Talking British Cheese with Nigel White, Secretary of the British Cheese Board

Just to let you know, this post was written before I started the paleo diet to help ease my psoriasis. Nowadays I eat a more allergy-friendly diet, but leave these older, non-paleo posts up in case they are useful to readers, as I know not everyone eats the same as I do. Thanks for your understanding. 

“For proper dinner party etiquette, you should never cut off the 'nose' of a piece of cheese,” Nigel White, Secretary of the British Cheese Board told me as he carefully sliced a runny wedge of Somerset brie lengthways. (I’d just told him I usually lop the pointed end off, which is, as I now know, bad manners).

 I’m in Covent Garden, at a personal cheese tasting with Nigel, and it seems there is nothing he doesn’t know about cheese. “With 700 varieties of British cheese, there’s so much choice,” he adds, reaching for a tiny cylinder of sheep’s milk cheese. And, with all that variety it is sometimes a wonder why we Brits instinctively reach for the likes of French brie, Edam and Gorgonzola for the after-dinner cheese board.

Cornish Yarg, covered in nettle leaves... Nigel says the Romans were covering cheese in leaves too...

I let him into a discussion I’d had with my French friend, Sabine, the other day. She told me that since she moved to the UK, she has found the flavour of British cheese so bland that she only ever buys French goat’s cheese or extra mature cheddar. Nigel understands. It’s all about the depth of flavour – it seems that we prefer a goat’s cheese with a much mellower flavour to one with a goaty tang from the continent. But the thing to remember is that British cheesemakers have created versions of these continental cheeses (brie and camembert for example) and not carbon copies. There would be no point in creating exactly the same cheese you can buy on the continent, because we already have that one. So mellower versions have been created that work well with our British tastes.

This brings me on to one of the main points we discussed throughout the tasting. What is the main flavour that comes through when you eat a chunk of cheddar cheese? Even forgetting the differences between mild, medium and mature, what other flavours are going on? Would you describe your favourite cheddar as creamy? Sweet? Nutty? Crumbly? The truth is, there is no such thing as a flavour for just ‘cheddar’. Cheddar cheese (and all other cheeses) will have tiny differences in how they’re made, variations in the milking animal’s diet and the length of time the cheese has taken to mature. Compare a sweet, creamy Davidstow with a complex and tangy Keen’s West Country Farmhouse Cheddar. And it’s the same for Lancashire cheese.

Gorgeous, full-flavoured Red Leicester: Aged Leicestershire Red

When Nigel passed me a chunk of Lancashire I thought I knew what I was expecting: crumbly, pale, creamy cheese. But it’s not what I got. This was a Lancashire I’d never tried before. It was tangy, buttery and smooth. Similarly, I’d been used to orange, rubbery blocks of Red Leicester from my local supermarket. I tried the Aged Leicestershire Red: it was firm, sweet and nutty. It was the surprise of the day – if I’d known I could have bought Red Leicester like that, I wouldn’t have relied on those sweaty supermarket blocks of cheese for so long.

We talked about supermarkets and how smaller-scale artisan cheeses can’t always be found on the supermarket shelf, giving way to those rubbery, generic blocks that always taste the same all year round. “Everyone always slates supermarkets, but they have improved,” Nigel said. You’ll have more luck finding a Cornish Yarg or a Tunworth on the deli counter than on the pre-wrapped shelf, but they do now stock lots of different cheeses. “What I would say,” Nigel added, “is wherever you go in Britain, try the local cheese while you’re there.” It makes sense. Pop to Bath with the family and pick up some Wyfe of Bath cheese for tea, go to Sussex and pick up a creamy round of Sussex Slipcote. There’s much more to British cheese than just the main types and, as I found, much more variety within each of those varieties. I left the tasting with more knowledge of cheese as a whole, and an appreciation for the British cheesemakers that are working so hard to provide all those regional cheeses, often, as Nigel said, alongside other day jobs. Britain has so much more to offer in the way of cheese, and I for one won’t be automatically plonking a Roquefort on the table when I get the cheeseboard out.

Visit the website for more information about the British Cheese Board and take a look at the cheese flavour map, which will help you to identify which cheeses you’re more likely to enjoy.


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