Blessed are the Cheesemakers
The World Cheese Awards, 2004
Cheese is taking over the world. If government figures are to be believed, Britain now produces 450 different cheeses – more even than France. (The Slow Food Guide to Italian Cheese lists a mere two hundred.) The next huge cheese market is expected to be the Far East, whose peoples have long been thought to be lactose intolerant. Unlike the American World Series, the World Cheese Awards are rapidly becoming exactly what their ambitious title claims for them.
On August 2 nd the evidence of this burgeoning empire was spread out along two rows of tables in the banqueting hall at Olympia. For a cheese freak, it was like entering Nirvana. I did a rapid calculation based on the cheddar-type blocks alone. There were the equivalent of about 150 twenty-kilo blocks, adding up to somewhere around 3000 kilos – well over three tons of cheese! And that didn’t include the scores of cheeses in individual packets and the many wheels weighing only a few pounds. Eating nothing else, I can easily get through about half a pound of cheese in a day, together with a half-loaf of Poilâne pain levain and a litre of Madiran. Given some miraculous means of preservation, the contents of this hall would have lasted me about half a century. It’s not eternity, but it’s a start.
In this real world, however, there was no way that these huge blocks of cheeses could survive. A few days later I would see them in the Olympia exhibition hall, sweating profusely in their plastic wrappings. They would not be thrown away, I was assured – they would go to a factory for processing. But for all those cheeses, some of them prize winners, to end up as tasteless slices in big Macs? What a Super-Sized waste!
The World Cheese Awards are not to blame. Entrants are told that their bulk products will not be judged on presentation, but on texture, flavour and the appearance of a properly cut portion. But no one wants to be seen as mean with the cheese and so, in accordance with tradition, these temple doorstops are meticulously fashioned, with no rough edges or battered corners and then shrouded in impervious plastic. The judges carefully extract plugs so as not to spoil their appearance, and then the blocks go to the exhibition hall to separate under the bright lights. It’s like sampling a barrel of fine wine and then making vinegar of the other 99%. There are some traditions that it’s time to grow out of.
So many new and old cheeses from so many countries make it increasingly difficult to be a cheese “expert”. There was a time when French cheeses dominated the world along with French wines – a standard by which all others were judged. But world producers are now experimenting with methods, techniques and combinations that would once have been dismissed as wrong or even perverted. The Mascarpone Gorgonzola Torte, for instance, is a cheese sandwich which I find as irresistibly unctuous as a chocolate truffle, but which the Slow Food guide does not even deign to mention.
As for flavour additives such as fruits, nuts, herbs and spices, these may be added indiscriminately to such complient hosts as Wensleydale or fresh goat so as to produce an infinity of spurious pseudo-flavours. ( Britain’s remarkable 450 varieties are swollen by too many such inventions.) Purists like the redoubtable Patricia Michelson may refuse to identify the end products as cheese – for them, they exist somewhere in a culinary limbo along with ersatz crab sticks and Babycham.
Not all these new cheeses are bland or semi-processed. There are chili-loaded time bombs that will make your mouth light up enough to find your way home in the dark. And there are ancient “ethnic” goat cheeses that have shambled down from the Spanish mountains with a surly demeanour that makes a French crotin seem mild-mannered and well-behaved, an Epoisse the epitome of gentle fragrance. A couple of these, clothed in their mouldy coats-of-many-colours, did not fare well with the French experts.
Thanks to the ardent preservationists and the unbuttoned inventors, more people on earth can enjoy more different kinds of cheese, from a greater catalogue of sources, than ever before in history. It is true that some traditional types have lost many of their practicing artisans. Due to the demanding hours and burgeoning red tape, many small-scale cheesemakers are retiring early, with few of the younger generation prepared to take over.
Travelling through the mountains of the Auvergne a couple of years ago, I stopped in the tiny village of Raulhac. Over dinner at the local hotel – where the mayor had joined me because off-season visitors were so rare – I asked about production of cantal vieux fermier, France’s equivalent of a well-aged farmhouse cheddar. There were only half a dozen traditional producers left, he told me, with one of them just a couple of hundred metres up the road from the village.
And so when the cheese tray arrived, I was not surprised to find that it included a couple of ample hunks with a thick mould-riddled rind. It was crumbly and sharply nutty, beyond any I had experienced – even at Ma Bourgogne in the Place de Voges in Paris, which prides itself on the cantal it has bought from the same mountain maker for a quarter century. So distinctive was its flavour that, in the unlikely event that I ever had the good fortune to sample it again, I would recognize it immediately.
Within living memory such an experience was not unique and every cheese around the next bend in the road might be so idiosyncratic that it deserved its own appellation, but it was unlikely that you could buy any of them in the neighbouring valley. In small French village markets most of the foods on sale were from perhaps a donkey ride away. A true range of French cheeses was available only in Paris and a few major distribution centres such as Lyon and Dijon.
Today you can pick up a good Rebluchon in the Auvergne along with your cantal. And thanks to such fanatics as Patricia Michelson at La Fromogerie, London’s cheese enthusiasts can travel to the far corners of Europe with only a bus ride. So Britain may be the ideal breeding ground for a new generation of cheese experts, as it was once the unrivalled domain of wine tasters.
In Britain we have world famous classics such as Cheddar and Stilton, but many of our best cheeses are either recent inventions or old revivals. They can hold their heads up to the global entries and serve as a local context within which the whole field may be evaluated. May the World Cheese Awards long be a showcase for excellence, whether traditional or innovative.
©2004 John Whiting
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