This Christmas, certain traditions will be upheld. More chefs will serve up an inferior turkey, despite goose being hands-down the better option. Fewer and fewer guests will order Christmas pudding, or eat it when they do. And most restaurants will continue to ignore the burgeoning home-grown talent that is the British cheese scene.
||Clockwise from top left: Stinking Bishop |
(from Charles Martell), Cerney cheese,
Penyston (from Daylesford), and a
selection from Sam Wydemus.
Like the revered elders they have become, it will be the Epoisses, Chaumes, Roqueforts and chŠvres of this world, or Italian stalwarts such as Gorgonzola, that will reign on the cheeseboard. Representatives from our own isles will be present and accepted, but - apologies to Stiltons and Cheddars - they will hardly be there to break up the status quo. No, for the fat festive feast, once again the Continent will be king.
Why? Once, the answer was simple. Grand tradition, heritage and a wealth of artisan producers across the Channel made cheeses of passion, character and flavour. Meanwhile, over here, cheesemaking (a few committed devotees apart) slipped into the production of virtual cheese, computer controlled by industrial creameries which could switch between Red Leicester and Lancashire at the touch of a button.
But the past decade has seen a renaissance. As anyone who got to Blenheim Palace this September for the annual British Cheese Festival will testify, British cheese is at last matching anything that those higher up the perceived gastronomic hierarchy can produce.
At Blenheim, some 800 British varieties competed across the full range of cheese categories, from fresh goats' milk cheeses to more mature numbers made from cows' milk. If ever the misconception remained that British cheese was limited and inferior, here was the evidence to squash it.
One person already fighting the good fight is Sam Wydemus, chef and (with her husband, Nigel) proprietor of the Coastguard pub at St Margaret's Bay in Kent. Wydemus confesses to being a "cheese idiot" and has been known to wander into country pubs just to solicit local information about cheesemakers working in the area. "They say so-and-so makes cheese," she says, "you go down and soon find someone willing to take down an order - even if it takes three months to get it."
Being only 21 miles from France, Wydemus is a regular visitor to renowned French cheesemonger Philippe Olivier in Boulogne, and says she is planning a "one-woman crusade to make him take more British cheese, even if I have to beat him around the head with a flower marie". At the moment he only takes Stilton and some coloured Scottish Cheddar - which, ironically, the French use to make what they call "Le Welsh" (Welsh rarebit, to you and me).
The sad truth, however, is that enthusiasm for British cheese in this country is no less limp. "British cheese is often not that different from cheeses abroad," Wydemus says, "but people get this feeling that France is better and downplay everything British. I'm not saying that we should be in competition with other cheeses, but that just by tasting these cheeses alongside one another you might find something you prefer. You add to your repertoire."
||Far left: Cheese crusaders Sam and Nigel |
Wydemus Left: British cheese takes pride
of place on the blackboard
With that in mind, as well as two separate cheeseboards, Wydemus offers her guests a France versus Britain selection. On one side (it's tempting to call it the blue corner), she lines up four French varieties, starting with a Comte or Beaufort to represent the cows' milk; then, for a blue cheese from cows' milk, a Bleu d'Auvergne or a de Quercy; then maybe a ewes' milk classic such as a Roquefort; and ending, perhaps, with a chŠvre. Meanwhile, in the red corner, to match the Comte you might find Isle of Mull; then perhaps the Exmoor Blue ("basically, like blue clotted cream," drools Wydemus); then something like a Lanark ewes' cheese to square up to the Roquefort; and finally, one of our own numerous goats' cheeses.
Of course, these cheeses should not be considered like-for-like matches. British varieties have their own idiosyncrasies, which is what cheese aficionados find so important, and the best cheeses from the Continent always deserve their place on a cheeseboard. But, as Wydemus emphasises, her mission is not so much to educate people as to widen their perspective.
"We serve it as a snack at lunchtimes at the bar, or persuade people to try it with different things, like beer or whisky," she says. "Blue Vinny is the closest thing we serve to Stilton, because everyone knows Stilton already. Similarly, we serve a less-well known crumbly Cheddar from Sussex, because you are trying to say, 'Look, this is what proper Cheddar can also taste like'."
The results are encouraging. "People are surprised, and they come back for the cheeseboard," she says. "You get a lot of what I call plastic cheese from this country, or the archetypal Camembert that tastes like chalk. I know of only one other place in the area that serves good cheese. The majority don't even serve any British."
This should sound a wake-up call for those operators who feel that serving cheese, and serving it well, can be a hassle that's not worth the effort. Serving the selection at £6.50, Wydemus is the first to admit that the cheese is not about making massive profits, considering the sourcing, storage and basic costs of buying cheeses from small producers. But it clearly benefits the business.
"There is a certain amount of added value," she says. "Often, if you talk people through the cheeses beforehand, you can make it into a fourth course rather than thinking about it as a third. If you then add the extra alcohol people order, it increases spend."
For her own Christmas menu, Wydemus will be serving cheese as an extra course at no extra cost. But the excitement generated in guests as they discover new wonders, produced by small, independent cheesemakers in this country, pays for itself. And there is enough variety for everyone to benefit.
"I went to Blenheim, too," Wydemus says, "but that's just a small percentage of what's out there. Lots of producers are too small even to go there. There are thousands of French cheeses. We haven't got there yet - but we're working on it."
The Coastguard, St Margaret's Bay, near Dover, Kent. Tel: 01304 853176. www.thecoastguard.co.ukOut with the old
If, unlike Sam Wydemus, you haven't got the urge to loiter around rural pubs seeking out reclusive cheesemakers, help is at hand. British cheese expert Juliet Harbutt, one-time journalist and deli owner, is now the organiser of the Great British Cheese Festival. This includes the British Cheese Awards, and Harbutt has several suggestions of her own from this year's event that will make fantastic British alternatives to Continental classics.
Again, it must be stressed that no cheeses are exact matches - that's not the point. But they are similar in styles and will hold themselves on any cheeseboard. So, if you are willing to back them, here are her contenders:
- Cerney cheese (from producer Cerney Cheese 01285 831312)
Similar to... Banon, made in Provence
- Pant-ys-Gawn (Abergavenny Fine Foods 01873 850001)
Similar to... any fresh French goats' cheese
- Rosary Ash (Rosary Goats Cheese 01794 322196)
Similar to... St Moure de Touraine, with a natural "penicillin pendulum" rind
- Aged Cerney (Cerney Cheese)
Similar to... the pyramid-shaped and ashed Valencay
- Somerset Camembert (Lubborn 01460 30736)
Similar to... any French Camembert
- Cornish Brie (Cornish Country Larder 01637 860331)
Similar to... any French Brie
- Penyston (Daylesford Creamery 01608 659888)
Similar to... Pont L'Eveque
- Stinking Bishop (Charles Martell & Son 01531 890637)
Similar to... Epoisse
- Cardinal Sin (Monastery Cheese 020 8399 5848)
Similar to... Liverot
- Duddleswell Organic (High Weald Dairy 01825 791636)
Similar to... Pecorino
- Aveton (Loddiswell 01548 550261) and Allerdale (Thornby Moor Dairy 01697 345555)
Similar to... hard goats' cheeses from Spain
- Oxford Blue (Oxford Cheese Company 01844 338055)
Similar to... Bleu D'Auvergne and many other French blue cheeses
- Troo Bloo You (Abbeygold Cheese 01235 868705)
Similar to... Roquefort
- St Dunstan's (Loddiswell), Wyfe of Bath (Bath Soft Cheese 01225 331601) and Iorsa (Bellevue Creamery 01770 860555)
Similar to... any monastery-type cheese, or tallegio, but a bit harder.