|the infamous Christmas Queue courtesy of the Rockets & Rayguns blog on Tumblr|
Take, for example, Old Mr Skruttock’s blue-veined, log. Most people are surprised that it’s not blue at all, more a brown colour with a lumpy curd structure not unlike a poorly made bar of chocolate. In fact only last week someone visited our shop in the old quarter of the Millennium Business Park for Innovation and dropped their log right outside our door. Our specially trained staff of Innuit cheesemongers had their lab coats and visors off in a flash, but could not catch the woman in time to tell her how great Old Skruttock’s log is grilled and tossed into salad or grated on some fish.
Besides customer service we believe in getting the right product. Selection is vital. To this end we demand only the latest, up-to-date catalogues before we make any purchase. Selection is also part of getting to know your supplier, putting a face to the name, photographing it and keeping it on file. I can remember when I was a junior sales executive meeting my first supply-client in a lay-by off the old A30, I was so excited, he a little nervous and undernourished and after we convinced him there was no means of escape we got on like a house on fire, which was ironic as his house burned down soon after and he found himself cooling his heels at Her Majesty’s Pleasure before we could pay him for the eighteen wheels of his exquisite rabbit liver Cheddar he had in the bucket of his digger. We gave all his thirteen children a place to live and work for only a nominal fee – I mean, what are friends for.
So the next time you fancy some real cheese, pop down to your local chemist and try some Old Mother Scuzzbucket’s little goats’ milk cretins, or scoop up some of Brian Problem’s runny Brie-style cheese – Brian’s Runny Problem (not suitable for pregnant ladies, old people, young people, middle-aged people or small animals) and enjoy.
(I can’t lay claim to this particular masterpiece. It is the work of one Dominic Coyte, cheese legend, formerly of Neal’s Yard Dairy and now to be found selling Comte at the Borough Cheese Company in either Borough Market or the Maltby Street area. Dom, I salute you. This little piece of writing dashed off one afternoon is, for me, the gift that just keeps on giving.)
Bra is a self contained town with enough of its own industry to mean it doesn’t rely on Slow Food for its trade and existence. It existed before Carlo Petrini started the movement and it continues to maintain its independence. That said though, I doubt even in Italy it would have quite the same amount of good food and restaurants if it weren’t for the Slow Food movement having its headquarters here. Then, every 2 years the town puts on a homage to all things Cheese and quite literally the entire town dedicates itself to the promotion of cheese. Talks and tastings are held in some of the baroque buildings that form the older centre of Bra, its streets and piazzas become a market for cheese makers (particularly those who Slow Food have designated worthy of Presidia status – a protection for a highly artisan or unusual cheese that is in danger of dying out) and cheese maturers or retailers such as my erstwhile colleagues Neal’s Yard Dairy.
Neal’s Yard Dairy has been selling cheese in Bra since 2003. Randolph first visited the fair 2 years before that to help out a friend, Ari Weinzweig of Zingermans who had been due to give a talk there and was unable to get a flight post 9/11. He was simply struck by the unique atmosphere of the place and the abundance of interesting cheeses and people there – completely unlike any trade show or food show held in the UK. The town is entirely welcoming to its huge influx of visitors too with local shops getting behind the idea and theming their displays around cheese for the duration of the fiera. If this was the UK, much as I hate to talk my country down, there would be groups of people moaning about parking and rubbish and the disruption to their daily routines.
When we took the first stand in 2003 we noticed further benefits too. Italians of all walks of life have a much more extensive vocabulary to describe food than the Brits, they are interested and keen to try new things and pretty forthright about saying what they think be it good or bad. For a shop that values feedback, these comments on our cheeses are hugely interesting. There was also the minor consideration that as a place to meet and socialise with wholesale customers, the atmosphere of Bra can’t be bettered. Maybe it’s all that Italian Dolce Vita, or ready access to Barolo, or the cafe society but people drop by and chat in a much more relaxed way than they ever do at any trade fair in the UK or USA and simply by enjoying a coffee together and having a chat, great ideas can spring up in a completely natural and unpressured way.
This year was my first year out there as a cheesemaker. Before leaving NYD, Jason Hinds who had basically been my boss, asked if I’d join them on the stand as I’m an Italian speaker and, more to the point, I suspect, if I was there, my Italian speaking and absolute Trojan parents would be more likely to come along too and help explain and taste out cheeses to the Italian public. As such, of course, there is a different perspective to the one you have as a cheesemonger. I particularly wanted to know what they thought of the cheese and had a sneaky feeling they might well like it. This proved to be the case. I was waiting for people to come back with comments for improvements, over salted, too strong etc but didn’t really hear much of that. On the contrary I did hear that pretty much everyone liked it. To say that was a big pat on the back would be understating it really. Of course the batches had been deliberately selected by Bronwen and the buying team to appeal to the Italian palate (a bit more adventurous and raucous than the UK) but between her selection and our cheesemaking, we made them happy.
With that established, the next thing I enjoyed while out there was meeting former colleagues and the wider family of the NYD network. Mateo and Andy from Jasper Hill in Vermont were out there with their families, Joe Schneider and his Stichelton team were on the stand (naturally), Caroline and Will who make Stawley, Julie Cheyney formerly of Tunworth, Kate Arding who I worked with back in my early NYD days and who is now part of the Culture Magazine team, Val Bines, Jamie Montgomery, Mary Holbrook… I could go on and on. It is a bit like in part a great big reunion of a lot of people you really want to chat to and you sell cheese and talk about your different cheeses altogether. Yes it’s definitely an occasion for the cheese geek but as such it’s very rewarding and interesting.
And have I mentioned the eating out possibilities yet? Not only is this Italy but it’s Piedmont, widely regarded as one of the best areas of Italy for food and wine and everyone is putting on the classic dishes over this weekend: vitello tonnato (veal with a tuna emulsion basically), vegetable souffles, fresh tajarin (thin tagliatelle) with butter and sage, hand pinched ravioli (agnolotti del plin), carne cruda (thinly chopped raw rose veal with olive oil), salsiccia di bra (raw rose veal sausages – seriously don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it they are addictive), meat braised in Barolo and panna cotta. And then there’s Caffe Converso, the ONLY place in Bra to get your coffee and pastries with its wood panelled walls and the little shop next door selling home made chocolates, nougat and their own chestnut cream and upmarket Nutella.
All this and the chance to learn about other cheeses and try new things too. The Strada dei Presidii is the road along which the endangered cheeses are displayed. This ranges from the weird and wonderful like Swedish goats cheese, smoked cheese from Poland, to the more recognisable like Bitto an Italian mountain cheese like an aged and drier Gruyere or Sbrinz and finally Somerset Cheddar represented by Montgomerys, Keens and Westcombe. Cheddar may not initially seem an endangered cheese but given that it is ubiquitously used as a name for hard block cheese these days, the Somerset Cheddar boys are claiming the name back for those still making cheese in the original county of Somerset and following an old fashioned and traditional recipe.
For anyone with even a passing interest in all things Cheese that hasn’t discovered it yet, this fair is worth the trip. See you there in 2013!
For another perspective on the Cheese event and more pics too have a look at Justine’s blog littlemisslocal.com
Of all the foods that have lost their character by industrialising the manufacturing process, which include bread, beer, hydroponically grown veg, flavourless battery-farmed chicken and plenty of others too, I now feel that milk is the one that has suffered most in the loss of flavour and perception. The fact is, most people who reckon they don’t like it, would happily drink a glass of the milk Nicola and Martin produce because it’s bloody delicious.
However having heard back from London and given that we’d been worrying about drainage now for a few weeks, I decided to go for advice to the dynamic cheese duo of Hodgson & Cordle (Randolph Hodgson & Dr Jemima Cordle that is) who had visited Martin earlier in the year to get him started with the MT36 starters and had given some advice on use of the cloth liners to the moulds to help get better drainage. They had made their own test cheese and taken it away with them after the day but the experiment had made them both feel strongly that using the cloths enough was pretty key.
First off I checked whether they had done more cloth faffage (pulling really) than we were currently doing and at what intervals it had been done. Pretty much the same as we were doing, yet their cheese had ended up pretty darn dry (admittedly partly due to being kept in an unrefrigerated and unhumidified environment but partly drainage) whereas ours most definitely weren’t. It had also had a close knit texture and again that wasn’t something our cheeses were doing at the time – they were quite open textured.
Going back then to ask what they’d done differently, Randolph came back with the suggestion of pulling the cloths tighter. He said ‘We are talking about hospital corners and taught sheets’.
The aim of the exercise therefore was to give a squeeze and put pressure on the curd rather than agitate it. Fortified with the information I set off to give it a go the following day and pulled the cloths up so damn tightly that every morning still (as the cloth pulling continues to be tight) I have fingers that won’t bend properly from the muscles being so stiff. And I have to say it did work and continues to work. It also highlighted that we really needed new cloths as the older ones had weakened through use and were ripping with every cloth pull. More were on order and in fact had been for a fortnight but the suppliers were being rather slow about getting them to us. Even with daily chasing, it took a further 10 days for them to arrive!
So what has the change been? Well there’s still the odd bit where the curd doesn’t knit together. The problem with relying on cloth pulling so much for drainage is that if your tension isn’t equal across the cloth and the whole side of the cheese then you get a less drained area. Sometimes the constraints of the space you’re working around on the draining table and number of moulds you need to fit onto it, just means that some are harder to get at and work with than others. As a general rule though, they are more closely knit together in texture and certainly smaller at the end of the day than the cheeses I used to make.
We just had a follow up visit from Bronwen and the NYD crew this time with Joe Schneider (Stichelton cheesemaker for those of you who don’t already know) which meant our discussion had another point of view in the mix too and was very interesting. Joe also uses cloth liners when draining his curd although they are used at a different stage and before the curd makes it into the moulds, but it means he knows what the aim of the exercise is. That is, reducing free moisture (pockets of it in the open texture of the cheese) so that the starter bacteria can’t continue acidifying the curd as much and as a result the curd retains calcium. If there’s enough calcium, the curd will hold onto moisture but it will be locked into the curd structure and will allow for the cheese to breakdown better during maturing. If there’s too much acidity, the calcium dissolves and the curd, having lost its calcium, has less ability to lock in that moisture and it won’t break down so well. Or to put in another way, here is what Jemima Cordle emailed to me as an explanation and I won’t try to paraphrase any further: