Sunday, June 21, 2009

Great Cheddar Moments, U.K.

Only six weeks of my Great Cheddar Adventure remain. For many, a six-week holiday is a lovely, extended period of time, but for me, who's been away for thirty-eight weeks now, it seems woefully short. The time will disappear too quickly. That's the nature of time, isn't it? Things--life--start off slowly and then, at a certain point, race to the end.

As my adventure draws to a close, I've been reflecting on my most memorable Cheddar moments. Most of them have been either in the U.K. or New Zealand. I'll share them with you, but in two separate posts so that I don't overwhelm you, dear reader. (As a reminder, I've already written about unexpected meals with Cheddar in Germany, Poland and Spain, all the way back in October.)

1. The hands-down highlight was working at Neal's Yard Dairy in London for two months. There are six reasons why: Montgomery's, Keen's, Lincolnshire Poacher, Hafod, Westcombe, and Isle of Mull. These are the names of six of the best Cheddar cheeses in the U.K. (and many would say the world; see photo of three of them on display at Neal's Yard Dairy), and I could taste them each and every day. Not only could I eat them, but I could also handle them, care for them, make customers and friends happy with them, and make lunch with them. A particularly yummy lunch involved Montgomery's, North Staffs oatcakes, Rosebud Preserve's Old Yorkshire Chutney, and a George Foreman grill. The oatcakes from North Staffordshire aren't the hard, cracker-like ones from Scotland; they're more like spongy pancakes made with a combination of of wheat flour and oatmeal. For my lunch break, I put one onto the grill, spread it with chutney, added sliced Cheddar, rolled it up like an enchilada, and then closed the grill. And waited. After a few minutes, the outside of the oatcake got crispy and the Montgomery's Cheddar melted, becoming sweeter and richer. The warm chutney had acidity to balance the sweetness of the cheese and raisins to complement it. If I wasn't going to be eating cheese for the rest of the afternoon, I would have made another one. (Other memorable lunches at work: North Staff oatcakes with melted Sparkenhoe Leicester and fresh sage leaves; toasted English stick [like a French baguette] with pungent and smoky Ardrahan from West Cork.) Limitless access (well, within reason) to these Cheddars is one of the many things I will miss about working at Neal's Yard Dairy. I hope that one day I'll be able to work there again.

2. Porridge probably doesn't get too many people exicited, but how about a bowl of it made with Scottish oatmeal that has been soaked overnight in unpasteurized whole milk, cooked with more milk and young, tangy Cheddar (only about a week old, also made with unpasteurized milk), and finished with black pepper? Let me tell you that this was so satisfying that I kept thinking about the bowl I had enjoyed at lunch, while I was walking the length of Loch Frisa (about 10 km) later that afternoon. I've made it twice since, including this morning before going to the local producers' market in Dervaig and then for another walk, this one through Glen Gorm to Loch Tor and then onto standing stones (very appropriate today, the solstice). The dish is like a rough but very rich polenta, and I can imagine warring highlanders or miserably cold Roman soliders fortifying themselves with it. That's what I am going to miss about working at Isle of Mull Cheese--easy access to unpasteurized milk (when the tanks are full) and their Cheddar(-like) cheese. With walks and dairy products as good as these, I might never leave!

3. Cheddar is the traditional cheese of Somerset. The traditional drink is (hard) cider. Put the two of them together and you've got a very happy Diana. One of the best afternoons I've had in the U.K. was spent with my friend Stony at Land's End Farm in Mudgley (what a name for a village!), site of Wilkins Farmhouse Cider, after spending the late morning hiking the rim of Cheddar Gorge. When we first arrived at the farm, we were the only two people there, besides Mr. Wilkins himself, an older gentleman with ruddy cheeks and a blue jumpsuit, and a quiet man sitting in a dark corner of the barn, drinking cider from a glass mug. Soon, Stony and I were sitting with Dave, who poured me half pints of medium cider (six in total for me that afternoon!), by mixing sweet and dry cider directly from the large upright barrels. It was a Friday afternoon, and locals starting arriving, either to stick around for a few half pints and stories in the barn's makeshift lounge or to fill up plastic containers with cider to bring home. When I told Mr. Wilkins that I was researching Cheddar cheese, he brought Stony and me a complimentary plate of Westcombe and Green's Cheddar with crackers and a bowl of bracing pickled onions (see photo). It was the taste of Somerset. And how good it was! The cheese is probably what saved me that afternooon; I was sober enough to end the day by walking around a stone circle in the Mendip Hills. That's one of the many things about England that I'll miss, real cider and the real Cheddar to go with it.

4. I'm a woman who likes to eat. And to drink. And I believe that the two of them are best done together, especially when one part of the equation comes for free. The country which does this best is Spain. This past October I finally made it there (what took me so long?), and what I thoroughly appreciated was that when you ordered a drink at a bar, you also got an extraordinarily tasty treat (pinxo, tapa), for free. Why don't other countries do this? The closest you come to this in the States is free tortilla chips with your margarita or pretzles with your beer. In England, not much comes for free (except for healthcare). To satisfy my need to eat something when I drink a pint, I usually buy dry roasted peanuts or a packet of crisps. These options don't sound enticing (especially when compared to the Iberian gourmet tidbits given for free), but sometimes after a long day of work or even a long walk, nothing is more satisfying than a pint and a packet of crisps. I often opt for the flavor of cheese and onion. Need I mention that the "cheese" in "cheese and onion" is based on Cheddar? It ain't manchego, cabrales, or tetilla, that's for sure. But Cheddar is the cheese of England, and of the world, and it's a great flavor for crisps. That's what I'm going to miss about my time in England, going for a pint with coworkers or friends and getting a packet of cheese and onion crips to share.

1 comment:

msdeemc said...

One of my favorite posts on CheddarBound! Maybe because it has the benefits of hindsight and reflection (unlike most blog posts, not only yours, but all).