Saturday, August 22, 2009

Not Cheddar

(Sorry again about the sideways picture. My camera is now being repaired at the Canon Service Center, so I hope to avoid these wonky pictures in the future.)

You would have thought that by now, after thinking of nothing much else but Cheddar for ten months, I would have figured it out: what's Cheddar and what's not. But I haven't.

Or maybe I have. After seeing the hard work and passion that cheesemakers all over the world put into making this popular cheese, in small dairies and in huge creameries (factories), I am tempted to cast my net wide and accept all Cheddars as Cheddars. Who am I to decide which cheeses get to go by the name Cheddar and which ones shouldn't? After all, I'm just a woman of leisure who gobbles cheese all around the world.

But I can definitely tell you what's not Cheddar. It's Stichelton. And I can say something else it's not, Stilton. Sure, the name is similar, as are its appearance and recipe, but the name is different. It has to be. Since Stichelton is made with unpasteurized milk, it can't be called Stilton. Less than twenty years ago, the Stilton Cheesemakers' Association mandated that to be called Stilton, Britain's historic blue cheese must be made with pasteurized milk. Before that, traditional--and tasty--Stilton was made with raw milk.

Stichelton, a cheese I wrote about in a typo-ridden entry last Christmas, was the only non-Cheddar dairy that I visited during my travels where I spent more than an hour or two. And it was the last dairy where I actually helped out a wee bit before ending my cheese-focused trip. Spending two full days at the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire was an excellent way to end my Great Cheddar Adventure even though I wasn't making Cheddar. It reminded me, after months of focusing on one type of cheese, that there is more than one way to turn milk into something you can slice and put on top of bread. Whereas Cheddar's "make" (the time from when rennet is added to milk to the time salt is mixed into the curd) is about five hours, Stichelton's is about twenty-two hours. Cheddar is a humming bird compared with the starfish pace of Stilton.

My visit to Stichelton also confirmed what I had already learned during my time at dairies: cheesemakers are wonderfully generous, patient, and giving people. Even though I was just "helping" for a day or two at the farm, I was welcomed warmly by the four other workers, and they patiently explained procedures to me and put up with my inexperience. One even laughed when I exhibited my usual lack of control with a hose and blasted her, instead of a cheese-encrusted spruce plank, with water. The head cheesemaker, Joe Schneider, invited me to stay at his house for two nights, and his wife Audre cooked veggie dinners for me, baked scones for breakfast, and made gin and tonics with fancy Fever Tree tonic water. At the end of my stay, everyone thanked me for my "help," but it should have been me thanking them for their generosity.

Making an unpasteurized blue cheese that is Stilton in everything but name also forced me to revisit the politics and difficulties in protecting the identity of a regional food. The use of the name Stilton, unlike Cheddar, is strictly enforced by the European Union. This is good and bad, and I am not sure how I weigh in. The good: a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) ensures that the integrity of a special, regional food can't be compromised by one that's been inferiorly made outside a designated geographical area. There will never be a Stilton produced in Wisconsin or Denmark; when you buy Stilton, you know you are buying a traditional cheese that was made in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, and Derbyshire, with locally sourced milk. The PDO not only protects the food product's name but also its history. The bad: something can be lost with rigid definitions. In this case, it's the very traditional way that this blue cheese was made, viz. with unpasteurized milk. As a result, Stichelton can't be called Stilton even though this is the way this cheese was historically made. The flip side of this is that Cheddar cheeses that are made with unpasteurized milk with pint starters and aged in muslin aren't distinguished from cheeses made in dairies that produce more in a day than what small farms make in a year. And the other side of this is that the widespread use of the name Cheddar has ensured its worldwide success. Everyone knows about Cheddar cheese.

What to do? Let everyone into the party or just a selected few?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Great Cheddar Moments, New Zealand, Part 2

The South Island of New Zealand is like one big U.S. National Park, but with world-class vineyards, friendly and generous folks who live there year round, and an abundant amount of Cheddar. With so many stunning outdoor spots, a visit to New Zealand tends to be full of activity: hiking, climbing, surfing, kayaking, fishing, cycling, glacier walking, camping, and beer guzzling. What better way to restore yourself after all this exertion in the fresh air than a wee hunk of Cheddar cheese? I can't, and that's why my great Cheddar moments in New Zealand came in tandem with enjoying the great outdoors.

1. In part 1 of this post, I described my first full day in New Zealand, when I spent the morning hiking up the grassy headlands along the coast, south of Christchurch, without any coffee or breakfast, and came back down to the town of Sumner three hours later, where I gobbled a cheese and herb muffin, my first in New Zealand. With this hike and muffin, my Kiwi adventures had began.

2. It wasn't just Cheddar that brought me to New Zealand. It was also its wine. A fan of the crisp and fruity sauvignon blancs from Marlborough, I dreamed of exploring this wine region. When I learned from a friend of a friend in Melbourne that you could bike from vineyard to vineyard, I realized that this trip could become a reality. Anxious about driving, especially when there's wine tasting involved, I couldn't explore the area by car. Public transport wasn't an option either. There wasn't any. A bike was perfect--safer than driving, it provided me with much-needed exercise and a chance to sober up between vineyards. And such a lovely way to get around the dry and breezy valley and enjoy the stunning scenery! I spent two full days biking to almost every vineyard in the region. On the second day I splurged on a multi-course lunch at one of the few estates that offer meals. I arrived hot and sweaty from biking full speed in the heat and wind to arrive on time. The long, delicious meal provided plenty of time recover. Key to this was a slice of very young Cheddar (perhaps too young, even by the cheesemaker's own admission), from local Sherrington Grange, that had been aged in bee's wax, from the cheesemaker's very own hives. It lacked the complex flavors of an aged Cheddar, but it was yummy and milky and I appreciated that it was made locally by the Harper women and that you could eat the wax. After polishing off everything on my plate(s), I staggered back to my bike and hopped on. By the next vineyard, my bulging stomach was less full and I was ready for another tasting of wine.

3. In between my two days of biking around the Marlborough wine region, I went out for a boat ride on the Marlborough Sounds. My hosts were an extended Kiwi family, whom I had met just the night before at a local English-style pub, the Cork and Keg. Two English couples came along as well to fish. The day out on the sounds was great for a number of reasons. First, it got me to the sounds. Until David offered to take me out in his boat, I was stressing about how I was going to get there on my own. If time weren't an issue, I would have taken a few days to hike the Queen Charlotte Track, but time was an issue; I didn't have enough of it in New Zealand. How could I go to Marlborough and not go to the Marlborough Sounds, I fretted. Another bonus was that I got to meet a real, live local family, who took me on board, so to speak. Our time together wasn't limited to the trip on the water; the next morning, I toured the bountiful farmer's market in Blenheim with them and then went over to their house that evening for dinner. To top it all off, I got to eat Cheddar sandwiches, Kiwi style, on the boat. There was the pineapple and cheese sandwich that I had bought that morning at the local dairy, i.e., the convenience store, and then there were all the sandwich fixings that the Bryces generously shared with me: New Zealand block Cheddar that one sliced with a wee nifty wire cutter available at supermarkets (which I forgot to buy to bring back to the U.S.), lettuce and tomato, tamari roasted seeds, hummus, and an assortment of chutneys and thick, flavorful spreads. I made more than one sandwich so I could try as many combinations as possible, all washed down with cans of beer while sitting on the deck in the sun, gazing out at the wooded hills sloping steeply down to the water. A great day out, even if no fish were caught.

4. Can beer drinking be considered an energetic outdoor activity? How about walking to the Montieth's Brewery in Greymouth, instead of taking the van from the hostel? Well, Eowyn, Brian, and I certainly got a workout from drinking numerous glasses of beer at the end of the corporate-feeling tour of the South Island brewery. Having gone for the gold, we needed food. Instead of joining the tour group at an all-you-can-eat barbecue, which didn't tempt us non-meat eaters, we went to a local chippie, as recommended by the tour guide. We each ordered the veggie burger and fries with garlic sauce. Only after I had ordered another burger the next day, before my train to the Southern Alps, did I realize that there was no veggie patty on this sandwich of grilled goodness; it was just a thick square of processed cheese, onions, a slice of pineapple and beetroot, and a fried egg on a hamburger roll. No matter: it was a satisfyingly sloppy, oozing mess of a sandwich that vegetarians rarely get to enjoy. We had the "Cheddar" to thank for cementing most of the fillings together. And we had the beer and the Central Otago Chardonnay to thank for keeping us smiling as we struggled to get everything into our mouths.

5. If I could fool myself into believing that biking to vineyards, sitting on a boat, and walking to a brewery tour were action-packed pursuits, I was certainly in need of some real exercise by the end of my trip to New Zealand. It came in the daring form of hiking up Avalanche Peak, in visibility that was so poor that I actually turned around, before reaching the summit. I turned around again when I came across another solo female hiker. We had met before, a few hours earlier, when we were registering at the Department of Conservation before doing the physically challenging climb. We teamed up and reached the summit together. It was a stunning view from the top. The clouds finally lifted to show the whole range of the Southern Alps and a glacier glowing blue on a mountain to the southwest. After waiting for some more clouds to clear, it was time to head back down. The sign at the base of Scotts Track, one of the two ways to reach the 1,833-meter peak, says that it takes 3 to 4 hours to reach the top. I did the whole climb, up and down, in 4 hours. I had to. I was catching a train later that afternoon to head back to Christchurch. This meant that I had to boogie. It also meant that by the time I made it back down to my hostel in the quaint village of Arthur's Pass, I was knackered and my legs were jelly. Guess what I had to restore my energy. Cheddar cheese, of course, but on a veggie pizza, left over from a rather lonely dinner the night before. It was tremendously satisfying, especially since I had a cold Monteith's Dark Beer with it. That was New Zealand: a tramp (a hike), Cheddar, and a beer...and a two-hour-late train. But it's all good.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Masala Cheddar

If you are looking for great Indian food outside the subcontinent, look no farther than. . . . Well, actually, you have to look pretty far. Not as far as India, but to a place that's nevertheless remote, in the northernmost part of Britain. I am not talking about John o' Groats in Scotland (which isn't, by the way, the most northerly spot on mainland Britain; it's nearby Dunnet Head), but Shetland, a group of islands over a hundred miles away. Traveling by ferry to Lerwick, the island's administrative center, from Aberdeen in Scotland or Kirkwall on Orkney takes almost as long as flying to India, about twelve hours.

The meals that Deidre and I shared (on the same evening) at Ghurka Kitchen and Raba, both in Lerwick, were some of the best South Asian dishes we've eaten. The veggies were fresh, not frozen; the spices, too, were fresh and well-balanced. Each bite was delightful and delicious, as well as surprising. Who would have thought that Asian food could be this good on an island in Scotland?

We started off the evening at Ghurka Kitchen, after a long day of taking three buses and two ferries to reach a nature reserve and its charming puffins on the island of Unst, nearly the northernmost point in Britain. Our plan was to share one dish there and another at Raba so that we could sample the food of both restaurants on our last night on Shetland. After a steady diet of oatcakes and Scottish cheddar for breakfast and lunch and chips, with fish or in a white roll (hmmmm...chip butty), for dinner, we needed variation and vegetables. Ghurka Kitchen, as its name suggests, specializes in Nepali cuisine. There we shared a thick curry of lamb and turnips, scooped up with nan bread and washed down with Old Scatness, a bitter made with an ancient type of barley, bere. It's from the island's brewery, Valhalla, located in Unst, making it Britain's most northerly brewery.

From there we returned to our hostel to plan the next leg of our trip, touring the distilleries on Islay, and then went out again, to Raba, where we greedily ordered an appetizer (chickpeas with puri, a combo I used to eat for breakfast in Varanasi) and two main dishes with chili nan (saag paneer and a mixed vegetable curry). As at Ghurka Kitchen, the food was delicious, but we couldn't finish it. Our young waiter, whose family is from Asaam and who had a charming Shetland accent, obligingly packed up the leftovers for us. The next night Deidre and I ate them on the overnight ferry to Aberdeen (see photo above). We savored the dishes almost as much as at the restaurant, proving that the food was indeed good and that our appreciation for it wasn't influenced by its novelty.

Two nights later we were on Islay. In Port Ellen was another Indian restaurant. Could it be as exceptional as the ones on Shetland? The answer is no. The food was oily; the vegetables frozen; the spices rough. On top of that, the kitchen lacked authentic ingredients. Instead of real paneer, which is difficult to get on Islay (but it was available on Shetland), it had to resort to Cheddar. As curious as I was to try this, we steered clear of the saag paneer, with the waiter's guidance, and ordered saag aloo instead.

So, what does this all have to do with Cheddar? Just a wee bit. It shows that woman can't live by Cheddar alone and that Cheddar can be, in a pinch, Indian.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


If you thought it crazy of me to give up my job and apartment in New York City to chase Cheddar around the globe for ten months, what about launching a 300-gram hunk of it into space?

What lengths--and heights--people will go to to promote farmhouse Cheddar!

(Thanks to Cailin and Ben for sharing this high-flying news item with me.)