For cheese lovers everywhere, I could not recommend “Cheese School” more. It is held at the Bordeaux Quay Cookery School in Bristol, on the first floor of an imposing glass and timber dock building right on the waterfront, which is home to a famous restaurant and delicatessen, all under the same roof.
The course was hosted by the charismatic cheesemaking Trethowan family of Trethowan Dairy, in Ceredigion, Wales, and one of Britain’s finest and much loved food writers, Fiona Beckett. As a great cheese lover, but not a connoisseur, I felt quite overwhelmed when I entered the room, as all around the central table stood a whole array of experts, professionals and commentators from the world of cheese, wine, beer, food writing and catering. The course organisers, Jess Trethowan and Cathy Gremin immediately put everyone at ease: the day is above all an opportunity for learning, talking, collaborating and discovering, and most importantly enjoying this most versatile and marvellous of all man-made foods. The preparation of the room set the scene for the programme ahead: giant wheels of hard, handmade cheeses were towered on Welsh slate, and slithers and wedges of cut, ripe soft cheeses were arranged fan-like against boxes of Peter’s Yard crackers, slices of sourdough bread, jars of chutney and bowls of spreads and dried fruit.
The format is extremely comprehensive, and I would advise you to bring a sizeable notebook, as you will not want to miss a single word. With course files at the ready, we started with an introduction from Todd Trethowan, who outlined the characteristics of the artisanal British cheese industry, the main protagonists in the long lineages of cheesemaking families around the country, and how standards and education are constantly growing and developing. A staggering 700 cheeses featured in the British Cheese Awards, testimony to the generations of the cheesemakers who work so prodigiously to keep traditions alive. Next, Charlie Westhead of Neal’s Yard Creamery, along with his wife Grainne, told us all about the delicious goats cheeses they produce near Hay-on-Wye, namely Perroche ( a very light, moussey cheese, slightly salty), Dorstone (slightly more set, with a citrussy flavour, rolled in ash), and Ragstone (the most “goaty” of the three, with a more mature tang and a soft rind). This presentation was followed by Maugan, Kim, Todd and Jess Trethowan telling us all about Gorwydd Caerphilly (quite earthy, citric and oozy, with a lovely grey-brown rind) and Gorwydd Washed Rind (a stronger flavour, with a tone of bacon, and a creamy texture).
Ben Ticehurst, one of the salesmen for Trethowan’s Dairy, also talked us through a cheese called Ogleshield, made by the revered Jamie Montgomery, near Cadbury in Somerset, Old Ford, made by Mary Holbrook in Tymsbury, Somerset, Stichelton, made by Joe Schnider on the Welbeck Estate, and Keens Cheddar, made by the Keen family near Wincanton. We were given hints and tips all along the way on how to source, buy, store and eat cheese in order to ensure it was enjoyed at its peak. Wax paper, according to Ben, is the most important accessory in cheese storage, as clingfilm only makes cheese sweat.
We learned from the Trethowan family how their three most important tenets of good cheese making are to use unpasteurised milk, as this makes the cheese much more flavoursome, to use animal rennet, which makes the set firmer and the cut a great deal cleaner, and to use hands rather than machinery in turning curds and moulding shapes.
Fiona Beckett, author of many food and wine matching books, captivated the audience when discussing which wines, beers and sherry go best with which cheeses, and which other foods, such as crackers, dried fruit, cakes and chutneys complement and enhance flavours. There was a very entertaining “Taste Off”, where Andrew Cooper, from the Bristol Beer Factory, pitted his golden ale and his dark, creamy stouts up against Avery’s wine selection of Morrillon white wine, a Tourraine, Gamay grape red wine and a delicious Oloroso sherry. We smelled, swirled, tasted, ate, scribbled notes and laughed, till everything and everyone was declared a deserving winner.
One of the great highlights of this momentous day was lunch. Prepared by the beautiful Elly Curshen of Pear Cafe in Bristol, and her partner, the talented food blogger Dan Vaux-Nobes, they showcased cheese at its pinnacle of glory in a smooth, creamy cauliflower cheese soup with a deliciously cheesy rarebit of grated Keens cheddar mixed with stout. This was followed by a fresh salad made from baby gem lettuce, a soft, Homewood ewe cheese, sunflower seeds, blood orange segments and crispy marmalade croutons. Elly and Dan are the founders of the much-acclaimed Montpelier Basement Supper Club in Bristol, described by food critics as “the best restaurant in Bristol”. All the food was accompanied by delicious sourdough breads made by Mark’s Bread of Bristol.
So, to summarise, what did I take away from my day at Cheese School, and why would I recommend the day to everyone most highly? Firstly, I walked away with 16 pages of notes, and my head and palate replete and satiated with cheese knowledge that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Secondly, I tasted such a wide variety of adventurous food combinations that I probably would never have experimented with, had I not been guided in such a professional way. And lastly, I came away with the most immense respect and humility, at interacting with dignified, knowledgeable artisans, whose entire life is immersed in a tradition and craft that renders our civilisation more satisfying and complete.
www.essexeating.blogspot.com (Dan Vaux-Nobes of Montpelier Basement Supper Club)
www.thepearcafe.com (Elly Curshen of Montpelier Basement SupperClub)