Country Matters by The Hodge, Dec 17

Country Matters Dec 17 by The Hodge
“What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?”

Bertholt Brecht (1898-1956)
No doubt we’ll all be going daft buying in food for the Christmas feast… turkey/goose/rib of beef/nut roast and then all the trimmings; the Brussels, the parsnips, the stuffing, the chipolatas and then the puds and the crackers and the booze But don’t forget in all this retail exhaustion, the cheese!

I glanced at a survey recently asking who would rather give up cheese or chocolate and the answers were pretty equal but I thought it was a daft question. My only comment would be that if you’re setting a mouse trap, mice actually seem to prefer chocolate, so keep all the cheese for yourself! Cheese in its many forms and guises can be robust or subtle, creamy or rocky, smelly or sublime. Did you know that there are more varieties of cheese produced now in the UK than in France? Amazing! Yet with all these artisan cheeses, we still tend to stick to the tried and tested Cheddar and if you think that the gorge in Somerset must be pretty impressive to produce all this, be aware that there is no protection on the name ‘Cheddar’ and something in the region of 150,000 tons of it is imported every year so eating Cheddar is unlikely to be helping our beleaguered dairy farmers.

Of course, the staple at Christmas is Stilton cheese, the blue-veined variety from around Leicestershire, Derbyshire or Nottinghamshire which does have European protected status. This seems a little odd as it originated around Peterborough in Cambridgeshire but we mustn’t try to fathom the European bureaucrat’s mind-set. Sacrilege it might be but to my taste it’s a little too creamy and I prefer my blue cheese to have a bit more bite so I won’t be competing with you for the last one in the shop – that’ll be someone else.

But Christmas is a great excuse to try a few different cheeses and expand your repertoire. So be bold and go out and try something different and build up a cheese board that will surprise and delight your family and guests.

Cheese making goes back thousands of years but how on earth did someone sit down and decide it would be a good thing to curdle milk with rennet, (the lining of a cow’s stomach), and then let it mature for weeks or months or years. The most likely scenario is that somehow it all happened by accident and the end result was so good that early man decided to replicate the process.
One explanation may be that before rennet, they used woodlice to curdle the milk instead and it may be that our forebears observed the effect of some woodlice falling in a vat of milk and causing it to curdle. An early name for the woodlouse was ‘cheeslip’, acknowledging his important work in the dairy.

And if on Boxing Day or beyond you tire of all the feasting and yearn for a simple cheese on toast, make sure you have plenty of Wensleydale handy. The British Cheese Board did exhaustive work on the subject with scientists and food testers and declared that Wensleydale made the best cheese on toast. Who runs the British Cheese Board? I don’t know but it sounds as if it might be Wallace and Grommit but whoever, you now know their recommendation.

And if you’re still debating what the subject of your main course is going to be, spare a grateful thought that you hail from the Cotswolds and not from the Outer Hebrides. There they wouldn’t give a walnut or a tangerine for your turkey or your goose. There they demand instead a ‘guga’, or baby gannet. Caught on the cliffs in early summer, they are stored outside until Christmas in salt. Around 2,000 are eaten this way every year. The skin, the best part apparently, oozes a sticky, black oil and the flesh is said to taste like a cross between a duck and mackerel. The islanders don’t like anything fancy to detract from their prized ‘guga’ so eat it accompanied only by boiled potatoes.

If I’ve whetted your appetite, go away and bother your preferred supermarket.

Whatever you feast upon, have a very happy Christmas and prosperous and healthy New Year!

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