Tuesday, May 5, 2009

First Aged Cheddar in Ages

Unlike my fellow Western travelers in Southeast Asia, I didn't miss cheese during my six weeks there in March & April. Hard to believe, I know, given my passion for fermented dairy products and how frequently other travelers say that they miss the stuff. It doesn't take much time away from home for them to start longing for cheese. As I might have mentioned in an earlier blog, Misty, a massage therapist from Toronto, craved cheese so much during her first week in Chiang Mai, where we were both taking an introductory course in the northern style of traditional Thai massage, that she took herself out alone to a Mexican meal in the vain hope of scoring a dairy fix. It didn't work. She got more beans than cheese. Kathy, a friend whom I had met last year in northeast Thailand who was now back at the same time as I was, told me that she would kill for some real cheese. She and her daughter Tulli had to settle for slices of processed cheese in their sandwiches. To be fair, they had been away from Australia for a long time, about four months. On the other side of the Mekong, in Laos, it was a bit easier to find dishes made with cheese, thanks to the lingering culinary legacy of French colonization. Fancy French restaurants in Louang Phabang, a charming UNESCO World Heritage city in Laos, promoted their cheese selections on large signs at their entrances, along with their offerings of French wines, to tempt visitors who were longing for their fromage. Those restaurants were out of my price range and beyond my own cravings. I didn't want cheese. Why would I want it when there were baskets of sticky rice, piles of salty fried seaweed, and bowls of spicy curries to eat? (But I confess that I had a crepe for breakfast that was filled with melted Cheddar. I had to, for research, of course. The other mornings I ate soup with rice noodles and leafy vegetables, fresh herbs, and lots of spicy heat and drank viscous coffee Lao sweetened with condescend milk.)

And there was probably the issue of my having overdosed on cheese for five months straight. My body couldn't handle it anymore. Goodness knows my burly thighs couldn't! I was on a dairy strike and even dreaded the thought of eating cheese. What was I going to do when I returned to England, the land of dairy delights?

I was going to take it slowly. This was easy to do at my mother's cousin's house in Surrey, not far from London. Diana and her husband were extremely generous in welcoming me into their home in the days before I left for Australia, New Zealand, and Asia, and in the days after. Diana has quite strict dietary requirements and doesn't have much dairy products in the house. In her fridge are goat's milk milk, yogurt, and butter, but no cheese or anything made with cow's milk. Or so I thought. This suited me just fine. I ate organic pumpkin butter and free range eggs (not at the same time) to get protein and only once craved a wee bit of cheese instead of another egg to go with the veggies that were right out of Diana and David's kitchen garden.

One afternoon Diana made a quiche, with leeks, eggs, and goat's milk yogurt in a nutty buckwheat flour crust. To my surprise she pulled out a knob of Cheddar from the fridge (where had it been hiding?) and grated it over one half of the quiche, for David and me. I had mixed feelings about the appearance of this cheese. On the one hand, I was happy to see Cheddar again and wished that I had had discovered the precious chunk earlier. And on the other hand, I feared I wasn't quite ready for it. It turned out I wasn't. Not even realizing it, when I cut myself a slice of quiche, as we sat at their outdoor table, soaking up the friendly spring sun, I took a portion from the non-cheese side. Diana had to point this out to me. With no cheese on my plate, I felt a bit deprived, and so took a very thin slice from the cheese side. It was good. Ah, the magic of cheese. It can make anything taste better!

But even that little bit was a bit too much for me. The Cheddar, which Diana proudly proclaimed had some real flavor, unlike most in the supermarket, had a richness that weighed down my taste buds and overpowered my mouth. It was going to take some time to reincorporate cheese into my diet. I really wanted to...and needed to. Not only was it going to be a bit awkward spending two months visiting Cheddar cheese makers in the Britain if I wasn't keen to eat cheese, but also it would be beneficial for me to eat more dairy. Diana showed me one of her books about eating for the right foods for one's blood type that she thought would help me lose weight. According to the book, my blood type should eat dairy products and avoid beans and nuts, staples of my current diet, to lose weight. And there was some weight to lose!

A visit to Neal's Yard Dairy helped, of course. Back in the shop that has ignited and satisfied my dairy cravings for the past eight years, I sampled a number of my favorite cheeses and bought some Sparkenhoe Leicester which is satisfying and easy to eat. It's the cheesemonger's cheese of choice for lunch. It's the one that you always find down in the lunch room at Neal's Yard Dairy. For breakfast I ate the deep orange cheese melted on pancake-like North Staffordshire oatcakes and then sliced on dry, crumbly oatcakes for lunch (my blood type is supposed to avoid wheat, too, as well as corn, buckwheat, sesame seeds, and chickpeas. No more falafel sandwiches!). Both ways were yummy. I was making progress.

And then I took a step a bit too quickly in my reclamation of aged dairy products. On a Saturday morning, after I had left Diana and David's and was back in London for a week, I battled my way through the maddening crowds at Borough Market to buy a grilled sandwich from William Oglethorpe's stall (see photo above). It was a pilgrimage. These are world famous sandwiches prepared with a mixture of shredded cheese--mostly of Montgomery's Cheddar--diced raw onions, and Poilane bread. Wow! The taste was really full on, sweet, unctuous, and rich. It was almost too much for me. But I happily and greedily ate it all as I rushed to the tube at London Bridge to meet Erica in Islington for our sunny walk along the Regent Canal to Limehouse Basin.

Baptism by panini press. My taste buds are born again. Welcome back, Cheddar!

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