Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Say Cheese! (and some crackers)

“I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.” 
― John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

Fermented milk is a marvellous thing, and discovering that recent weekend trip to my Mum's in Wiltshire was going to coincide with a festival dedicated to its pursuit was pretty much my idea of heaven on earth. Slightly less celestial was the imbibing of one too many pints of 6D Best at the local pub, followed by a homemade lasagne washed down with several bottles of vino rosso the night before our visit...

The morning after started as a bit of a struggle, but a delivery of Stornoway black pudding for breakfast soon got things back on track. And while the idea of standing in a hot tent full of fermenting dairy products with a hangover may sound fairly hellish, it was mercifully far less whiffy than I first feared. In fact, once armed with our first toothpicks and set free on the tables ladened with free samples of assorted cheesy wares I was quickly on my way to formaggi heaven.

As with these things, the first stall managed to divest us of most our money; firstly for half a wheel of White Nancy, a soft goat’s cheese with a bloomy white rind and gooey centre and secondly for a Alex James’ Goddess No 5 a Guernsey cow’s milk cheese washed in Temperley Somerset Cider Brandy until it reaches a supple sticky perfection. (Now safely stowed in Mum’s freezer, waiting for an unveiling come Christmas time.) I was also rather enamoured with the Sloe Tavy, a semi hard, stinky heart-shaped goat’s milk cheese that’s washed in Plymouth sloe gin.

Next purchase was half a round of Little Ryding, a soft ewe’s milk cheese that was a bit of a bargain at a fiver for a whole cheese. They were also offering the rather lovely Millstone, a hard cheese, Manchego like in style with that lovely supple fattiness that sheep’s milk provides (possibly, depending which day you ask, my favourite milk for cheese).

The Windyridge stall was good fun, with their rather outre products and cheerful staff standing out amongst some of the rather more po-faced producers. While there's nothing sophisticated about their range of flavoured West Country cheddar all the samples I chose were great. Particular favourites were the horseradish and parsley, Spitfire with naga chilli and baked bean flavour (yes really). They were also good value at 3 packs for a fiver meaning we had no excuse not to take a trio home.

Blue Vinny is one of the most interesting of English cheeses, as well as the most local to the festival, being made just outside Sturminster Newton itself. Historically the cheese is made with skimmed milk a by -product from the butter market. While the cream and butter were valuable in London, the skimmed milk was not, so was traditionally turned into blue cheese for farmers and the surrounding villagers to enjoy.

While the cheese was common in Dorset for hundreds of years, production stopped around 1970 and the cheese became extinct. However, in 1980 Mike Davies of Woodbridge Farm, made the bold move to resurrect the 300 year old recipe and the unpasteurised cows’ milk cheese is now freely available once again.

Sadly, the product didn’t appeal as much as the tale behind it. While not a bad cheese by any stretch, the skimmed milk used in its production means the finished cheese is quite astringent and missing the smooth fattiness of my favourite kind of blues. Still worth a try if you ever spot it, if only for the chance to reclaim our history through food; and especially good with a Dorset knob.

One stall that certainly didn't disappoint was James’ Cheese, a company that concentrates on the affinage of products sourced from partner dairies and is run by James McCall, who started his great love of cheese under the tutorage of the great James Aldridge.

Most of the James’ cheeses are washed rind, matured at nearby Child Okeford, although there a trio of soft cow’s milk cheese flavoured with chillies, pepper and herbs id also available. My favourite of the selection, and perhaps the whole day, was the Francis, a washed rind cheese named after Atkinson's other given name.

Originally the cheese starts life as ‘Stoney Cross’, made by Salisbury-based Lyburn Cheese. James then takes it across the border to Dorset and turns it into the wonderfully meaty, sticky beast that is Francis; a glorious cheese that could happily stand up to any French stinker but isn’t too overpowering.

The cloth-bound Sparkenhoe Vintage Red Leicester I tried was as good as ever, although one of our party wasn’t much of a fan, ruling it out for the cheeseboard. They were also offering the Bosworth Field, a pretty decent mould ripened unpasteurised cheese with a light and crumbly texture.

Alongside all the fromage, my exciting discovery of the day was the goat merguez from the Norsworthy Dairy Goat stall. As I was excitedly snapping some up the Ewing and my Mum had descended upon the selection of goat’s cheeses also offered, before settling on the Little Dollop, a gloriously runny specimen that flowed across the plate like cheesy lava when we cut it open the next day.

As the Ewing and my Mum were still hopelessly attempting to spear cheeses so ripe they’d be easier scooped up with a spoon, I had spied the one thing I was looking forward to above all else – the cheese toastie stall. And, fortuitously, just in time for lunch.

The grill, manned by the good people at Westcombe Dairies, was churning out delicious cheddar stuffed toasties on sourdough bread and studded with spring onions, cooked to a crisp perfection by the help of a couple of foil wrapped bricks. Moments later and the ambrosial mix of carbs and dairy was in hand (and down front).

The sandwich was so good, and the guys on the stall so friendly, that we also bought a chunk to take home. After all, it would have been remiss not to have at least one gum-tingling hard cheese in our selection and the Westcombe didn’t disappoint. A creamy and firm, rather than crumbly, cheddar with a rich nuttiness and a good lick of acidity to finish; super stuff.

While we couldn't face anymore coagulated curds and whey when we got home on Saturday, by Sunday evening we had got our cheese eating chops back and enjoyed this magnificent platter of choice morsels, alongside a nice Portugese red, a selection of polenta and spelt crackers and an episode of Morse. Perfect.

While most the haul was eaten, we did bring a hunk of the Francis washed rind from James' Cheese Company back home. Consulting my favourite tome, Nikki Segnit's Flavour Thesaurus, for potential flavour pairing combos (before I scoffed by the light of the fridge), I found a simple recipe for fennel-spiked crackers that would also make good use of the Maltstar flour, ground at Stoates mill in Dorset, that we had bought in Shaftesbury on the way back home.

Maltstar and Fennel Seed Crackers
(adapted from The Flavour Thesaurus)

150g flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp fennel (or cumin or celery) seeds
25ml olive oil
125 ml water

Put flour, baking powder and fennel seeds in a mixing bowl
Add the oil and water in increments until the mixture forms a dough
Knead for five minutes, wrap dough in clingfilm and allow to rest in the fridge for 30 mins
Unwrap dough and roll out to 5mm thick then press out your crackers with a cutter (you'll get approx 24 5cm diameter crackers).
Place crackers on a greased baking sheet, brush with water and bake at 160c for 25 minutes or until golden and baked through.
Allow to cool before storing in an airtight container.

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