FOOD FOR THOUGHT Bored with dull cheese
RIGHT now at Guild of Fine Food HQ, we're up to our earlobes arranging delivery of 3,000 cheeses from 31 different countries competing in this year's World Cheese Awards at the BBC Good Food Show in Birmingham. So you can imagine my excitement when Karen Barnes, editor of delicious magazine invited me to join her in taste-testing 14 supermarket cheese board selections. You know the type of thing, four or five cheeses in a box, ready to serve and as it's the run-up to Christmas, several came complete with fancy wooden cheese boards, bottles of wine and even some pickle.
These are festive offerings, so I presumed the cheeses would be the cream of the crop. How wrong could I be? Surveying the 14 selections laid out on worktops in the delicious kitchen, they all looked the same. The branding had been removed but weirdly, the choice of cheese on each board was almost identical.
Rarely have this many Red Leicesters been seen together in the same room – there was one on almost every board. A proper Red Leicester is flakey-hard, it breaks in shards from a firm body offering deep, complex flavours and a touch of fresh lemon on the finish. Out of 12 tasted, two hinted they might have been produced on a farm but the rest had been made in factories. All were disappointingly young, moist and pasty, and tasted of nothing at all.
Each selection featured a soft cheese, mostly a Cornish brie that looked more like a camembert than a brie to me. Over half were pungent with ammonia, suggesting they were past their best. Each gave me an unpleasant, unclean ammoniac burn on the finish. The use-by dates were checked, they were all okay and none had been out of refrigeration until an hour or so before the tasting. Not good.
It's almost Christmas, so there had to be Stilton – although three of the 14 boards opted for an alternative blue cheese. Two chose Blacksticks Blue, presumably for its striking orange and blue and there was one Bleu d'Avergne. Each was sweating badly, leaking whey and clearly suffering from the tightness of packaging they'd been stored in.
When a wedge of cheese is sealed in plastic film, heat is used to shrink the plastic tightly onto the surface of the cheese. Many argue this heat affects texture and flavour and at the Guild, we regularly taste-test two cheeses, identical apart from the fact that one was cut fresh from the whole cheese and the other tightly heat-sealed in plastic. No one has ever preferred the pre-pack cheese. Virtually every Stilton on these boards was a sad example of Britain's world-famous blue.
We tasted a Spanish Manchego, which was too young by at least four months for it to deliver any real flavour and most of the goats' milk cheeses we were equally average. And, of course, there was Wensleydale with cranberries! It sat on virtually every board and yet not one person tasting enjoyed the experience.
Come on – it's Christmas. Surely we deserve a little more imagination from supermarket buyers?
And then there was cheddar, which I've deliberately left to last, because it turned out to be the most disappointing. Many of us know cheddar intimately, it's what we Brits do best, specially here in the West Country and we've taught the rest of the world how to make it. Most of us eat it all year - in sandwiches, salads, cooked dishes and in ploughman's lunches. We all know our cheddar and at Christmas, we expect something a bit special. Did we get it?
Fat chance! Rarely has anyone been asked to taste 14 cheddars of such uncompromising sadness. Several described themselves as vintage, or extra mature and there were even two proper West Country Farmhouse Cheddars. The flavour profile of each was at best, half way between a factory-made mature cheddar. Not a single grassy farmhouse note was detected and while one or two boasted a half-decent body and texture, all failed on flavour. Except perhaps two, both of which were unbearably sweet.
Once we'd finished, we were allowed to see who the producers were. Supermarkets mostly refuse to tell you who makes it, preferring to sell it under their own brand while assuring us it's their 'finest' or it's 'extra-special' or that we will 'taste the difference'. Where we were given names, I was saddened to see one or two quality cheddar-makers who regularly win awards and generally produce much better cheese than we'd just tasted.
So who's kidding whom? Are supermarket cheese buyers capitalising on our gullibility at Christmas by selling poor quality, fast-matured cheddar as premium cheese made by proper cheesemakers? It looks like it, and presumably they're raking in big fat profits at the same time.
I'll buy my Christmas cheese at the counter in my local deli or farm shop this year, as normal. You might care to do the same if you really want to taste the difference.
Bob Farrand, Guild of Fine Food, Wincanton; organiser of the Great Taste Awards and the World Cheese Awards
The audience at Screen Bites food film festival event at North Cadbury tonight (Friday) will hear a talk on real farmhouse cheddar by cheese expert and judge Charlie Turnbull and Jamie Montgomery, who makes the world-famous traditional cheddar at his farm in the village.