I love cheese, but I am about as far from being “A Cheese Person” as you could conceive. My ideal world of cheese is distinctly Northern European, with its nutty medium hard cheeses: I would sell my soul for a block of aged Gouda; I would walk across continents for an aged Gruyère; I would drown in the ocean should I find myself stranded on an island of Jarlsberg. These cheeses bring me pure joy.
Travel brings me in to contact with cheeses: some old; some new; some neither. The first image to assail my mind when the thought of travelling cheese comes is filled with flowers. We are sitting atop a mountain, overlooking a lake, surrounded by blooms. Between us sits a bubbling pot of the most glorious Swiss mountain cheese, suspended in a bath of wine and Kirsch. We dive in; we rejoice.
This taste, this silky joy, this feast of revelry, is something we have tried to recapture time and time again, and we have almost succeeded every time. Fondue needs alcohol: a suspension of wine and the burn of spirit bring the flavours alive. It may be Kirsch; you may prefer Cognac; a deviant could choose a cherry vodka: the heat cleans through the wellspring of thick, glorious, nutty cheeses.
Same neck of the woods; similar cheese; different experience: I once tried Savoyarde Raclette in the town of Annecy. I was disappointed. Actually, let’s step back a smidge and see where this started.
We were on holiday in Köln, enjoying the Christmas festivities, when we spotted a stall we knew we would keep coming back to. They had a half wheel of French cheese, which seemed to live a semi scorched life under a flaming grill. It would be brought out periodically, to be scraped on to slices of crispy bread, previously rubbed with garlic and anointed with olive oil. Timid, unsure, we shared the first one. Sublime. The next day we would get one each; more would follow until we were cut off.
Scroll forward several years, and the perfection of the Raclette has been burned on to the misty retina of my mind’s eye; I have remembered and embellished the sensation to the extent that no taste will satisfy my lust for this cheese. A restaurant experience could never compete. Out comes a box of fire: coal scents the air around us. A bucket of potatoes, and we are left to our own devices. A frying pan, a spatula, and incorrect proportions: We are adrift and ashes form in my angry mouth.
I am afraid of cheese. Correction: I am afraid of not liking cheese. I once, after confirming that I was indeed a fan of cheese, attempted to eat breadcrumbed and deep-fried Camembert, with a sharp, crisp salad. The salad I liked, but the cheese, once its rivulets had ceased to sear my flesh, tasted like nothing I wanted to eat: it was the tastes of plastic and mould and leather, even though it was not in any respect any of them. There is no mould in Camembert, but my mouth projected mould on to it.
This experience, as an adult, is rooted in similar experiences in childhood. My parents are both great lovers of all cheeses, great sharers of that which they love. My childish palette could handle the odd gluey assault of Brie no better than it could a pint of bitter, but I nonetheless tried. My failure was a door closing on an aspect of my tastes – on one hand – and the door was to remain closed forever.
On the other hand, the closure in one direction, although unpleasant, is often merely an indicator of a new opportunity in another. These cheeses were not to my tastes, and I feel looked down upon for that, as if it were a failure in character. In actual fact it focussed me on the cheeses I love most.
Some experiences are as entrenched in the world they are born from as to be inseparable. In that vein, my mind conjures up plates of cured meats and salty cheeses in Italy and Spain. They are the perfect complement to each other, whether in an Italian Agriturismo or a Spanish bar. Then again.
A plate lands in front of me, and my attention is dragged away from the crispy sprats. I had been in thrall of these little fish, guzzling them down, head and bones and all, while others in our party took minute care to extricate the flesh from the offal and the skeleton. To me the joy was in the whole fish, the transgression of eating an entire body; like a giant, grinding bones to make his bread.
Triangular cheese should never be celebrated, or so I had thought. Some cheeses – some good cheeses – take well to being coated in flour and fried. Crispy, oozy and dipped in a thick, sweet jam, these triangles of Spanish cheese, brought as part of a feast of tapas, were as moreish as they were sticky; as sweet as they were salty, and as delicious as they were dangerous. They disappeared, one by one, until only one remained, with a spoonful of jam beside. We looked at each other and split it.
There is a town in North Yorkshire with a very odd name; I recommend you pay it a visit. Not only can you get a fine portion of fish and chips in the town itself (from a fish and chip shop, and never from a pub: Lessons in English Life 101), but you can visit a creamery. The world famous gift shop with a cheese factory attached has something I feel every visitor attraction should contain: a room full of cheeses where you are allowed, nay expected, to try them all. Several times each. Lovely.
The town is Hawes and the creamery belongs to Wensleydale Cheese, and I am now starting to think about going back. Before I started writing the above I hadn’t been. The allure is strong with this one.
The Wensleydale Creamery is somewhere I have visited a few times over the years, and it is a great tourist attraction: a cheese museum, a demonstration of cheese production, the prospect of a tour of the factory. The sampling room is always the highlight, and it always results in me buying far too much of their absolutely wonderful cheese. Plain, flavoured, smoked; all tastes are catered for here. Crumbly, creamy, salty and joyous: a necessary reminder that England makes superb cheeses too.