Christmas sometimes seems to be the only time of year when the British seriously dedicate themselves to cheese consumption: in the days running up to Christmas a good cheesemonger will have a queue that snakes outside of the shop, and groaning cheese boards are staples of festive meals. This is at once a shame and a brilliant opportunity. In our book, Reinventing the Wheel, we make the case for real cheese as an inherently subversive food. Raw milk cheese produced upon the farm on which the animals are milked allows consumers to taste the unique flavours that are only possible to achieve through scrupulous small-scale farming. If you care about the countryside and the rural economy – and want to taste something extra special this Christmas, these are the cheeses for you…
Saint-Nectaire Fermier AOP
The Auvergne in central France is a region we think of as the Narnia of the cheese world: it is a magical land of volcanic mountains, where hundreds of cheese-farmers are actually putting into practice ideas that would be considered wildly avant garde elsewhere. St Nectaire, which is produced there, is a supple, milky cheese, a gentle gray-coated disc that smells of damp earth and cool, clean cellars. A perfect start to a Christmas cheeseboard, Saint-Nectaire puts complexity before punchiness.
The Kirkham family are the last producers of raw-milk, farmhouse Lancashire cheese in the world. Many people only know the so-called ‘crumbly’ variant of Lancashire cheese, a cheese designed for efficient factory production in the mid-1950s, having never tried the original ‘creamy’ Lancashire that came before it. Succulence is the watchword here, a texture that cheesemaker Graham Kirkham describes as a ‘buttery crumble.’ Any leftovers will set off leftover fruitcake to perfection alongside a cup of tea (or better yet, a glass of Madeira…)
Reblochon de Savoie Fermier AOP
Another soft disc of a cheese, this time with a pinkish rind dusted with an icing-sugar-like coating of delicate white Penicillium mould, Reblochon is another cheese that is all about the milk. Barely-acidified, it has a glossy, silky paste; the best cheeses have a fruity, yeasty aroma and a bit of funk about them. Reblochon is another mountain cheese, from Savoie in the east of France, and when it is not gracing a cheese board, is equally at home melted on top of potatoes for supper on a cold winter night.
Christmas calls for a classic English blue cheese, and Stichelton is as classic as they come: a slow-fermented raw-milk blue cheese made by Joe Schneider on the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire. Aged between three and five months, the cheese starts its life with a fresh acidity like many other British territorials, but gradually breaks down into silky smoothness shot through with blue-green veins. At its best, it maintains the freshness of its youth alongside an almost caramel savoury-sweetness.
Goat’s cheese is a popular choice at Christmas, but serving a fresh goat’s cheese in the depth of winter goes against nature; goats, unlike cows, are more apt to be milked seasonally during the summer, drying off as the days shorten in the autumn. Enter Innes Burr, a small lactic goat’s cheese made by Highfields Farm Dairy in Staffordshire and aged for up to three months at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, during which time it shrinks and desiccates and becomes progressively more savoury and nutty. Made without commercial microbial inoculants, it is a showcase for native milk microbes: all of the bacteria that sour the milk and the moulds that form the soft matte rind are native to the farm itself.