have a very close contact with the people who produce our cheeses. We collect all our lancashires and I taste every one of the cheddars we buy. Our cheeses are local. I don't speak French.'

Langman's offers two or three local cheeses from Warwickshire farms in Berkswell and Earlswood. The shop is owned by Arthur Cunynghame, 43, who lives in Alvechurch in neighbouring Worcestershire. He also owns Paxton and Whitfield, which has branches in Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon as well as Jermyn Street in London. In 1986, he sold his wine business, City Vintages, and moved into cheese. 'It seemed a natural progression. I've always been interested in the subject, but had to learn a lot very quickly. For the first six months my mind was like blotting paper.'

He went on a course to learn how to make cheese, then set off on a tasting tour of farms. Like Bob Farrand, he believes British cheese-making has never been in a better state - all the more so since the subsidence of the 'listeria hysteria' that threatened the intense flavours produced with unpasteurised milk.

Only in the Eighties did the industry begin to recover the quality and diversity lost during the Second World War, when farmers were compelled to send their milk to central creameries. From the Fifties to the Seventies, flavour was sacrificed to volume, and on-farm production had all but disappeared.

But the necessity for farmers to diversify has happily coincided with a consumer demand for greater variety and less blandness in food. 'Cheese needs personal attention, from production to selling,' Mr Cunynghame says. 'We have customers travelling to Langman's from 30 or 40 miles around. We try to give them definite flavours that they'll either love or hate.'

If he was giving the supper party, what would he have on his cheeseboard? For a start, it would be produced before, rather than after, the pudding. The French, he feels, are right about that 'without a shadow of a doubt'. And he would have at least one French cheese - possibly Fourme D'Ambert, a creamy, soft blue from the Auvergne region. He is also fond of goat's cheese, particularly the enticingly named Ticklemore from Devon. 'It has a nutty flavour. Not too sharp and not too mild.'

That would be complemented by Bonchester from Scotland, made with creamy Jersey milk and 'rather like camembert in flavour, only more sturdy'. And last, but not least, a good stilton. 'It's still a great cheese, one of the best we produce in this country and the only one whose name is controlled. It has to be made in Leicestershire, Derbyshire or Nottinghamshire.'

Cheddar, he feels, could have benefited greatly from similar quality controls. Even now he would like to see a 'three-counties cheddar' based on Somerset, Devon and Dorset. 'The French appellation system has much to commend it.'

Appellation Cotherstone Controlee certainly has a ring about it.

Langman's Fine Cheeses, Manor Yard, Solihull, West Midlands (021-705 2535).

(Photograph omitted)

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