Just a Snicket

“Toasted cheese”, moans Ben Gunn, marooned in a lonely paradise; of all the trappings of his lost past, it is this that he craves the most. I, too, have been a stranger in strange lands, and I have always longed for cheddar cheese. Ubiquitous across Britain, synonymous, in fact, with the very idea of British cheese (imagine ordering a cheese-and-pickle sandwich and getting crumbly Wensleydale or aggressive Stilton), a decent or even semi-decent cheddar is almost impossible to find elsewhere. The stuff that some Americans call cheddar would be a joke, if it were funny; as it is, it is horrifying. I spent a year in upstate New York, and though, I think, every single sandwich I ate had cheese in it, not one cheese sandwich did I see. My (vegetarian) father tried to order one once, at a gas station deli somewhere in the Adirondacks, and was met with polite confusion. “Mayo, cheese, yes – what filling would you like?” Your American cheese lacks both the structure and the physical presence to carry a sandwich by itself – with the exception, of course, of the grilled cheese.

The grilled cheese is grilled in the sense that it is cooked directly on a solid flat-top grill, possibly alongside eggs over-easy, fat pancakes and little sliders; that is to say, it is fried. In its platonic form, before the current sourdough-and-raw-cheese reinvention, it consists of cheap sliced white sandwiched around cheap American cheese, the outside buttered or even mayonnaissed and fried or ‘grilled’ until golden brown. The stated ingredients perfectly match the treatment given them; sliced white (I will not call it bread) is of a uniform density which allows for both maximal surface crispness and minimal escapage of the cheese within, which, being so heavily processed, easily melts in the time taken to cook the sandwich. Sourdough is obviously a vast improvement in terms of flavour, but its irregular size and numerous holes present a new set of challenges to the sandwicheer; best, in most cases, to wrap the whole thing in foil and fry within. As for the cheese, I find the hard calcified click of a good cheddar wasted here, unless you happen to have some gratable odds and ends lying around. A classic melting cheese, something like a raclette or ogleshield, seems most appropriate; it is like a reminder of what American cheese could have been.

Personally, I prefer cold cheese; cold cheddar cheese, in malted brown bread. I resist the idea that every sandwich should be toasted – and no-one would argue that all cheese should be fondued. The joy of fresh mountain cheeses, crumbly, soft and sharp, lies partly in their coldness. Like a cucumber, there is something refreshing about their existence, so clean and white. These are also the easiest sorts of cheeses to make at home, which is nice; just sour and salt some milk and drain off the whey – no culture or clamp required. These are ancient things, particular to animal and soil and air; they are born fresh every day, in country, in village and in farm. It would be instructive and, of course, delicious, to do a comparative study of cheese terroir, ranging across all of Anatolia, Greece, Sardinia, Spain, to see the different flavours wrung out of dry slopes and distant seas.

Who could possibly say which is better, a ball of mozzarella cold out of its brine or melted across a scarce few millimetres of dough – the way the former tears into strings, the way the latter pools and glistens? I would rather eat a whole burrata with my hands. In a good pizzeria, I like my dough almost bare, just a few razor-shavings of garlic across the sweet tomato sauce. As the bread gets worse, the toppings pile higher – which isn’t to say I would turn my nose up at pepperoni, hot peppers, olives or even mushrooms, though I draw the line at sweetcorn; that way lies pineapple. To be honest, I have never encountered a pizza or indeed any form of melted-cheese-on-bread that I have truly, viscerally disliked. Even that sliced white grilled cheese, though barely providing sustenance, has a beauty of its own. Nothing else sits so well next to a cup of cream of tomato soup. Still, for all the joy of cheese-on-toast, of Welsh or Italian rarebit, of saganaki and fondue, if you put me on a desert island it is a good strong cheddar, cold from the fridge, that I would cry for in the depths of the night – so long, of course, as there were pickled onions.

Act Natural

I’ve been reading a lot about natural wines recently. This style, as distinct from organic winemaking, which bars chemical intervention in the vineyard, requires a more or less additive-free approach to the brewing process itself, barring added yeasts, sugars, and various other chemicals and techniques which have become standard in the industrial wine trade. While I wouldn’t call myself a fanatical convert – for one thing, I’ve barely tried any natural wines – it’s certainly been interesting to learn about the various practices which are allowed, and frequently used, in even very high-end wine making.

The wine industry, more, perhaps, than any other part of the food industry, is a large, efficient, modernised engine which still masquerades as small-scale, artisanal, somehow, in essence, natural. Much is made of terroir, of vintages, of the vast differences which aspect and soil and wind make to each bottle; but when yeast can be added to practically guarantee a certain body and mouthfeel, when wine can be physically ripped into its component parts to correct levels of sugar, water, alcohol, how much can terroir matter? The various DOP groups exist more to guarantee a certain quality and adherence to a sort of imagined local style than to actually ensure local individualism.

The real triumph, in fact, of modern winemaking – as with industrially brewed beer – has been the slow annihilation of variance from the norm, the sad reliance on weather and air – in other words, quality control. Even bad wines, now, aren’t really bad. They might be bad for you – the high levels of sulphites allowed in industrial wine can cause health problems – and they are certainly bad for the environment, especially in France, where their natural tendency to shoot or poison anything that moves is given free rein in vineyards; then again, they never claim not to be. The assumed ‘natural’ component of winemaking is much more nebulous than that.

Part of the current ‘clean’ ‘natural’ eating movement is a railing against processed foods, which is patently ridiculous. Nearly everything which ensures the continued existence of our species is processed in some way. As yer man (citation needed) found when he tried to live like a chimpanzee, we simply aren’t good enough at chewing to live off raw foods; without cooking and further processing, we would die. Bread, for example, is heavily processed, the base ingredient dried, ground, fermented, and held at various temperatures before consumption; because of this, it is pretty much a complete food, the staff of life, rightly holy to various cultures. The problem with industrially-produced bread is not that it has been processed, but that it has been processed very badly, with little reference to taste or nutrition.

The same could be said of wine, of cured meats, of cheese and of pickles. All of them have undergone a heavy process of industrialisation, resulting in a product which is much worse for you than it should be; but I don’t think that necessarily means the idea of industrialisation is bad. Cheaper, larger scale food production can only be a good thing, right? Maybe not. Maybe it’s inevitable that industrialisation throws out the good parts, the ferment, the yeast, the bacteria; perhaps, though, the success of natural winemakers, of raw-milk cheesemakers, who combine traditional techniques with a scientific understanding entirely born of industrial food processing, points a way for today’s artisans to feed us all.

Corpse Of Milk

I love cheese. I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t love it, apart from the ethically- or physiologically-averse. One of my favourite things about travelling is eating different cheeses, the ones that haven’t made it to Britain – the aged peynirs of Turkey, the vast, stinking cohorts of France, even the bizarre aberrations the Americans are pleased to call cheese – and one of the first things I crave on returning is a good cheddar.

I genuinely think British cheeses are some of the best in the world, with an astonishing variety and depth of tradition that is missing from much of our current food culture, cobbled together as it is from a glorious mishmash of sources, and they are also some of the most magical. The making of fresher, curd cheeses,  for example, is fairly easy to understand – I’m halfway through making a white cheese at the moment, and it’s easy to see, once the separation of curds and whey has started, how the resulting mess could turn to feta, or ricotta, or whatever. To get from there to the fur-covered beauty of a Suffolk Gold, or the unctuous pungency of a Stinking Bishop, seems impossible. The alchemy of secret mould cultures, wraps of nettle or wax, aging in hidden caves… the transformation of the bacteria-riddled corpse of milk into a delicious sandwich component is pretty impressive.

That whole process is a mystery to me, but there’re a few cheeses that it’s easy enough to make at home. The first cheese I ever made was from the Weird and Wonderful Cookbook when I was about 8 or so – it was a fresh, soft cheese, and I think I was disappointed, having expected something like a cheddar to emerge from that muslin bag. I don’t have that book to hand anymore. This, though, is an extremely easy and satisfying recipe that provided my grown-up introduction to cheese-making.

SPICED LABNEH

I’ve read recipes that say USE GREEK YOGHURT and others that say NEVER USE GREEK YOGHURT, but as far as I’m concerned, using the strained stuff just does some of the work for you, so. I’ve made this literally hundreds of times, and it works for me.

1kg Greek yoghurt

6 cloves garlic

Sea salt

1 tspn chilli flakes

2 tspn sumac

1 tspn dried oregano

Chop the garlic finely then crush with a good tablespoon of salt. You want a smooth paste, with no rogue bits of garlic in your cheese. Add to the yoghurt with the rest of the ingredients and beat until well combined. Taste for seasoning, then spoon into a jam bag or similar arrangement – you could use muslin or a clean tea towel or probably even a t-shirt if you like. Whatever you use, you need to be able to hang it over a bowl in the fridge and leave overnight.

What you do now is up to you. After a day, you’ll have a lovely cream cheese that is good as a dip, spread on toast, or dolloped on any stew where you might put yoghurt. After two or three days it should be good and firm – at this point you can roll the cheese into little balls, which can be rolled in herbs or spices, kept in oil and used as a mezze… That’s all a bit of a faff though, and I tend to just eat it at the soft stage.