Say cheese and smile

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stilton.jpgI've recently been thinking about the areas in which Britain is catching up or excelling France. One half (50%!) of the food consumed in the UK is imported (according to the Food Standards Agency in a report reprinted in May, 2010). France, by contrast, is the world's second largest exporter of food. What accounts for this disparity? I think it is because we in Britain have lost our former craft and skills in many areas, whereas France, whose gastronomy has just been added to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, has managed to retain most of her crucial agricultural and foods-related skills.

There is, though, one great achievement of which we can be hugely proud: There has been a renaissance in British cheese making, not just in England, but also in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The British Cheese Board claims there are more than 700 named cheeses made here. The famous quotation ascribed to Charles de Gaulle about the difficulty of governing France mentions only "246 different kinds of cheese".

And just think of where we've come from! In a 1989 food-poisoning scare the only thing linking the victims was that they'd eaten Stilton. Actually the cheese wasn't guilty. But that was discovered too late. The malign semi-governmental Milk Marketing Board persuaded the five farmers of the Colston Bassett farming cooperative, which was then the sole producer of raw-milk Stilton, to buy expensive pasteurisation equipment. The Minister of Agriculture actually threatened to prohibit the sale of all unpasteurised cheese.

This had the effect of making Stilton, the most celebrated cheese of England, extinct! (I'm not counting all the glorious cheddars, because cheddaring is a process rather than the name of a specific cheese.) After 1990, when the last genuine unpasteurised Stilton was sold, it was gone forever - chiefly because the remaining cheese-makers, including, to their shame, the wonderful cheese-makers and well-intentionedfarmers of Colston Bassett, saw to it that the EC Protected Designation of Origin standards included as part of the definition of Stilton the requirement that it be made from pasteurised milk.
Of course you can't make superior cheese from pasteurised milk: there's plenty of evidence that the flavour and aroma components of milk that give typicity to cheese made from it are destroyed by pasteurisation; and there's even some evidence that pasteurization kills good bugs as well as bad, and creates conditions in which some of the bad ones (Listeria monocytogenes, forexample) prosper.

Incidentally, I believe we have Prince Charles to thank for saving our unpasteurised milk. French republican that I am, I am very glad the royal family drinks green-top milk. (The best news, though, is that the supreme cheese monger, Randolph Hodgson of Neal's Yard Dairy, has teamed up with cheese-maker Joe Schneider, to make unpasteurised cheese in the Stilton style and in one of the permitted locations in Notts. But, of course, though they've revived it, they can't call it Stilton. So "Stichelton" is the cheese that dares not bear its name.)

Not all new British cheeses are unqualified successes. Yorkshire Parmesan, for instance. But Montgomery and Keene's Cheddar, Kirkham's Lancashire and Appleby's Cheshire are justifiably world-renowned, and at le Manoir we use and swear by Longley Farm Cottage cheese.

So does Britain beat France in the dairy stakes? Really I think that's not possible. France is a very big country with several climate zones and hundreds of microclimates, which is reflected in the varieties of milk available to the dairyman and cheese-maker. The UK is so small by comparison; we have to conclude that, in the cheese fight, we're punching far above our weight!


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Very Interesting!

It seems the UK is blossoming in many areas of gastronomy these last ten years! In ten years time the old epithet of UK = Beans and Chips will be nothing but a scrawl in the history books....

For anyone who lives and breathes cheese enough for it to be their profession we have a job going in central London for a Full Time Cheese Master

See this link for details: http://www.miseenplace.co.uk/blog/index.php/jobs/cheese-master-london-job/

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