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The Cheesemans Mongerings

The Swiss Lady and the Stilton Maker

General Mongerings Posted on Wed, August 23, 2017 12:19:32

During the first summer of operating at the Viadukt market in Zürich I decided to host a “Port and Stilton” event. We offered tastings of about 10 different British Blues and 6 or 7 Port wines on the Friday evening and Saturday afternoon. I didn’t expect a massive crowd as many people leave Zürich during July for holidays but I thought it would at least make the summer dip in sales a little less severe.

Within an hour of starting it on the Friday though I realised I was wrong, we were completely overwhelmed by customers and I soon found out why. The Zürich newspaper Tages Anzeiger had heard about the event and posted it in their “Top Tips for the Weekend” section (Thanks TA by the way!).

For 2 hours we had a constant queue of customers, mostly Swiss, trying and buying and leaving for their weekend clutching bags of blue cheese and bottles of Port. Through the crowd I noticed a lady, I guess in her late 60’s, very well dressed, clutching a bag and watching me. A few times I smiled at her and motioned her to come and try a glass of port, she just smiled back and didn’t move. But eventually, during a rare quiet moment, she came over and asked, rather seriously it seemed, if she could speak to me.

I took her to one side and she told me that she had read about me and that evenings event in the newspaper and had decided to come and see me. She told me that during the late 1960’s she had been an Au Pair for a family in England (I have met many ladies who had done the same during that period, it must have been very popular for Swiss girls at the time) and that she had made friends with a friend of the family there, an older Gentleman who made Stilton cheese. She was clearly very fond of him, and now even more so of her memory of him.

When she left England to return home he had given her a present that she had cherished all these years. She then told me…. “I don’t think I will be around much longer and I doubt my children will be interested in it and I would hate for this memento of my time and my friend to end up in a “Brockihaus” (a sort of charity antique/junk shop popular here) so I thought I would give it to you to look after for me.

I was taken aback and rather speechless as she opened her bag and handed me the gift given to her as a young girl by the Stilton cheese maker. It was a set of dinner place mats, each printed with a photograph of an English cheese in a traditional setting. They had hardly been used, having only been brought out on special occasions. I think I mumbled something along the lines of I couldn’t take them, but she insisted. No one else she knew in Zürich would appreciate them or their story and she really wanted me to take care of them.

I asked for the name of the Stilton maker and promised that I would do some research about him and his cheese and if she would come back to see me the week after I would let her know what I had found out about Mr Robert Watson. Luckily, in my copy of the excellent “History of Stilton Cheese” by Trevor Hickman I found 2 photographs of him and some references to the Harby Dairy in Leicestershire. I photocopied these pages and put them in a folder for my new friend. Unfortunately, she never came back for them – I hate to think that her premonition of not being around for much longer did not come true so quickly. I don’t even know her name, she just told me she lived near Schafhauserplatz, just a couple of KM’s from the Viadukt.

Whoever you are madam, thank you for passing on the gift. They are framed and will soon be on display at the British Cheese Centre.

The photograph here of Mr Watson (on the right) from the book was taken in 1974 during the building of his new dairy, so just a few years after he had gifted her the place mats. The place mats illustrate the following cheeses:

Cheddar. Pictured in front of an engraving showing Wells Cathedral (for many years it was said that Cheddar cheese could only be made on farms that could be seen from the spire of the Cathedral) and next to a glass of Cider, the perfect local accompaniment to Cheddar cheese.

Stilton. Sat in a Wedgewood Stilton Dome with a glass of Port Wine next to some chess pieces (Stilton is after all the King of Cheeses!)

Wensleydale. Shown in front of an engraving of Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire (the Yorkshire Abbeys were founded by the Cistercian monks from France after the Norman invasion and it was they who it is thought brought cheese production to Yorkshire) and next to a white rose (the symbol of Yorkshire) and an Apple Pie – in Yorkshire we make Apple Pies with Wensleydale cheese sat on top of the apples.

Lancashire Crumbly. Sat in front of an engraving of Lancaster Castle and next to a red rose (the symbol of Lancashire), a Mill Bobbin (typical Lancashire industry from the 19thC) and a ceramic cooking pot, containing no doubt a delicious Lancashire Hot Pot.

Cheshire. Pictured in front of an engraving of Chester castle with a glass of wine poured from a Roman looking wine jug (it is thought the Romans brought this style of cheese to the north west in the 2nd Century)

Red Leicester. With a hunting horn and an engraving of a hunting scene (Leicestershire is the traditional home of fox hunting in England)

© Michael Jones, January 2017

The Speed Yodeller

General Mongerings Posted on Wed, January 11, 2017 04:13:36

At a petrol station near my home one morning, filling up before a drive into Zurich, I was approached by an interesting looking individual. He was probably late 40’s or early 50’s, had long hair and appeared to be slightly eccentric. Now, to an Englishman, being called eccentric is usually a badge of honour, but most of my non-Swiss friends here would agree, that eccentricity is not a trait that is usually held proudly amongst the locals. It may be, in fact it really is, a stereotypical picture but it exists non the less.

René Wiedmers, for that is his name, asked me if I could give him a lift to somewhere that I didn’t recognise, after some to and fro discussion it turned out to be near Glarus, not far off the A3 autobahn on the way to Zurich, so of course, I agreed.

We entered the A3 and he started babbling away in very strong Swiss German, I managed to get him to slow down but I was not sure he even understood what I meant when I asked him if he could speak High German. He did though, from somewhere, come up with a few words of English so we finally did manage to understand each other, to a degree.

I finally understood that he was the Swiss champion Speed Yodeller, and very proud too was he of his title. He was heading to a Swiss Air Force base where he was planning to have the frequency of his speed yodelling compared to that of a fighter jet taking off. At least I think that was what he was trying to tell me. His in vehicle demonstration of his art persuaded me that he did indeed have a skill of sorts, but because of the risk of causing a major accident, I persuaded him that one demonstration was enough.

He pulled a presentation folder out from his rucksack and proceeded to show me photographs and news clippings of him, my new celebrity friend. He then pulled out his mobile phone and seemed to be searching for a number which he then dialed. He promptly handed me the phone and asked me to speak to someone on the other end, an American, “who doesn’t speak German” he explained. The thought of having to try to translate whilst driving had me worried but after the phone at the other end rang for 15 or so times I handed the phone back and explained that there was no-one home. “Yes, I’ve been phoning his office every morning for 2 weeks and he’s never there”. I thought that was strange and asked if he was sure he had the correct number and if so, did he have any other numbers. “No, this is the only number I have, it’s his office in Chicago”

It took quite some time for me to explain that 10.00 am in Switzerland was very early morning, maybe 2 or 3am, in Chicago. By the look on his face it was clear that he didn’t believe me or had no understanding of time zones but I finally persuaded him to get an English speaking person to call in the evening…. “Maybe he works the night shift” I explained to help get over this time problem.

Before I had time to ask why he wanted to speak to someone in Chicago he explained. “Next year is the World Championship for Speed Yodellers and it’s being held in the states. While I am there I want to have the frequency of my Speed Yodelling measured against an American Air Force fighter jet. Some American Speed Yodellers will also be there on the same day doing the same thing”. I was really beginning to enjoy this encounter, but he then started on his big sell. From the same presentation folder he handed me fliers about the event with logos from major companies and media organisations emblazoned on them. He was looking for sponsorship for the cost of the trip and thought it would be a great opportunity for my company to be mentioned on a CNN documentary about the event. If I helped with the cost of his flight over there I would be mentioned all over the states! He did though finally agree that US media coverage on CNN was not likely to be of much commercial interest to a cheesemonger in Switzerland.

We finally pulled off the autobahn at Glarus and headed cross country towards the air base. We took a few wrong turns down country lanes until we finally arrived at the deserted barbed wire gates to one of the quieter side entrances to which he had been told to report. It seemed that from nowhere, all of a sudden, a group of heavily armed Air Force and Military Police personal had surrounded the British Cheese Centre van, wondering no doubt if the invasion had finally started.

René emerged from the van and it was immediately clear that he was known and by the bear hugs and back slapping that followed, that this Swiss celebratory had a big fan base amongst the military types in Canton Glarus. I was given a fully “saluted” farewell from the Military Police and an exuberant wave from René as I drove away to sell some cheese.

I never did hear if he made it to Chicago, I keep an eye out for International Speed Yodelling events but haven’t come across any yet. My wife did mention that one evening she was watching the German TV Supertalent show, and a Swiss chap called René and answering my friends description had an opportunity to showcase his particular skill to a wider audience . He was dressed in a Swiss flag decorated ski suit and was wearing skis and proceeded to do a “Ski Dance” on stage whilst yodelling at high speed and juggling tennis rackets. She didn’t watch until the end of the show, but she doesn’t think that he won a prize.

© Michael Jones, January 2017

Article in 20Minuten and a link to a Swiss TV appearance.–Supertalent–16405294?redirect=mobi&nocache=0.5

Whisky and Cheese? Scottish Fondue!

General Mongerings Posted on Wed, January 11, 2017 03:59:26

Seven years ago I had an idea to create a fusion dish, something British and Swiss at the same time and I thought a British Fondue might work.

Cheddar cheese is after all one of the best cheeses for melting but as the Swiss tend to have a closer affinity to Scotland than England I decided to use mainly Scottish cheeses and instead of white wine I substituted dark beer (these days I suggest a very black Russian Imperial Stout) and instead of Schnapps… whisky, of course! (Whisky and cheese are perfect partners but not many people think of them this way. They are certainly more friendly than cheese and Schnapps – 2 flavours that I feel fight each other.)

First the cheese. Isle of Mull is one of my favourite cheddar type cheeses, harder than typical Somerset cheddars with a paler colour and more intense bitter flavour. The paler colour by the way comes from the fact the cows that produce the milk on the islands only dairy farm have a diet richer in barley. In fact Sgriob-ruadh Farm grows barley for the local Tobermory distillery. When the distillery is finished with the barley, the “mash” is sent back to the farm for the cows to eat. More than a few customers have asked me, after tasting the cheese, if it has whisky in it!

As well as Isle of Mull I use Ardmore, a hard raw milk cheese with added Ardmore whisky, Westray Wife, an Orkney raw milk washed cheese (that gives the fondue more of a cheesy smell) and Barwheys Scottish raw milk cheddar to give a smoother “melt”.

I did some taste tests with friends at home and the reaction was completely positive and the few weeks after I offered it on sale I had many returning customers, almost all Swiss declaring it the best cheese fondue they had ever tasted. Well, I don’t know about that, I just think the use of whisky in the fondue (and the bowl of whisky that you can dip your bread in) gives such a flavour explosion and of course it’s very different!

The following year I heard back from some friends who had visited Edinburgh for Christmas and New Year and were surprised to see my Scottish Fondue on the menus of quite a few restaurants. Good news and ideas spread fast but it took a few more years before Swiss supermarkets started offering Swiss cheese fondue kits with added whisky!

To serve, make exactly the same was as a Swiss cheese fondue with cornflour, garlic (and a little lemon juice if you like) substituting white wine for black beer and add a generous splash of whisky before serving. Allow extra whisky for bread dipping but beware, it is addictive and very potent! As well as bread, I like to serve cauliflower florets (steamed, then grilled with a little butter) for dipping.

© Michael Jones, January 2017

To Rind or not to Rind?

General Mongerings Posted on Fri, January 06, 2017 14:59:38

Many times at my cheese counter and at tastings I am asked “can you eat the rind of this cheese?”

The simple answer is…. if your teeth can get through the rind and it tastes nice, eat it!

However, there are a few different types of rind and there are some basic rules we can follow. First of all, in most cases, the rind is simply the skin of the cheese, it is a concentration of the interior paste and is therefore generally harder and drier and has a concentrated flavour. Sometimes that concentrated flavour is pleasant, sometimes it is actually tastier than the paste (and should be eaten together with it) but sometimes it can be bitter or sour, certainly not pleasant to most people.

Lets go through the different styles and I’ll give my personal opinion.

Soft or “Bloom rinded”cheeses like Brie or Camembert. Generally speaking I would always eat the rind which is usually the best part. It is soft and can have a texture like cotton wool and can be slightly chewy – wonderful when the cheese is baked! In the middle of the cheese it is softer and milder getting a little tougher and stronger flavoured on the outside. There are other soft cheeses that don’t actually develop a natural rind such as fresh goats cheese with ash coating. Definitely eat this!

And then there are soft “wash rinded” cheeses such as Vacherin Mont d’Or, Epoisse and Stinking Bishop. Washing a cheese with a salty brine or alcohol creates a reaction with natural bacteria and can make the rind a little sticky and sometimes very smelly and extremely tasty! On the British Stinking Bishop made by Charles Martell in Gloucetershire, the rind towards the centre of the circle is soft and sticky (one side, the bottom side where the cheese has been stored most recently) will be much sticker – I try to turn my Stinkers in stock every 2 days so the 2 sides develop equally. But on the very outside of the cheese the rind can become hard and crunchy and more intense in flavour. This is my favourite part of the cheese!

Other soft cheeses that I regularly sell are Blues wrapped in foil such as Yorkshire Blue and Blue Monday (the French Roquefort also comes under this category). The cheese is wrapped in foil before a natural rind has had chance to develop and it hardly develops at all under the foil so can be eaten. Although as the cheese ages a little, the flavour will become stronger towards the edges. Other softer blues such as Gorgonzola do have tasty rinds but generally speaking, with blues, the older and more defined the rind, the lass palatable it is.

Naturally rinded Blues such as Blue Stilton, often referred to as “The King of Cheeses” develop a dry slightly tough and bitter rind. There are some people who like this, I personally don’t as I find it too bitter (see below, cooking with rinds). Other similar blues I sell such as Swaledale, Dorset Blue Vinney and Hebridean Blue I also find unpalatable, although Burts Blue from Cheshire and Barkham Blue from Berkshire have very tasty rinds. Again, if in doubt, taste it!

Waxed cheeses such as my best selling Godminster Cheddar and some Dutch cheeses are of course inedible (although they won’t make you ill, they certainly don’t taste nice).

Herb Rinded Cheeses are not so common but I regularly sell Cornish Yarg which is wrapped in either Nettles or Wild Garlic. These are both safe to eat although I find the Nettle rind a little tough and bitter. The Wild Garlic though is softer and greener and looks really attractive on the cheese board – try roughly chopping the cheese and rind together, some of the leaves will come apart from the cheese making it look almost like a cheese salad!

Hard cheeses. Starting with British, traditional raw milk Cheddars, Red Leicester and Cheshire cheeses are wrapped in cloth which is then smeared with lard (or sometimes butter) to create an air tight seal. This cloth is removed by the cheesemonger so you should not have it on your cheese at home. However, there is a natural rind under this cloth and in most cases I don’t recommend eating it. It tends to taste “farmy” at best and at worse can even taste almost rancid. Other hard cheeses from other countries, such as most Swiss cheese develop very hard rinds which, although safe to eat are usually too hard to get your teeth through. (again, see “cooking with rinds” below).

Cooking with Rinds.

The Italians know how to do this best. The rinds of Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Parmesan as it is often known to English speakers are too hard to eat but are always kept to flavour soups…. you only need to put the rind in the soup for a few minutes near the end to give a gentle flavour enhancement to your Minestrone soup. The rind can be dried and used a few times.

EDIT – Thanks to my Ticino based friend Tom for suggesting adding the rind to the soup for longer and cooking it. It will go soft enough to eat and is delicious. I’ll try this myself soon!

Other hard rinded cheeses such as Gruyere and Emmentaler can be used in similar ways (but beware, some cheaper industrial versions do use a parafin wax on the very outside of the rind which will ruin your soups flavour), Raw milk Cheddar (with the cloth removed), and the rind of Stilton, which I don’t like to eat, can be tied up in a muslin bag (as they will fall apart in cooking) to flavour vegetable soups such as Broccoli and Stilton soup, a great British classic!

© Michael Jones, January 2017

Cheese Musings

General Mongerings Posted on Wed, August 03, 2016 11:17:59

A question was posted on English Forum back in September 2010 (an online forum for English language help and advice in Switzerland – Grumpy BTW relates to my user name there, Grumpygrapefruit) ……

“Whilst enjoying a variety of Grumpys cheeses tonight i had the same
thought I often have and this time I thought i’d put it to you guys –
why isn’t British cheese famous/well known world wide, why aren’t the
British regarded as a great cheese making nation?

I like Swiss cheese but the majority of it is very similar, slightly
rubbery at times, same colour, texture and usually taste. So I ask, why
does this nice but a bit bland cheese have notoriety around the globe
and how the hell did the Swiss become world renowned cheese

When you visit Grumpys stall compared to the other stalls around him
selling swiss cheeses you first of all notice the array of colours of
the cheese, then you taste and they all have different textures and
tastes, they are so diverse in comparison to many other nations’

I suppose what i am wondering is how the hell did Swiss cheese become
famous and British cheese leaves more non British people saying ‘what?
British cheese? good?’

For me it’s the best but then maybe I am biased “

And so I gave an answer. (The full thread can be read here)

The answer to your question could fill a book I guess, but here’s a shortish reply……

“Whilst enjoying a variety of Grumpys cheeses tonight i had the same
thought I often have and this time I thought i’d put it to you guys –
why isn’t British cheese famous/well known world wide, why aren’t the British regarded as a great cheese making nation?”

The main reason stems from 1939 when there were over 1500 cheese makers
in the UK. At the outbreak of the war the ministry of food saw these
cheese makers as being quite wasteful with an important source of
protein, so they banned cheese making – all the milk for cheese was then
used to make powdered milk, quicker to process, easier to store and
cheaper to transport. They did allow a few factory dairies to make a
very mild, fast maturing plastic substance which they called the
“National Cheese” and towards the end of the war these factories were
allowed to produce 5 or 6 other varieties but they re-designed the
original recipes to work with their existing mass production machinery.
It is these cheap, mass produced post-war creations that are still
offered in the UK supermarkets.

Restrictions were lifted in 1952 so that farmers could make cheese
again, but after a 13 year break they had lost the skills, family
members or even the farms to make them with. Also at this time
supermarkets starting opening and they were not interested in relatively
expensive hand made cheeses when cheap, mass produced cheeses were
readily available. These supermarkets really controlled the cheese
market until well into the 1970’s (well, they still do control the mass
market for cheese) meaning that 3 generations of British people forgot
that Britain can make “proper” cheese.

Even to this day, if a visitor to the UK wanted to take some cheese
home, chance are that they would visit a high street supermarket and buy
what still is some of the worse cheese in the world.

Also, the Brits themselves are partly to blame. I have found that to
most people back home, good food has to be exotic food. Hence, in a
traditional pub in the country you are more likely to find Thai green
curry rather than Rabbit pie or Lincolnshire Chine. To most Brits,
Cheddar cheese is good, but it ain’t special like French cheese. Innit.

I like Swiss cheese but the majority of it is very similar, slightly
rubbery at times, same colour, texture and usually taste. So I ask, why
does this nice but a bit bland cheese have notoriety around the globe
and how the hell did the Swiss become world renowned cheese makers/producers?”

The main ingredient for cheese is grass and in the mountains they do
have good quality grass in abundance. The difference in quality is quite
subtle but it does make a difference to the finished product. Also the
Swiss (and French of course) are very well educated about quality food
(as opposed to processed supermarket fodder) and, unlike the Brits,
shout from the rooftops about how good their cheese is.

When you visit Grumpys stall compared to the other stalls around him
selling swiss cheeses you first of all notice the array of colours of
the cheese, then you taste and they all have different textures and
tastes, they are so diverse in comparison to many other nations’

Well, Britain does make more varieties of cheese (over 700) more than
any other country, so at a cheese stall selling 50 or more of the best
of these varieties you will find lots of different styles, flavours and
textures, something that I think I’m quite well known for. Even my 5
cheddars in stock at the moment are very different from each
other. Also, the different rinds that British cheese has, cloth and lard
bound, waxed, natural bloom, wash rinded, nettle and herb rinds, all
give a beautiful picture of variety.

“I suppose what i am wondering is how the hell did Swiss cheese
become famous and British cheese leaves more non British people saying
‘what? British cheese? good?’

For me it’s the best but then maybe I am biased”

You shout loud enough about how proud you are of your (admittedly high
quality) product, and the message will eventually stick. Something that
I’m working on right now

© Michael Jones, January 2017

A Cheesy Tale

General Mongerings Posted on Wed, August 03, 2016 10:53:01

My first article (published in Hello Switzerland early in 2008) about the birth of The British Cheese Centre and my new life on a farm in Eastern Switzerland with my (now ex) wife, but still business partner Astrid.

A Cheesy Tale

Think of food from Switzerland and most people will think of Cheese and Chocolate. When I first met my Swiss Girlfriend in London two years ago those are the two things I thought of when she told me where she came from. I had never been to Switzerland but seeing as my biggest passion in life is good food and especially cheese, the conversation inevitably turned towards that subject. “Oh yes, we have some good cheese in Switzerland, but give me British cheese any day!”. It was not what I was expecting but it was the start of a love affair that saw me leaving behind a hectic life running a graphics company just outside London to following her to Zurich and finally to a small farm on the side of a mountain in Eastern Switzerland.

Through her work she had been sent on a British Cheese workshop run by Juliet Harbutt, known as the Queen of British Cheese, and she started telling me things about my own country’s cheese that even I did not know. The more I delved into British cheese, the more I wanted to learn, and taste. Very few of my fellow countrymen know that there are over 700 varieties of British Cheese (that’s more than France) and over the past decade there has been a burgeoning interest in traditional styles, farmhouse production and new artisan cheeses. The King of British Cheese is undoubtedly Blue Stilton, the only British cheese with a certification trademark although there are now 12 cheeses with their own EU Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) including Single Gloucester, the lesser known brother to the more famous Double Gloucester, West Country Farmhouse Cheddar and Exmoor Blue.

On my arrival in Switzerland I set about exploring Swiss Cheese (something that will keep me busy for many more years to come) and to find out what Swiss people knew about British Cheese – not much was the answer! I found that it was possible to find factory made cheddar in supermarkets and some fairly good Cheddar and Stilton in specialist cheese counters. But otherwise there was little of what I like to call “Real Cheese” from the UK. Real Cheese, for me, is like good wine. It represents a region, and the style and flavour of the finished cheese is influenced by similar factors: the soil, altitude, climate as well as local cultures and farming traditions. Not to mention the maturing process. Small wonder that wine and cheese are often seen as the perfect partners.

It wasn’t long after I arrived that we decided it would be a great idea, or an eccentric one at least, to introduce the Best of British to this land of cheese. Coals to Newcastle as we would say in the UK. It has been a slow process, finding dairies and distributors in the UK and Switzerland who could help arrange the transport, choosing the best legal vehicle for the business, climbing through some bureaucratic hoops regarding importing but we finally got there and started shipping British Cheese from our on-line shop at the end of last year.

Now in the new year we are busy adding Swiss cheese to our shop from small dairies making little known styles, or from those specialising in BIO (organic) production as well as sourcing other products to compliment cheese: Oat cakes from Orkney, fig and almond bread from Spain and chutnies and jellies from all over Europe are already online. Next on the agenda is Cheese tasting events and workshops in our cheese cellar on Flumserberg as well as in Zurich and the rest of Switzerland.

Here in Eastern Switzerland I am spoilt for choice in my search for good cheese. There are some wonderful dairies in out of the way places within 100 km of me – I am now a big fan of the cheese from Val Müstair in the very far east. Surrounded by Italy, it is a bit of a trek to get to but worth it for the countryside, the friendly people and the food. Then just a short hop over the border into Italy will open up for me a whole new world of gastronomic delights.

Life in Switzerland, and especially here on Flumserberg, is as different to my life in the UK as chalk and…. well cheese. Working on the farm with my Girlfriends horses and my new project, my free range Pro Specie Rara chickens, has opened up a whole new world of experiences for me. The problems I have encountered, mainly the very hard physical work and the extreme weather in winter but also to a smaller extent getting to grips with the language, have been far outweighed by the positives: the beautiful climate throughout the rest of the year, the view from my office down the Flumser valley and then to the Churfirsten mountain range, the absence of traffic jams and the clockwork public transport. Not to mention sitting on the terrace on a Sunday evening, with a slice of cheese, sipping a local wine, watching the traffic leaving the mountain to head back to the cities and knowing I have yet another week in paradise.

What will the coming year or two bring? More cheese and chickens for sure, evaluating the success of my newly planted fruit trees, converting a barn to bed & breakfast accommodation, applying for BIO status for the farm, selling cheese in a Zurich market and becoming fluent in Chickenese.

I seem to understand them, I’m not entirely sure they understand me yet though. I suppose it must be the Yorkshire accent.

© Michael Jones, January 2017