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Lucy Deedes frm our food shop explains why opening the door and taking a step inside our cheese room wont disappoint…
Do not be put off by the apparently aloof attitude of the glass-sided cheese room in the Hungry Guest food shop, situated at the far end opposite the butchers’ counter. I know there can be something mysterious about an enclosed specialist room with nobody in it (and I know this because as soon as I go in and start mopping the floor eight people will magically materialise from nowhere) but you do not need to press your noses against the glass windows and feel you are intruding. The doors are there to keep the humidity up and the temperature down, not the cheese-lovers out. Cheese, like an old lady, hates a draught so we keep it at a comfortable temperature to allow it to develop and try to protect it from sudden changes or shocks.
Come and ask questions and most certainly taste the cheeses because how otherwise can you be expected to make a selection? We are here to answer the questions you never thought you needed to ask, and if you know and enjoy some of the classics, then we can recommend a lesser-known cheese in that family that you might like to try.
Kirsty Knott and I went to visit one of our cheese suppliers, Mons, at their stall in Borough Market to ask some of those questions and four hours flew by as Jane told us stories about the cheese producers, showed us how to cut up great wheels of floral mountain cheeses, Comte and Beaufort, and how best to glass-wrap the sections in cellophane as well as letting us taste something from each of the cheese ‘families’.
Some of the earliest cheesemakers were the nomadic Middle Eastern tribes with foraging dairy animals who sought to find ways of carrying the goodness of the milk along with them. Cheese is essentially milk going through a series of fermentations, from curds to young cheese to ripe cheese and beyond. It has been affected by the climate and landscape of the regions of its making, the grazing and foraging habits of the animals, and certainly by their breed; the microclimate of the dairy and the cheese room and the combination of stuffs used to brush or wash the rind. There is no right or wrong time to eat it and almost no such thing as cheese that has ‘gone off’: your own taste buds will tell you the optimum time along its journey when it’s best to eat.
Do not fear mould: the mould is your friend! It is telling you that it has chosen to settle on this delicious Crottin or Brillat because they are full of goodness (a fast-food chip will never grow mould, however long you leave it in a petrie dish). When cheeses were matured in caves or stone barns the moulds occurred naturally; most now have the moulds added to them – apart from Bleu de Termignon, a complex cheese that spontaneously takes on the wild red moulds of the mountains high up in the French Alps where the small herds of cows graze during the summer.
The cheese we sell in the shop will have come from every sort of supplier, from small Alpage farmer-producers with a single-source milk supply to large producers collecting milk from dozens of farms; they will all have their own special methods and secrets. Mountain cheeses were usually large, slow maturing cheeses which were then ready to sell once the cows moved down to the valleys after the summer. Those made near weekly markets tended to be smaller and quicker to ripen – the goats’ cheeses and soft fresh cheeses such as St Felicien and Perail.
Gruyere spends its first 12 months maturing at the producer’s and is then moved to an old military fort in the middle of Switzerland which has the perfect damp atmosphere to push the flavour of the cheese along. Langres is a soft sticky-rinded cheese which has been washed in marc-de-champagne. Cantal de Salers is produced from a rare-breed cattle in the Auvergne: these highly maternal cows are not easy to milk, so it is said that the calves used to suckle first then they were tethered to the front leg of the cow and salt sprinkled on them. Result: that the mother occupies herself with licking off the salt and consents to be milked by hand.
You will often find us scraping and re-wrapping the cheeses in our cheese room and this is because even a piece of cheese that looks perfect will have undergone some oxidisation through exposure to the air and therefore some of the taste will be dissipated. Some, like the leafy, mushrooomy Brie de Meaux, are best kept in their boxes and waxed paper rather than clingfilm, which can make it sweat. Others are best wrapped in cellophane to leave some air inside and not damage the rind.
At the stall in Borough Market, Jane cut us a piece of Beaufort that had been cut from the wheel 24 hours before: we tasted it and it had the perfectly delicious, smooth taste you would expect. Then she cut a piece from the wheel we had cut only five minutes earlier and we were blown away by the soft, fresh, velvet complexity of it. We, as the cheese sellers, need to keep tasting them in order to be aware of the constantly changing cheese. With cheese, every day is a new vintage.
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