For lunch or dinner, it’s a feast!
We’d had a disappointing weekend. My son was part of Dunvant RFC U13s and we were on tour to the Cheddar area of Somerset. Most of the team had travelled up to the caravan park we’d booked on the Friday afternoon, due to work commitments my son and myself were travelling up early on Saturday morning. The team had been fundraising in advance of the traditional Easter tour and, in addition to the caravan park, we’d booked a paintballing day on the Sunday. Everyone was very excited.
Unfortunately some of the mothers were a little too excited and had gotten into a drunken argument with staff when they complained about the boys disturbing other caravaners with their noise. By the time we arrived on Saturday morning we’d all been thrown off site.
It was impossible to arrange alternative accommodation for so many at short notice so we reluctantly decided to lose the paintballing deposit and head home after the match we were to play in the afternoon.
The match, against a combined Yatton & Cheddar (YACs) side was a tough one. The English boys were mostly a year older and big with it, but the Dunvant lads released some of their disappointment and narrowly won the game by 3 points.
It seemed a shame to go straight home afterwards so I took Gareth on a consolatory detour to nearby Wookey Hole so we could see the caves.
The gentleman who was to be our tour guide provided a well practiced patter detailing the history of the attractions and the mythology surrounding the witch that was said to have lived there. We concluded the tour with a look around the Cheddar Cheese caves.
The old chap told us how the cheese was made and with a wistful look described how, as a small boy during the war, his parents had given him and his siblings the cheese rinds to eat, saving the better part for themselves. It was clearly a poignant memory for him as he explained that the rind was made of a limewashed cloth that dissolved into the cheese over time. His parents had been feeding them cheesecloth.
This story stayed with me. The thought that anyone could give their children the less nutritious, less tasty, less anything part of their food went against everything I’d ever held dear and upset me more than it probably should have.
The thing is, other than this sorry tale, cheese has always been a convivial delight to me. From early childhood I’ve loved cheese. Dairy Lea triangles came first, a mystery to open (before they developed the little ripcord in the seventies) that took patience, skill and a parent with a sharp knife. I liked it spread thickly on fresh bread and butter, or better still, toast.
My Mother would go to visit my Grandmother some Saturday afternoons, riskily leaving my Dad in charge of tea. His repertoire was meagre but he could make decent hot buttered toast and always paired it with thick slices of cold, white, crumbly Caerphilly. We’d sit and eat it while watching Grandstand Final Score before Doctor Who came on. The memory of the teleprinter relaying Forfar four, East Fife five always make my mouth water.
Exoticism was in short supply in the seventies so when my mother came home one day from a trip to Swansea with a piece of RED LEICESTER I couldn’t believe my eyes. Cheese that was a different colour! Cheese that was stronger than the mild cheddar or Caerphilly I was used to! My mind boggled. I couldn’t get enough, especially grated. Why is it that grated cheese tastes so different to sliced cheese anyway?
We soon flirted with the concept of processed cheese. Individually wrapped vivid yellow cheese slices that were more plasticky than their wrappers and Primula cheese spread from a tube. The fact it was in a tube should have been enough but no, this cheese also came in different flavours. There was one with ham and one with chives and even one with shrimp. I didn’t even know what a shrimp was! If I had, I probably wouldn’t have liked it…
Edam entered my orbit next, then Gouda and we were off. Brie, then tongue-tickling Danish Blue, cheese was becoming a gateway drug to global cuisine.
By the time I met my wife in the late eighties I was something of a connoiseur. I thought. Sarah, a Londoner of sorts had had a far wider experience of the yellow stuff. She introduced me to the cheeseboard, a selection of varied cheeses accompanied by chutney, relish, grapes, crackers and biscuits that signalled a new high in my gastronomic education. Besides, it was always partnered with wine.
When we went travelling in 1990 we went five weeks in India before we found any cheese for sale. By the time I spotted the little cheese shop in the ramshackle hill station of Ootacamund we were in serious withdrawal. We entered the quaint emporium wondering at it’s similarity to something you might find in North Wales twenty years before. The service was attentive with two under-employed shop boys fluttering around us getting in our, and each others way in their eagerness.
We chose a piece of Indian ‘Cheddar’ from a narrow selection and it was cut and wrapped with inordinate care before being presented with a flourish. The server accompanied the cheese with a well rehearsed speech, “For lunch or dinner, it’s a feast”. As if to enhance our enjoyment. It wasn’t bad to be fair.
It was certainly miles better than American cheese. We sampled the unfortunate ‘Monterey Jack’ several times in crossing the states and were disappointed every time. The only decent stuff we had in six weeks was cream cheese in a bagel in Philadelphia and that only as an accompaniment to smoked salmon.
I’ve never been far from decent cheese since. I’ve had ‘Old Cheese’ sandwiches in Amsterdam, deep fried creamy feta in Greek islands and fabulous Manchego in a little mountain bistro in Spain. I’ve flirted with Ploughman’s lunches, baked Camembert with croutons, cubes of strong Belgian cheese with hot mustard and aged Stilton with Christmas cake but I always come back to our cheeseboard, shared with the family.
For a couple of years our eldest became the ‘Cheesmeister of Aberystwyth’, managing a delicatessen in the town. He expanded our knowledge with the wide selection of French and Spanish cheese he was required to cut and weigh each and every day. He often ranted about the difficult customers the shop seemed to attract, including one lady who brought her own chair and insisted on trying everything before choosing the same old thing every time.
It put me in mind of a trip some years ago to a specialist cheese shop in Twickenham with my late brother-in-law David. David and my wife’s sister were excellent hosts and bon-viveurs and always set a good table. David insisted on getting a sample of everything from the clearly impatient shopkeeper eliciting a sigh every time he pointed at another temperature-controlled humidor hatch. David couldn’t have cared less though, eventually buying a small piece of Stinking Bishop before leaving, chuckling to himself.