GRUB!: Cheese Night in Richmond

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Cheese - milk's leap toward immortality.
- Clifton Paul Fadiman
Today's edition of GRUB! is a bit of a subversion of the form.  The intention of the series has always been to introduce non-UK readers to food and drink that is particular to this place and, by extension, to let UK readers know that some of the foods they take for granted are, in fact, unique and rather special.  That's why today's blog isn't quite in the spirit of the thing because pretty much everyone has cheese.  (Even Nepal, where they make it out of yak's milk.)  Nonetheless, I'm going to forge ahead with the cheese blog for two reasons. First, this was a rather special cheese occasion, and second, cheese is, well, it's CHEESE, which is of course an inherently Good Thing and worthy of attention and celebration at any time.

So… Cheese Night in Richmond.  I knew I was on to a winner when I saw this article in the Guardian: "Cheese master brings tasters to Richmond".  I quickly fired off an email to my friend Jeremy, who will be remembered by astute GSWPL readers as the one responsible for my recent foray into the world of Premier League football.  He and I have done fun foodie kind of stuff before - in particular an excellent beer and food pairing dinner celebrating the many and varied tastes of India Pale Ale - so I figured he'd be up for it.  This was way back in November, so it's a testament to the enduring popularity of cheese that the first of these monthly cheese events we could get in to was last Thursday.

Our host for the evening was Tony, one of the owners of The Teddington Cheese. (Note of clarification for those readers who actually know where Teddington is: There are two branches of the shop, the original in Teddington, and the more recent addition in Richmond. Those for whom London geography is a hazy muddle punctuated by incorrect pronunciations of Leicester Square and the vague notion that Kew Gardens might be a nice stroll from Tower Bridge can skip that last bit.)

Tony, holding forth on his specialist subject.

One of the reasons that it was so hard to get a spot in one of these classes is that the Richmond branch of The Teddington Cheese is decidedly on the petite side, meaning that once ten folding bar stools are set up there's just enough room to pass round a bottle of wine, but only if it's not a magnum and if you keep your elbows down.  This made for a cozy atmosphere that was most appreciated because it was a cold night, one in a long line of cold nights that have plagued the island for what seems like eternity (Yes, I know I'm whinging about the cold when most of Canada is still shovelling the sidewalk.  I have no defense.  I've become soft.  Let's move on.)  Cozier still was the fact that Tony handed around glasses of a nice white wine before we got down to cheesy business.

The packed confines of The Teddington Cheese with Jeremy in the foreground, apparently frozen in laser-like concentration while the rest of the shop is a blur.

Tony started us off with the basics - the different kinds of milk commonly used to make cheese.  We tasted cheese made from cow's milk, ewe's milk and goat milk, and Tony gave a nod to buffalo mozzarella as well.  (Aside: I honestly did not think that buffalo mozzarella was made from actual buffalo milk because... BUFFALO MILK?  What the hell?  How would it occur to someone to milk a freakin' buffalo in the first place?  And if seized with the notion, exactly how does one go about milking a buffalo?  The mind reels.  The notion that buffalo mozzarella is made from actual buffalo product is a bit like thinking one might order a pizza topped with salami that turns out to be made from alligator meat.  In fact, I still have a sneaking suspicion that it's all an elaborate hoax, akin to the great Spaghetti Harvest BBC report of 1957.)  My ranting suspicions aside, the tasting was good, and much like you'd expect.  For each cheese Tony had a generous slice on a little platter which he chopped into small pieces and handed around to the group.  No poncey biscuits or toast to get in the way, just cheese cheese cheese.  We sniffed and tasted and Tony told us things we might notice and it was all quite nice.  The pieces were small, but we were warned that we'd regret anything bigger by the end of the night.

After talking about the different types of milk, we moved on to a study of the effects age on cheese with a vertical tasting of three different gruyeres that ended with a four year old version that was understandably powerful and excellent.  Naturally, older cheese are firmer and drier as a result of the weight of moisture lost in ageing, which I like to think of as the cheese equivalent of the Angel's Share.  No one was surprised that the older the cheese, the stronger the flavour.  What did surprise me was to learn that the maximum age a cheese can get to before it turns is about five years, and that only applies to the hard cheeses.  Softer cheese go off much quicker and that buffalo mozzarella is only good for five days.  And I was proud to learn that the oldest cheese Tony had ever tasted was a five year old Canadian cheddar, which earned favourable reviews.  I also learned a new word: affineur, which is "a person whose specialty is maturing and ripening cheeses."  Cheesemakers will often send their cheeses to an affineur for storage and ripening, and the affineur will be responsible for monitoring the cheese, turning it if necessary, and tasting it periodically in order to determine the perfect time to consume it. Clearly this profession was not on the guidance counseler's list when I was in high school because if I'd have know one could earn a living eating cheese then the theatre world would surely have lost one of its brightest technical management stars.

After age, we turned to a study of the effects of size on the flavour of cheese, demonstrated by tastes of a nice Petit Langres, followed immediately by its larger cousin, the (just plain) Langres.  I was surprised that the larger cheese had more flavour, expecting that whatever magic mojo happens to make cheese be cheesier would act more quickly and emphatically in a small cheese.  Nope.

Petit Langres.  Every cheese in the shop (and there are about 140) comes with a little card telling you a few fun facts.

When we moved on to blue cheese Tony switched us to the red wine and I was starting to become grateful that I hadn't had any dinner.  Being a fan of blue cheeses in general, there were a couple in this round of tasting that I'd seek out again, including a fantastic strong Vieux Berger Roquefort and a lovely mild one called Devon Blue that won a gold medal in the 2011 British Cheese Awards.  (My invitation to that event must have got lost in the post. Damnit.)  Then it was on to the washed rind cheeses, including a lovely one called Oxford Isis that tastes like grown-up Laughing Cow cheese.  Then it was the white rinds, the most familiar of which is Brie, and by this time even I getting slightly over-cheesed.  Tony had hit his stride though, and held forth on the notion of rinds in general, and the utterly unsatisfactory use of wax to seal a cheese as opposed to a proper naturally formed rind which is normally created by washing the outside of the cheese in brine or other other things that add flavour.  The whimsically named Stinking Bishop cheese is washed in perry, a pear cider made from the Stinking Bishop pear.  And the aforementioned Oxford Isis is washed in honey mead.  As for wax?  Here's Tony's pronouncement: "Avoid it like the plague.  It does nothing for the cheese."

In a final attempt at mass death-by-cheese, Tony presented us with his favourite wine and cheese pairing by pouring out some ridiculously large glasses of the sweet dessert wine Sauternes and presenting it with a wicked Crozier Blue cheese which seemed counter-intuitive but demonstrated that Tony is clearly a cheese savant because it was great.  And I'm sure that had nothing to do with the fact that we were all somewhere along the continuum between tipsy and sloshed by that time.

The Sauternes.

Alongside the wine and cheese we got tidbits of cheese trivia, such as the unsurprising fact that 80% of the cheese sold in the UK is sold through supermarkets, and 80% of that is cheddar, which is sort of sad.  Also, it turns out that Teddington cheese goes through about ten metric tonnes of cheese each Christmas, including a full ton of Stilton, that single tonne of which is equivalent to about a four foot by four foot by four foot cube of solid cheese.  Tony also tackled the thorny subject of pasteurisation.  His position is that unpasteurised cheese is a minimal risk - the acid and salt in the cheese, along with cool storage temperatures make it difficult for nasty bugs to survive.  Though interestingly, most blue cheeses are made with pasteurised milk because the cheesemakers prefer to restrict the bugs that go into those cheeses to the ones they put there themselves.

Along with the obvious (cheese, cheese and more cheese) Teddington Cheese also stocks an extensive range of chutneys which Tony was amusingly dismissive about, declaring "Chutney is an awful thing to do to a nice cheese."  Even better, one of the shop's specialties is the Cheese Wedding Cake.  This is certainly not anything to do with the graham-crust, strawberry-topped variety of cheesecake (all one word).  Oh no.  A Teddington Cheese Wedding Cake is a multi-tiered edifice constructed entirely of whole wheels of cheese.  This is a notion so beguiling that I've decided that the next time I meet a man I've got vague romantic notions about my first question will be, "If we were to get married, would you have any objections to the notion of a wedding cake made entirely of CHEESE?"  If the answer is no, he's not even going to get out of the starting gate.

An example of the cheese wedding cake.  When you order one you get to spend a bunch of time tasting different cheese deciding exactly what you want in your cake.  And sometimes they separate the layers by adding pillars of those tiny goat's cheeses in between.  Genius.

By the end of the night it really was time for home, though not before a mandatory photo op of me in the cheese shop doing my best Wallace and Gromit cheese fingers.

Slightly out of focus and alarmingly crazed-looking. But you get the idea...

And so Jeremy and I wended our way back towards Richmond Station, with a quick pitstop at a nice pub en route to ensure there was no way I'd wake up without a slight headache on Friday morning.  And despite the fact that I sampled twenty different cheese that night I slept peacefully, thus disproving the myth of the cheese dream once and for all.  Or perhaps I'm simply immune to the effects of over-consumption of cheese, like some kind of really lame superhero.  (Then again, if I had to choose a crappy superhero power, the ability to eat epic amounts of cheese wouldn't be a bad one really.  "Oh no, little Timmy is trapped under an enormous pile of Caerphilly, who can save him?  Wait, is that enigmatic Super Cheese-o-phile?  Hallelujah, we're saved!!")

And on that note, it's clearly time to close off before things degenerate any further.  Beside that, I've got to tend to the nice bit of Oxford Isis I purchased at Brixton Market this afternoon.  Please excuse me.


Ian Timshel said...

Four year old gruyere. My imagination is spinning.

Anonymous said...

Pam gone long time

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