The British cheese that left the French feeling blue
Forget Camembert or Roquefort – Cornwall can now lay claim to the tastiest truckle on the planet. Quite right too, says Christopher Hirst
Friday 26 November 2010
The producers of Roquefort and Époisses de Bourgogne may view it as infernal rind but the world's best cheese comes from England. Cornish Blue, made in Liskeard by Philip and Carol Stansfield, nosed ahead of 2,600 entries from 26 countries to win this year's World Cheese Awards.
This cows' milk cheese has a freshness that is a world away from the briny tang of Roquefort or the aged complexity of Stilton. Creamy and young, it is a wholly different approach to blue cheese.
Of course, the great classics will retain their place on the cheeseboard, but Britain's willingness to accept lactic innovation means they have been joined by a host of newcomers. According to Juliet Harbutt, organiser of the World Cheese Awards, we now have a choice of 700 homegrown cheeses while the French have only 600 fromages to savour. If this means we are heading for anarchy, in line with de Gaulle's famous dictum about the ungovernability of a country that produces many different kinds of cheese, it seems a small price to pay.
Our fabulous curds are a major pleasure of modern Britain. I find myself increasingly sniffing out our native cheeses from the tempting array of wedges, chunks and rounds in supermarkets and specialist shops.
Partly due to this country's adventurous palate and partly due to the niggardly return on fresh milk, artisan cheese-making is a bright spot amid the prevailing gloom of agribusiness.
The sharp, creamy tang of traditional Stiltons such as Colston Bassett has been challenged by Stilchilton, a Stilton-type cheese but made from unpasteurised milk. The result is enjoyably different – a degree or two milder (not always a bad thing in cheese) but with greater finesse. "Would it put people off if I said it was a girlie Stilton?" inquired my wife.
The monumental Cheddars such as Montgomery and Keen's Farm that are the best hard cheeses not only in Britain but the world have been joined by Lincolnshire Poacher, a distinguished wedge that does a tangy dance on the palate. Another hard-won triumph is Berkswell. Made in the eponymous Warwickshire village, this cheese delivers a surprise within its gnarled, ancient rind. Resonant and complex, there is a suggestion of coconut.
Cornish blue is only one of a host of new cheeses that have benefited from introduction of the penicillin culture. Yorkshire Blue is a mild, creamy pleasure that asserts itself without a hint of aggression. Blue Monday from Alex James, an Independent columnist, World Cheese Awards judge, and probably the only celebrity cheesemaker, has been likened to "a great Gorgonzola" by restaurateur and food writer Mark Hix. Made from unpasteurised milk in Lincolnshire, Cote Hill Blue is a butter-rich cheese with the texture of Camembert but enlivened with little blue veins.
An utterly different cheese of ovine provenance is Swallet from Cumbia. With a Camembert-style ooziness, it tastes sweet, light and floral. Made only between spring and autumn, it is summer in cheese form. The nettle-wrapped revival known as Cornish Yarg achieves a miraculous multi-layered depth of flavour for a fresh cheese. Despite being rind-washed, which often imparts a suggestion of sweaty socks, Stinking Bishop from Gloucestershire is a misnomer: it is grassy, fresh and pleasant.
A final mention should go to last year's winner at the World Cheese Awards, which by some weird coincidence also came from Britain. Made at the High Weald Dairy in West Sussex, St Giles has the orange rind of the French favourite St Paulin but tastes miles better. Its delicious buttery flavour has a delectable hint of fruit.
If this cheesy paean prompts you to explore fragrant newcomers, you will have a treat in store, but may I offer a word of warning? A piece of cheese is an affordable luxury even in the chilly depths of recession, but watch your step when faced with the nigh-on irresistible temptation offered by variety. When I recently dispatched my wife to buy samples of British cheeses for an article in another publication, I was surprised to receive a bill for £141.54 for 21 chunks. Only those with a good wedge in their pocket should go mad at the cheese counter.
Hirst's best of British
A truly stupendous experience. Mellow, rich, complex, satisfying – even the French love it.
The best cheese in the world. Nutty, great with biscuits or bread, its character hints at its farm origins.
Despite its light texture, it offers a range of flavours from citric to leafy with a lovely aftertaste.
A subtle classic with an addictive appeal that has enjoyed a revival in recent years. The rival called Richard III is appropriately characterful.
The matured splendidly known as "Tasty" is a wonderful sandwich cheese, it may be even better when grilled to a golden tan in a Welsh Rabbit.
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