AT A comparative tasting of unpasteurised cheeses and their pasteurised counterparts, held at Mortimer & Bennett, a delicatessen in Covent Garden, London, the Gastropod was eager to be seen to prefer the more natural product, since received opinion dictates that the partial sterilisation of milk for cheese impairs flavour.

In the end, however, your columnist was chastened to discover that a couple of the softer cheeses which seemed superior - a brie and a pont-l'eveque - were the pasteurised versions.

For consolation, the Gastropod referred to Pierre Androuet's Guide to Cheeses (Aidan Ellis, pounds 9.99) and was reassured that 'no one will blame you for including one or two pasteurised-milk cheeses, especially the mild ones, on your tray'. Your columnist's gastronomic credibility remains intact.

WHEN Cairin O'Conner started in the cheese business 12 years ago, there were only three farms in Ireland making their own cheese. Now the Irish Fine Food Company, which she has just launched, represents 25 independent cheesemakers and handles 35 varieties of Irish cheese.

Readers may be familiar with creamy Gubbeen, soft Milleens and tangy Cashel Blue, but how many have tried Durrus, Lavistown, or the Gastropod's favourite, Chetwynd Blue? Chetwynd is in County Cork, where Jerry Beechinor uses pasteurised milk to make a crumbly, blue- veined cheese which the Gastropod finds more-ish. Should you wish to try it or, for that matter, Knockanore, Cooleney or Cratloe Gold, slip your local cheese merchant Cairin O'Conner's number: 071-439 3806.

HOW LONG does it take a talented youngster, willing to apply him or herself, to become the best wine waiter in the country? About three years, apparently, provided you choose the right coach. In May 1991, Mark Walter apprenticed himself to Gerard Bassett, head sommelier at Chewton Glen, the country house hotel in Hampshire. Last week, in a closely contested final, the 23-year-old won the title Wine Waiter of the Year.

Mr Bassett was in the audience to watch his protege compete against Mauro Dine from the Dorchester Grill Room, who also made it to last year's final, and Phillip Dougherty from the Chester Grosvenor Hotel. The three were required to suggest wines to match foods, to identify a range of drinks, to match various drinks with appropriate glasses, and speedily to open magnums of champagne.

In the last event, Mr Dougherty whipped the corks from his magnums with admirable aplomb in under four minutes, and the Gastropod had him well ahead on points, but in the end he was pipped by Mark Walter's superior performance in the blind tasting. He was the only finalist who correctly identified the riesling that was set before them.

WHEN first introduced, Marks & Spencer's microwave meals were perceived as a triumphant symbol of late-Eighties consumerism. More recently, the range of St Michael- branded sandwiches has been widely applauded. By combining these concepts in a single product, however, M&S has - the Gastropod cannot help but feel - gone too far. The latest development, imported from America, is called 'hot snacking' (sandwiches you stick in the microwave). When historians come to chronicle the decadence that characterised the end of the second millennium, Marks & Spencer's Bacon Butty - new in the stores at pounds 1.59 - will surely be seen as a significant milestone on our road to ruin.

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