Cheese all that
One of the best things about my childhood Christmases was the Cadbury’s chocolate advent calendar. On the first of December my brother and I eagerly opened up a window in the sure and certain hope that a miniature chocolate bar would be revealed. Unwittingly we yielded to childish temptation and usually all the chocolate treats were eaten by the third of December.
Then and now we are both still in awe of young and old alike who can open up the numbers in regulation and hold out for Christmas Day. Nowadays my passion for chocolate has waned slightly and been replaced with cheese. If there was such a thing as a cheese advent calendar, I’d certainly be ordering at least two in advance of the festive month.
Cheese making is relatively new to Northern Ireland with only a handful of producers practising their craft. Historically Ireland was a nation of butter makers and cheese production was reserved as a celebratory act when a child was born. A curd cheese, much like a cottage cheese, was made to give thanks for the birth and was named the “crying cheese”.
It’s purported that the Romans didn’t invade Ireland because we were a nation of “barbarous butter makers”. Cheese making in the south of Ireland flourished with the arrival of the Austrians, Germans and +Dutch who settled here from the 1950’s onwards. While the trade is now well established across the island, it’s only in the past few years that there have been any producers in Northern Ireland.
Kearney Blue Cheese from Down, Young Buck from Newtownards, Dart Mountain Cheese in the Sperrins and Ballylisk in Armagh are now recognised globally in international awards. The milk produced here is probably the best in the world – we can complain about the rain, but it makes for rich pastures that result in a liquid that in turn creates an epic added value commodity
According to the American food writer MFK Fisher, cheese “has always been a food that both sophisticated and simple humans love”. The same logic should be applied when serving it. The cheese should be centre stage with the accompaniments like crackers, bread and chutneys playing a supporting role.
When I’m doing a selection of cheeses, there’s always a good blue, a brie type, a hard cheddar or similar and then a random choice. It’s good to mix it up to and source from different countries. Good cheesemakers need support wherever they’re based. As a hoarder of chutneys and pickles, that side of things is always taken care of. If you have a sweet jelly, pair it with a sharp pickle or chutney to balance the rich dairy.
The girls behind the north coast grilled cheese phenomenon at the Giant’s Causeway, Mini Maegden, have recently released their own garlic pickled pears – absolutely delicious and perfect with blue cheese. Go to a good local deli for advice on cheeses and accompaniments like this.
For this week’s recipes I’ve included one for a walnut and grape bread that is perfect, straight from the oven to have with any cheese. Baking a brie type cheese is a way of adding even more decadence to it. The other recipe is for bubbling, golden molten cheese with some fried potatoes to dip in – simple but sublime.
What you’ll need
500g strong bread flour
75g finely chopped walnuts
2 sachets instant yeast
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp honey
50ml olive oil
175ml dry local cider
200ml lukewarm water
250g red seedless grapes
1 tbsp fresh chopped rosemary
1 tsp sea salt
Mix the flour, walnuts, yeast and salt in a bowl.
Whisk the honey, oil, cider and water together.
Add to the dry ingredients to make a loose dough.
Knead for 10 minutes.
Cover with a damp tea towel and leave at room temperature for an hour. Knock back the dough. Flour a baking tin. Flatten to dough to about 2cm thick and place on the baking tin.
Cut the grapes in half and press into the dough, cut side up. Scatter over the rosemary and salt and leave for half an hour.
Set oven to 200oC.
Bake the bread for about 30 minutes or until the bottom sounds hollow when tapped, Cool for 10 minutes then slice while warm and serve with cheese.
What you’ll need
1 whole brie, Camembert or Irish style cheese like Cavanbert or Ballylisk
2 cloves garlic
Few sprigs rosemary
3 tbsp olive oil
Scrub the potatoes and cut into slices. Place on a sheet of parchment paper, brushed with oil and brush the tops with some oil. Sprinkle over salt and bake until soft. Heat a pan and add the remaining oil into the bottom. Cook potatoes until golden and crisp.
Place the cheese in an oven proof dish and set the oven to 180oC.
Peel and cut the garlic in half lengthwise and then cut each half into 3 slivers. Slash the top of the cheese and place a sliver of garlic and leaf of rosemary in each. Rub the top with oil and wrap in tin foil. Place in oven for about 15 minutes or until molten. Serve with the potato slices to dip in.