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