What is cheesegeek eating this Christmas?
What is cheesegeek eating this Christmas?
This year, for my Christmas cheeseboard, I have lined up 7 absolutely banging British cheeses that I think provide the perfect exclamation mark to 2023.
But, as importantly as being delicious, they mean something personal to me this year. Cheese is such an emotional product, filled with nostalgia, and this is the spirit with which I try and compile my Christmas board. To bring back memories from the year and relive some of those moments that meant something special.
I am starting with some seasonal favourites. Witheridge, a cheese matured in hay, is such a unique cheese, and absolutely packed full of character and complexity. I love the fact the cheese is aged in a product derived from the same land as the milk is, providing such symmetry in the product. We visited Rosie and the team at the start of the year, and learnt more about the making of Witheridge and their farming philosophy and commitment to organic. It was truly inspirational, and I think Witheridge is one of the most improving cheeses (having started from a pretty high bar to start with!) being made in the UK.
Next up is Tunworth. Sometimes, you just have to stick to the classics, and Tunworth has been one of my favourite cheeses now for over a decade. We recently opened a site on Regent Street at BritYard, running their cheese counter. A huge opportunity for us to finally get face to face with our customers, and the first product I had to get on the menu was Tunworth, Truffle Honey and Sourdough Crackers. It makes people giggle, and that is what cheese should be all about. Whilst new cheeses are always so exciting, great cheeses like Tunworth that have maintained such a high level for well over a decade are to be celebrated.
On the other end of the spectrum is David Jowett, who has been taking the cheese world by storm over the past few years, launching new cheese after new cheese that are winning awards almost immediately. His hero cheese remains Rollright, wrapped in spruce and so festive. Bake it, scoop it or spread it, it is a fantastic British alternative to Vacherin, and always a favourite in our household. It is also a favourite of Martha Collison (of Great British Bake Off fame, and celebrity baker, chef and blogger). Look out for her perfect cheeseboard which we will be launching soon, also featuring Rollright!
It has been such an incredible year at cheesegeek, and one of the highlights has been launching our own range of cheeses. Eastwood, our Brie-style cheese, is such a cracker. Slightly lighter than a classic Brie de Meaux, it is creamy first, almost a little fruity and has the most mesmeric wild garlic leaf flavour from the rind. I cannot say how proud we were when Adam Handling, celebrity chef and proprietor of the Michelin 1* restaurant Frog, by Adam Handling, chose to add Eastwood to his menu, served with cherry bakewell and honey. A ringing endorsement of the cheese itself, and a real pinch me moment. So Eastwood just has to be on my cheeseboard this Christmas.
This year was the inaugural ‘Cheddar Challenge’, in which various versions of artisan, traditional cheddar were sent out across the UK for the largest horizontal tasting ever carried out (we believe!). The live feed of the tasting took place at Bra during the Slow Food Festival, where the cheddars were blind tasted, and the judges voted for Quickes Mature as the winner. This was backed up by the people’s vote as well!
I have been telling anyone who will listen that Quickes has been improving rapidly over the past few years, with their cheeses getting better and better, particularly their cheddars. Quite an amazing feat for a cheese maker that has been around for centuries!
It was great to see Mary Quicke and her team get the recognition they deserve, and so it has to be Quickes cheddar on my cheeseboard this Christmas. I prefer the Vintage (18mths) for that extra little hit of umami, but the Mature (12mths) is just as wonderful, slightly butterier and nuttier.
I was hosting a cheese and wine event recently for around 60 guests and I explained that one of the reasons I left the world of finance to start a cheese business was to get more people excited about British cheese. We have a lot of ‘tricks’ we use to do this, but one of the most effective is converting doubters to blue cheese. There is nothing like that moment when you first like a cheese you were convinced you hated (see goat’s milk cheese and me later) and it really can draw people in to the wonderful world of cheese.
So, this event came to the last cheese. I could see many people had been scared rotten at the prospect of the blue cheese at the end. I had a show of hands, around 25 people wouldn’t try it. I can be persuasive though, and of those 25, 11 tried the cheese and said it was the best blue cheese they’d ever tried and were converted. And that is why I do what I do. The cheese in question was Binham Blue, and it has to be on my Christmas cheeseboard, as it has been such an ally in reframing people’s perceptions of blue cheese. Creamy, complex, balanced and moreish. Not things we often associate with a great blue cheese…until now!
WCA Top 16
Finally, I have gone for a cheese that is slightly unusual for this time of the year, but deserving of every accolade it has received this year. At the Oscars of cheese, the World Cheese Awards, which I was very privileged to return to as a judge this year, Sinodun Hill was selected in the coveted ‘Top 16’ out of over 4,500 cheeses that were submitted for judging.
Getting in the Top 16 just once is an incredible feat, but this makes it the second year in a row that Sinodun Hill has achieved that feat. A quite extraordinary achievement for Rachel and Fraser, and their small-scale cheesemaking operation in Oxfordshire.
I visited Rachel and Fraser recently, and I was struck by how easy they make cheesemaking look. It is far from easy! Sinodun Hill is a farmhouse cheese, meaning they also look after the animals themselves, and it is also a very special cheese to me. I never liked goat’s milk cheese (shock horror!) until I came across a cheese called Stawley many years ago that changed everything. A few years later, Stawley ceased to be made sadly, but I came across Sinodun Hill soon after and it had the same impact on me. Divine!! I got researching and realised the Stawley goats had moved to Rachel and Fraser…so it was the same milk as Stawley! Proof, if you needed it, how important great milk is in making a great cheese.
So that is my Christmas cheeseboard for 2023. In recommended order of eating:
World-class cheeses that have meant something to me this year and will take me down memory lane when I enjoy them over Christmas.