Expert Tips

British cheese

From gutsy to glorious. How to buy, store and pair it.

Issue: 10

hen thinking of Britain and cuisine, cheese is probably not the first thing to come to mind. Yet, the British Isles and Ireland produce hundreds of cheeses, each cheese unique to its region and producer. We recently caught up with British cheese proponent, Patricia Michelson, author and owner of La Fromagerie in London. She gave us a breakdown on everything cheese--from tips on choosing and storing it, to pairing cheeses with our favourite tipple.

Everyone pairs cheese with wine. Does it pair well with spirits?

Cheese is, in essence, a single source food that comes from milk. Artisan producers allow their animals to graze outside and those animals have a varied diet dependent on the season, the weather and the region. The result? Their milk holds many amazing and different flavours that affect cheese’s taste. This variety of flavours means that cheeses marry well with complex spirits.

Do you have any general tips on how to pair cheeses with spirits?

Find a good cheese shop or local producer and visit them with tasting notes. Pick out 2-3 tones that you like in the spirit that you will be drinking. Is it the peat and fruit of a Johnnie Walker Black, or the toffee and cacao tones of a Zacapa XO? Choose cheeses that draw out those elements of the drink. To do that, look at the flavours and textures of the cheese and think about how those flavours can enhance your drink. I also like to think of a cheese plate like an orchestra. Add three cheeses to the plate and each should bring out different notes of the spirit to produce a well-rounded experience.

Any unexpected combinations?

The brown sugar and toasted nut tones of The Singleton of Dufftown paired with an aged Comté is a sensation.

British cheese

What to look for in a cheese shop?

Find a cheese shop where the staff is willing to talk to you and let you taste things. They should want to engage with you to learn your preferences and make suggestions for comparing and enriching your personal journey in taste. A good shop knows how to open peoples’ eyes to cheeses that they might like. Go in with an open mind and look for a cheese shop that helps you expand your horizons.

Is there a male/female divide in terms of preferences and reactions to cheese?

Men tend to have a saltier palate and are more likely to choose cheeses that smell gutsy. In general, men expect a bigger experience, not subtlety from a cheese. Women look for balance, and a potentially less overwhelming smell.

About that smell, are there any tips to contain it?

To avoid a smelly kitchen, wrap cheese first in grease-proof waxed paper, then wrap in several layers of newspaper. You can also store cheese (except the blue variety) in a Tupperware lined with dampened j-cloth. Add 3 sugar cubes to the Tupperware. The sugar will absorb smells and create humidity to keep cheeses fresh for weeks. Containing the atmosphere will contain the smell.

If you're planning a spirits and cheese pairing, it should come at the beginning of the meal and the cheese course should be a main, heavier component. Follow it with something lighter like chacuterie and a salad.

Is it okay to break the rules of the traditional cheese course?

In Victorian times, cheese was always at the beginning of the meal. Few people realise that this changed when Russian standards of dining became the norm. Service à la russe, the style of dining that introduced the sequences and courses we know today, became popular in the early 19th century.

But, that doesn’t mean you’re obligated to follow this custom. Depending on what you’re drinking, you can work cheese into different points of the meal. If you plan to taste spirits with cheese, it should come at the beginning of the meal and the cheese course should be a main, heavier component. Follow it with something lighter like chacuterie and a salad.

Why does British cheese merit attention?

In the UK, we start to see a clear definition of cheese regions and their fantastic products. In Somerset we get buttery cheeses and cheddars. In Wales, where the soil tends to hold coal, you find interesting goat & sheep cheeses. The well-drained pastures in Nottinghamshire produce dense creamy milk and superb Stiltons. I could go on for hours. There are so many new young cheese makers who are just starting their journeys to produce lovely cheeses. I recommend taking a drive to the different regions and picking up a local cheese to help support and recognise them.

See our tips on which cheeses to pair with gin, rum and whisky.

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