Last week, I wrote about my visits to Paxton & Whitfield, the renowned London cheese shop and posted a large number of photographs of the shop and their cheeses etc. However, I didn’t say anything about what I thought of the specific cheeses I’ve so far purchased from them. This is the post in which I do that. This is also the post in which I talk a bit about my experiments in pairing whisky with these cheeses.
If you’ve memorized last week’s post—as I expect you have—you don’t need to be reminded that I have been exclusively purchasing British cheese. And I am pairing them exclusively with Scotch whisky. No, this is not a statement of my position on English cultural nationalism or Scottish independence.
As I noted in last week’s post, I am not terribly knowledgeable about cheese and I would certainly not claim to be very knowledgeable about British cheese. There, is of course, a long tradition of regional cheese making but one of the things that became apparent as I read up on the cheeses that were recommended to me (see below) is that in many cases the contemporary articulation of tradition could be said to be a revival of one kind or the other. Thus Caerphilly, traditionally a Welsh cheese, is now largely made in the English counties of Somerset and Wiltshire (as is the case with the celebrated Gorwydd Caerphilly, a small farm cheese); Stichelton, represents a revival of Stilton made with unpasteurized milk, for the first time since the late 1980s. In some cases, what seems traditional at first blush turns out to be utterly contemporary: Old Winchester, despite the name, has only been made
for 15 years or so and is made by a family who took a 3-day cheese-makers course before getting started!
I don’t mean to suggest that this is the case with every famous British cheese but it does seem to be true of the renaissance of small production farmhouse cheese: unlike with, say, Calvados (another famous farmhouse product), these are often not traditions handed down through generations of the same family at the same location, but returns of one kind or the other to traditional processes that had fallen or were in danger of falling to the pressures of the contemporary mass market. If this is an inaccurate description please correct me below.
But, as I say, I learnt most of this post purchase. On my first foray into Paxton & Whitfield I asked a helpful cheesemonger for his recommendations on putting together a five cheese board of British cheeses. I wanted a range of textures and also at least one cow’s milk cheese, one ewe’s milk cheese and one goat cheese. The only specific cheese I knew I wanted to get was a good example of a Stilton. He gave me a number of samples but in the end I went with his recommendations and looked them up after getting home. This was the first lot:
- Old Winchester: a hard cheese made from pasteurized cow’s milk on a small farm in Hampshire.
- Wigmore: An unpasteurized (but thermised) semi-soft sheep’s milk cheese, this is named for the cheese makers who are based in Berkshire. This too is a recently created cheese and it has won a number of awards.
- Windrush: Another small farm cheese, this time from goat’s milk, made in Oxfordshire and named for a nearby river.
- Shropshire Blue: This one I would have guessed to be an old-timey, traditional cheese but it was apparently first made in the 1970s. Despite the name it has no connection to Shropshire. Current production of this pasteurized cow’s milk cheese is also a revival, the original dairy having closed down. This is a blue cheese that turns out golden through the use of annatto: it turns out whisky makers are not the only ones who add colouring to make their products more appealing.
- Stilton: Now this one needs no introduction. One of the great cheeses of the world, Stiton is in fact an old cheese, having been made since at least the18th century. Made from pasteurized cow’s milk.
On my second visit there were a few cheeses I knew I wanted to try—based on recommendations from friends and Wallace and Gromit—and I asked the cheesemonger to recommend two others.
- Wensleydale: You will remember that this is Wallace’s favourite cheese and is also the last name of the cheesemonger in Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch. So much pop cultural weight pushing my selection of this classic, crumbly cheese that may date from as early as the 14th century—though back then it was an sheep’s milk cheese, whereas now it is mostly made from cow’s milk, sometimes with some sheep’s milk added in. This was a special reserve Wensleydale, aged longer than the regular.
- Pennard Ridge: A hard goat’s milk cheese made by the Somerset Cheese company, an artisanal outfit. They also make a red version of this cheese.
- Gorwydd Caerphilly: Friends recommended I try a Caerphilly and Paxton & Whitfield recommended Gorwydd’s made by at Trethowan’s Dairy by a family, now based in Somerset, who started out as cheese mongers at Neal’s Yard Dairy.
- Double Gloucester: Another that was recommended by friends as a classic British cheese, this is an unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese traditionally made from the milk of Gloucester cows. It is also available in pasteurized form. Its attractive deep yellow colour also comes from the use of annatto.
- Stichelton: The aforementioned revival of the unpasteurized Stilton tradition (it can’t use the name for that reason), this cow’s milk cheese was first produced in 2006 and is the result of a partnership between the owner of Neal’s Yard Dairy and an American cheese maker. The starter culture for this cheese comes from the last unpasteurized Stilton produced in 1989. So it’s a new cheese and an old cheese at the same time.
So much for information that you could have googled for yourself. What did I think of these cheeses? My takes are in the captions to the slideshow below. Scroll down for the results of my rough, limited whisky pairings.
As will be apparent from the captions, I had some particular favourites. At the very top for me were the Old Winchester and the Stilton, followed closely by the Shropshire Blue, the Double Gloucester and the Caerphilly. The only ones that disappointed a little were the Wigmore—only because the reports of this made me expect something more amazing than it turned out to be; and the Stichelton—which was probably not at its best (interestingly, a week after purchase it
developed some very nice savoury notes close to the rind). I’ll try both again from Neal’s Yard Dairy at some point but my next project might be an all British blue cheese tasting.
Okay, now for the whisky pairing part. This is obviously not comprehensive. I only have four whiskies on hand right now in London. In order of assertiveness they are: Aultmore 12 (a mild bourbon cask Speysider); the Glenfarclas 15 (a sherried Speysider); the Benromach 10, 100 proof (mildly sherried, mildly peated Speysider); and the Elements of Islay, Lg6 (a heavily peated, bourbon cask Lagavulin). Here are my preliminary observations:
- The easiest to pair with all of these was the Old Winchester. Its nutty quality complemented all the whiskies and it stood up well to the high octane Lagavulin. Probably best with the Glenfarclas and the Benromach.
- The Pennard Ridge and Caerphilly were also good all-rounders—the Pennard Ridge was best with the Glenfarclas and the Caerphilly worked interestingly with the Benromach, making it taste more phenolic.
- The Double Gloucester was another good all-rounder but I preferred to eat it by itself. I’m not sure what style whisky might be a good pairing for a cheese like this. Thoughts?
- The Glenfarclas did not do very well with any of the blues. I expect that a bigger sherried whisky (like a good batch of the A’bunadh or a sherried Springbank) would probably pair much better, as might a peated port cask. As it is, I thought the blues went better with the bourbon cask Lagavulin. This is in keeping with my experience on past occasions pairing heavily peated Islays with Gorgonzola. However, the Stichelton seemed to go best with the Benromach, bringing out richer, sweeter notes in the whisky. And surprisingly, the mild Aultmore did well with the blues too.
- Unsurprisingly, the Windrush, a soft goat’s cheese, didn’t seem to go well with any of these whiskies; and nor did the Wigmore—the one was too acidic and the other sort of disappeared.
- The Wensleydale, despite being pretty acidic, was a decent pairing with the Benromach and the Aultmore.
- Among the whiskies the one that seemed to work with the most types of cheese was actually the Aultmore. The Benromach was probably the next most versatile.
I’d be very interested to know what your experiences pairing cheese and whisky have been like, so please write in below. Also, please check out Billy Abbot’s post on pairing whisky and cheese on the TWE blog (he had better luck with the Glenfarclas 15 and blue cheese). Though my post might seem like it’s piggybacking on that one, Billy will tell you that it’s a coincidence and a big one. I posted on Facebook after my first Paxton & Whitfield purchase and noted I was enjoying the cheese with whisky, and he responded noting that a representative from Paxton & Whitfield had just spent time in their office leading whisky/cheese pairings and that he was going to write about it in a day or two.