Monday, 26 June 2017

Pictures from the Swedish midsummer Supper Club

3rd annual Swedish midsummer supper club with msmarmitelover and Linn Soderstrom in London

Left to Right: Chef Linn Soderstrom, msmarmitelover, chef Marian Ringborg of Spring restaurant: 3rd annual Swedish midsummer supper club with msmarmitelover and Linn Soderstrom in London

We started out by nicking beech leaves from the ground of a local council block. An old lady stopped me:
What do you think you are doing? 
Don't worry, we would never harm a tree. We are gardeners, Swedish gardeners. (I hear Linn squawk in the background). 
You should have asked tuts the lady.
I try to enthuse her about our project:
We are collecting beech to decorate a crucifix. It's a really important midsummer festival. For Swedish people. Everyone does it.  
It's not pagan is it? 
Noooo. Course not. Hahaha. 
I'm not actually sure though. We've made a 7 foot high crucifix from willow branches. On each arm there is a ring. Beech leaves and flowers are wound around the willow. It's all quite Wicker Man.
Linn says we will have to sing a song and dance around it. Surprisingly our midsummer supper club guests appear quite keen on the prospect. They ask if they have to be nude as well.
It's up to you.
I answer, quietly hoping they will. Visions of smearing my body with mud while wearing a flower crown come to mind. Like The Slits cover. Linn looks appalled.

Midsummmer this year has been the hottest since we started three years ago. On the one hand, I'm delighted, it means we can definitely sit outside. On the other, the 33C heat is energy sapping. I can barely function in the kitchen even with the Aga (a Swedish oven) turned down. Fortunately much of the meal, the first half, the smorgasbord, is served cold. The second half is hot BBQ, cooked on the Big Green Egg outside. My fridges aren't coping very well in the heat however. Everything needs to be kept in the fridge. Everything is wilting. 
A couple of days previously I have to throw away two sides of cured salmon that I was trying to cold smoke in the BGE. Even though I was doing it at night, when the temperature drops, it was still too warm. The salmon cooked rather than smoked. When I went to check at 4am, the salmon was luke warm and slightly squelchy rather than firm to the touch. I wasn't going to risk serving it. I discover that you can cold smoke from frozen so if this happens again, I will freeze the salmon. I still had one beetroot-cured salmon in the fridge which we could use as gravad lax. 

The Telegraph has written that hygge is over and that Swedish midsummer feasts are the new trend. We aren't mentioned in the article. I expect everyone will be doing it next year. But if you want to come to the original Swedish Midsummer Supper Club, with chef Linn Soderstrom and myself, book early. We are the best. 

The menu this week

Elderflower aquavit cocktail: 3rd annual Swedish midsummer supper club with msmarmitelover and Linn Soderstrom in London
canapés: 3rd annual Swedish midsummer supper club with msmarmitelover and Linn Soderstrom in London
Elderflower aquavit with tonic and wild strawberries
Vasterbotten cheese and Kallix roe on Peters Yard crispbread
Smoked salmon rolls with dill and sour cream on soft bread
sandalwood herring from Kladesholmen: 3rd annual Swedish midsummer supper club with msmarmitelover and Linn Soderstrom in London
Sandalwood pickled herring from Gothenburg company Kladesholmen
Potatoes, red onion, sour cream and chives, mustard dill sauce
smoked salmon on the smorgasbord: 3rd annual Swedish midsummer supper club with msmarmitelover and Linn Soderstrom in London
Smoked salmon
Beetroot cured gravadlax and the Swedish midsummer horse: 3rd annual Swedish midsummer supper club with msmarmitelover and Linn Soderstrom in London
Beetroot cured salmon
Smoked salmon cheesecake with borage: 3rd annual Swedish midsummer supper club with msmarmitelover and Linn Soderstrom in London
Smoked salmon 'cheese cake' with borage and cucumber. (I saw this in my recent visit to Stockholm and asked Linn to make it about which she was dubious. It's actually quite naff in Sweden, the sort of thing your nan makes. It's the Swedish equivalent of quiche. When my nan discovered quiche in the 80s, every time we went round we got bloody quiche. I don't even like quiche. So I understand Linn's reluctance). 
Pink pickled egg with yuzu caviar: 3rd annual Swedish midsummer supper club with msmarmitelover and Linn Soderstrom in London
Pink pickled eggs with yuzu roe and geranium flowers

Home-made knackebrod: honey, pickled fennel seeds from the garden

Vegan Smorgasbord
Vegan 'herring' pickled and creamy
Carrot dip with crudités, flowers and herbs
Yuzu 'roe' on crispbread with dill vegan mayo
Mini baked potatoes with vegan yoghurt and mushrooms.

Hot Courses with vegan options
bbq on the big green egg:  3rd annual Swedish midsummer supper club with msmarmitelover and Linn Soderstrom in London
Big green egg:  3rd annual Swedish midsummer supper club with msmarmitelover and Linn Soderstrom in London
granbarksost from Jurss Mejeri  3rd annual Swedish midsummer supper club with msmarmitelover and Linn Soderstrom in London
Oven baked Swedish bark cheese granbarksost from Jurss Mejeri with radishes, baby cauliflower, carrots, herbs
granbarksost from Jurss Mejeri:  3rd annual Swedish midsummer supper club with msmarmitelover and Linn Soderstrom in London
Grilled pointy cabbage with butter
baby potatoes with samphire, carrots, day lilies:  3rd annual Swedish midsummer supper club with msmarmitelover and Linn Soderstrom in London
Baby potatoes with samphire, carrots and day lilies 
Fennel, girolles, butter
baby leeks for the bbq:  3rd annual Swedish midsummer supper club with msmarmitelover and Linn Soderstrom in London
Grilled asparagus, French beans, baby leeks
Creamy herb dressing

Strawberry cake.
(Strawberries are an essential part of the Midsummer celebration).
Aquafaba meringue with vegan gooseberry curd and wild strawberry vegan ice-cream

French rose goat's cheese
Pavé Cobble
Waterloo Guernsey Milk
Shropshire Blue
Brunost Norwegian (like cheese fudge!)
Sour Iranian cherries
Home-made quince membrillo

fika time: coffee.  3rd annual Swedish midsummer supper club with msmarmitelover and Linn Soderstrom in London

Got a bonfire going:  3rd annual Swedish midsummer supper club with msmarmitelover and Linn Soderstrom in London

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Swedish bark cheese at the Jurss Mejeri Dairy

Claes and Kerstin Jurss, Jurss Mejeri Dairy, Hälleforsnäs, Sweden
Granbarksos, Jurss Mejeri Dairy, Hälleforsnäs, Sweden
 Jurss Mejeri Dairy, Hälleforsnäs, Sweden

One of the treats in store for guests of next week's Swedish Midsummer Supper Club is the bark cheese granbarksost from Jurss Mejeri dairy.
Chef Linn Soderstrom and I drove to visit them, a couple of hours west from Stockholm. I met Kerstin Jurss the cheesemaker and her husband Claes. Kerstin is pronounced 'Sherstin' in Swedish. Whenever I visit Sweden, people gabble away to me in Swedish if they see my name, assuming I am Swedish too. 
(I'm actually learning Swedish, a daily lesson on an app. It's time I properly assumed my inner Viking. As I mentioned in a previous post, I did a past life regression and I was a Viking in a previous life.)
Kerstin and Claes started in a dairy in Jamtland, in North West Sweden, both making and teaching others how to make artisanal cheese. Last year they moved to Hälleforsnäs, a couple of hours west of Stockholm. 
Cheesemaking in Scandinavia is reverting back to the pre-war situation of multiple regional and family farm cheeses. In the 1950s, Swedish food was influenced by the large scale Agribusiness model from the States. Arla, the multi-national, bought up all the small dairies. 
'We bought that attitude. We thought that was the shits' explained Kerstin ruefully.
Industries that had been going for centuries was taken over and turned into conglomerates. 
'It destroyed our cheese industry. So many cheeses were lost.'
Do you have your own cows? 
'In Southern Sweden we have cows. In the North it is goats. Very few sheep. We buy from organic local farmers and from Arla. The milk comes unmixed from three possible farms but we always know which one it is. So we have traceability. 
'We have milk that has been stored at the farm before it comes here. So we choose to pasteurise for safety. The milk is from Holstein and Swedish RB.' 
Kerstin gives Linn and I a tour around the dairy. It is scrupulously clean. You could eat your dinner from the floor. We wear shoe covers as we are wearing street shoes. We are asked to don lab coats and hair coverings. 
'We have around 20 cheeses, lots of varieties. We use both goat and cow milk. We want to show different varieties for the teaching courses.'
straining curds, Jurss Mejeri Dairy, Hälleforsnäs, Sweden
What is your favourite part of the cheese making process?
'When you start transforming the milk, cutting the curds. It's really really lovely.' 
You are still thrilled by that?
'Yes, and when you start touching the curds to see if it's firm enough. Milk contains 87% water. When you make cheese, you need 10 litres of milk for 1 kilo of cheese.' 
Portable milk?
'Yes, it's a way of taking care of excess milk.' 
Kerstin points to the curds:
'This cheese will change completely during maturation. We will salt it quite heavily. The blue mould contributes to the taste a lot. We mature it for some time.'
The characteristic cheese of Sweden, I suggest, is quite mild, Edam-like, in slices. 
'That would be our hard pressed cheese. Sweden doesn't export much cheese. We have problems with the opposite, we import, which is not so good.' 
Vasterbotten did a big campaign. It's an amazing cheese, the most northerly in the world, near the Arctic circle, I say.
'It has an unusual texture: fine small holes, irregular. A bit like a Swiss cheese but much smaller holes. Swiss cheese holes are formed by gas, they are regular and round. In Vasterbotten the holes are made in a special way. The curd is firm enough that when you put it in the moulds, the curds will not melt together. It's a typical Scandinavian/Swedish Northern type of tradition.' 
Linn jumps in:
'Every village used to have its own cheese, Jurss Mejeri is the only company left from that time.'
In Sweden do you eat a lot of cheese? I ask.
'We are one of the most of those who eat the most cheese in Europe.' 
Swedes eat cheese for breakfast: eating on average 19.8 kilos a year. Here in the UK we only eat 11.6 kilos a year compared to France's whopping 25.9 kilos.
, Jurss Mejeri Dairy, Hälleforsnäs, Sweden

Cheese storage and wrapping

We enter a selection storage rooms, all fairly cold in temperature. Different kinds of cheese are stored in different rooms, to prevent bacteria crossing over from one cheese to another. The yellow, magnolia and white disks roost on wooden shelves. 
'Wood absorbs some of the bacteria. That's why we use them, they help the cheese. They breathe, and conserve humidity.' 
In another storeroom we see large cheeses covered in blue wax. Very Swedish, yellow and blue.
'But there are tiny splits in the wax.' Kerstin explains. 'We dip them in food-grade hot wax by hand. It has to be done quickly so as not to melt the cheese. When you have an industrial cheese factory, if the wax splits, you just redo them. But we are thinking about other types of covering. Now we use a food grade plastic and wax mixture that you paint on. There is not so much paraffin, it's more elastic so it is not completely stopping the cheese from breathing. So it continues to mature. This technique is more like before in England, when they used pig fat on cheddar. Pig fat lets the cheese breathe'
 Jurss Mejeri Dairy, Hälleforsnäs, Sweden

There are good moulds and bad moulds.

How can you tell the difference between mould and blue mould?
'It's not the mould itself. It's whether the mould produces toxins or not. Bad moulds produce toxins, mainly only on carbohydrates. Bread and jam for instance has bad mould. Cheese is fat and protein. In milk you have sugar, that sugar is consumed by lactic acid bacteria, they consume the lactosis, they eat sugar and reject acid.  So you have a transformation from sugar to acid. In cheese you can find very small amounts of sugar.
'Cheese had little capacity of producing toxins and especially if kept under 14 degrees, mould has little possibility of growing. The mould on jam and bread is more harmful.'
In the old days people cut off the mouldy bit. I interject. 
'When it comes to cheese it's safe to do that. With cheese you can scrape off the mould plus one centimetre, then eat the rest. '
That's good to know, because cheese is expensive and you don't want to waste it.
'But if the cheese is completely covered in mould, it changes the taste. If you have a layer of jam, it has mould, chuck the whole thing. Mouldy bread is not good. Do not eat mouldy bread.'
'A lot of people, if one slice is bad, they eat the rest.'
Kerstin shakes her head:
'Not good. Invisible mould.'
We move to a room with a salt water bath. 
'Most of our cheeses are salted by hand in the salt water bath. Except the blue. When we salt the blue, we put salt in a big bowl and dip it in the salt. We make an even layer of salt around the cheese. The salt is important because it affects the enzymes, adds to the taste, preserves and helps the cheese to drain. In the old days, salt was expensive, so they made cheese without salt. So if you get an unsalted cheese, it doesn't taste like cheese as we know it.'
In another room we see a large stainless steel tank.
'This is the cooling tank for keeping milk; it takes 2000 litres which we split over two days of production.  We make 20 tonnes of cheese a year, but we are still very small.'
granbarksost, Jurss Mejeri Dairy, Hälleforsnäs, Sweden

Bark Cheese

Why have you made this bark cheese?
'We saw production of a bark cheese in France while travelling. They put it in a little wooden box, and sell it like that. It's called Vacherin. The bark is around it. We've been trying to invent our own variety. Theirs is a little bit softer.'
What kind of bark are you using?
'Spruce bark, which has a double bark and we are using the inner bark. The bark acts as a mould, which you need because when you put it in the oven, it melts.'
What is it called?
Green bark cheese?
'No, Spruce bark cheese.'
You've got a lot of spruce trees around here?
'We do but we buy this bark from a French company. We spoke to a Swedish forest company here, but when they realised how much work it was to prepare it, you cut it into pieces, and dry it, they backed off. You prepare the bark by boiling it so it's soft. If you start from the middle and go out, you can taste the bark.
Spruce flavour is a little bit like pine? We associate pine with floor cleaner.
It's a wooden taste. 
Later, on my return to the UK, I prepare it as a meal, dipping raw vegetables in the gooey cheese. It's delicious.

Kerstin Rodgers and Kerstin Jurss,  Jurss Mejeri Dairy, Hälleforsnäs, Sweden
Kerstin and Kerstin 

Book for the Swedish Midsummer Supper Club on June 21st. 
An Anglo-Swedish collaboration between MsMarmitelover and Linn Soderstrom with the participation of Chef Marion Ringborg of Spring restaurant.
Tickets: £50 for a midsummer smorgasbord including herring, home cured gravadlax, aquavit, Scandinavian cheeses, skagen, salmon cheese cake, strawberry icecream and cake and other goodies.
Look: flower crowns, viking, sheild maiden.
granbarksost, Jurss Mejeri Dairy, Hälleforsnäs, Sweden

Friday, 9 June 2017

Election Day at The Underground Restaurant plus recipe for election day samosas

Tulip, my daughter and some of the volunteers.
10am. Tulip, my daughter and some of the volunteers.
committee room info underground restaurant fortune green election 2017
Tulip Siddiq on the campaign 17
11am. Tulip goes out to knock on doors again.
Campaign material election 2017 Hampstead and Kilburn

Yesterday my living room supper club became Labour HQ committee room for our ward in Kilburn. I'm next door to the polling station which is doubly conveniant. Hampstead and Kilburn is a marginal constituency. Our local MP, Labour's Tulip Siddiq, got a majority of only 1,200 in the election two years ago.
My daughter, remember The Teen? is now all grown up and working for Tulip (how brilliant a name is that? It's even got its own emoji 🌷.) This is what she always wanted to do, after getting a First in Politics at York University and an interim stint as Online Features Editor for House and Garden.
Since the election was called seven weeks ago, I've barely exchanged two words with her and we live in the same house. She'd return in the early hours of the morning and leave by 8 am. In the brief hours she was home, she was doing casework on her laptop in bed. It's been a punishing schedule.
To be honest she's been snappy, grumpy, monosyllabic and short-tempered. I don't know what she's been eating. Actually I do know: she's had the same thing every meal for six weeks: a tinfoil box of vegetable biriani provided by the 'Bengali boys' who volunteer for Tulip, who is of Bengali heritage.
I've done some leafletting myself when asked. I stood outside a local school asking the mums if they were going to vote for Tulip. Around 80% said they were. She has great name recognition (#PickTulip 🌷!). A few of the yummy mummies looked down on me. Not sure why, at least I'm doing my civic duty.
Last weekend I handed out leaflets at Kilburn tube station. I was doing this with a little too much enthusiasm (I like engagement. I was standing next to the barriers saying 'Who is going to vote here?') rather than the slightly pointless handing out of more bumpf. I was asked to move outside the station. Oops.
What I learnt while leafleting:
  • Black and brown people are nicer than white people. They are virtually always friendly. Massive generalisation I know.
  • Everyone under the age of 35 is wearing earphones rendering contact impossible.
  • People are really stressed in the mornings.
  • Some people tell you to fuck off. 
  • You aren't allowed to give away food or drink, this is referred to as 'treating'. It's illegal as it's considered bribery. (I was thinking lets give them a coffee or a muffin to ease the way, but not allowed).

According to my iPhone, it was predicted to be rainy weather on June 8th, My daughter groaned and looked even more stressed. Why?
Labour voters don't vote when it rains.
And Tory voters?
Tories will vote in a blizzard. Labour voters tend to be younger and they are put off easily.

Election Day June 8th:

My daughter woke at 6 am, showered and put her face on.
I looked out of the window. It didn't look too bad.
I rearranged the living room, making a T shape with the tables and putting another table at the side for drinks and food.
The day before I'd ordered crisps, chocolate, milk, sugar, tea bags, coffee, carrots, hummus, and ingredients for cinnamon buns and samosas.
We don't want people to be comfortable mum. Said my daughter.
Why not?
They are allowed to sit down for five minutes no more. Then they have to be out again, knocking on doors. 
Then she looked at my shopping and said:
We don't need real coffee, instant will be fine. Mum this isn't a supper club.
We don't need proper cups, just paper cups. We don't need proper cutlery either. 
But it's nice if it's nice, I wheedled. I want to provide a bit of style and comfort. Just because you are Labour, doesn't mean you can't be first class.
She rolls her eyes.
Hampstead and Kilburn as a constituency is that weird London rich/poor cheek-by-jowl situation. Hampstead of course, they are all rich nobs, although Hampstead has changed: no longer arty bohemians and intellectuals, who can't afford to live there anymore, it's now bankers and city people.
While Kilburn is inner city grime: lots of renters, immigrants, kebab shops, chicken joints. So this is an area of great contrast in terms of wealth.
Southern Kilburn is full of council estates that will vote Labour. Near here in North Kilburn are smaller council estates. One with small houses rather than flats is occupied mostly by white people who swing dramatically in each election between UKIP, Labour and Tory. Hampstead and Kilburn is 75% Remainer.

Louise of the Fragrant Supper Club, who lives locally, comes over to help me make samosas. I figure samosas are like portable curry, perfect for carrying in the keen hot hands of hungry volunteers.

Throughout the day my front door is open and a steady stream of young people come in and hover, waiting for instructions from my daughter. She is at the head of table next to a printer, frowning, phoning and telling people what to do.
Quite a few of the volunteers are Muslim and right now it's Ramadan (until June 24th). Observant Muslims aren't allowed to eat or drink, fasting from sun up to sundown, between 4 am and 9.30pm. This makes for a long and tiring day in mid-summer. I felt sorry for the Muslim volunteers and drivers.
I heard an electronic sounding call to prayer in my bedroom, I entered and one lady had a small towel on the floor and was praying. Later she showed me an app 'Submission' ('to God' she clarified) to remind herself to pray. Of course there is an app for that! It has a direction finder too.
In the committee room, it's becoming crowded. The local Labour party have been steadily canvassing every weekend and night for months. They know each street. They know who votes what. They get 'promises' of who will vote Labour. Throughout the day, a guy called Eugene runs around to all the polling booths and asks the Tellers for their sheets of numbers. The voting card numbers are passed onto the person running the committee room who then sends out a team.
For example, if the person from number 3 Acacia Drive says they are going to vote at 3pm and by 4pm they haven't, someone running a committee room will send someone round to knock them up. They will even give the person a lift to the polling station if they are frail or elderly.

What is a Teller?

Glad you asked because most people don't know. Tellers are the people to whom you give the number on your polling card You'll see someone from every party lurking outside polling booths, often wearing a rosette. (The only other people that can wear a rosette is the candidate and the election agents).

At around 4pm, my daughter said she was in desperate need of a Teller nearby. The person I took over from was a Muslim doing Ramadan, and he was exhausted.
We asked to see people's polling cards, to take down the number. Many voters are quite paranoid and ask you why. They feel voting is a private matter. But Tellers share data between parties and don't want to know what you voted, just if you have.
I tried to explain: give us your number if you don't want to be bothered again, or 're-canvassed' today. It's still rather hard to convince people.

The real rush starts at 6pm, when people get home from work. Queues will form at polling stations whereas before the rate is perhaps one voter a minute (in London). I baked the samosas in batches but saved most of them for the 6 to 9pm rush. Volunteers have also just got home from work and are hungry. Other volunteers have been pounding the streets all day and they need sustenance. My daughter walked for 16 straight hours at the last election. Her legs didn't work for 3 days afterwards.
That's why I don't allow them to sit down any longer than five minutes, she explained. If you relax, you'll never get up again. 
Voting stops at 10pm. In the last 10 minutes we ran to the flats next door. Outside the flats it's like an echo chamber. You can hear everything. We frantically called out:
 'Get out and vote! Ten minutes left!'  
'C'mon Templar House! It's only downstairs. '
We yelled a countdown: 'Five minutes, four minutes, three...'
I bellowed: 'England expects!'
We got a couple of last minute voters who ran to the polling booth. Every vote counts in a marginal.
At 10pm Tulip, her husband, and her close team including my daughter all met at The Count where people stay up all night counting the voting slips by hand. Observers such as my daughter will stalk the hall making sure there are no mistakes, no dropped or hidden slips, no discarded votes.
Those of us who couldn't go to the count (tickets are limited), watched the news on a laptop in my living room. Someone had brought some prosecco. After a long day, glasses were gratefully filled. We'd done all we could. The result was in the lap of the Gods.
Suddenly a roar: the exit polls says it'll be a hung parliament. Labour have done better than our wildest imaginings. Theresa May has made a terrible mistake. We start to feel tentatively jubilant. I drink three quick glasses. The others go to a local bar to watch it on the big telly. I go to bed, exhausted and drunk.
In the middle of the night I wake up and check my phone: Tulip Siddiq has won, this time with a majority of almost 15 thousand votes. 72% of the youth vote (18 to 25 year olds) turned out. Fantastic news. But I reckon it was my samosas wot won it.

Election Day samosas recipe with potato, peas and cardamom leaves.

I got a cardamom plant from Plants4Presents. The leaves have a subltly sweet cardamom flavour. You can use a few cardamom seeds instead however.
Makes 30

pastry brush and small bowl
2 Silpats or lengths of parchment paper to cover the tins
2 large flat baking tins
Damp tea towel

For the filling:
1.5 kilo potatoes, Maris Piper, cooked in skins (al dente)
100ml vegetable oil
1tbsp mustard seeds
1 cinnamon stick
4 kashmiri chillies, soaked in a little hot water, drained and finely chopped
A handful of cardamom leaves, ripped
1tsp whole cumin
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1tsp whole coriander seeds
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 thumb ginger, grated
1tbsp sea salt
200g frozen peas, garden

For assembly:
100g butter, melted
1 pack of filo pastry
50g poppy seeds or small seed mix (linseeds, sesame, poppy) in a small plate

Peel the skins off the potatoes and chop into small cubes. In a large saucepan fry the vegetable oil or ghee then add the mustard seeds. Let them pop then add the rest of the spices, the garlic, ginger, salt. Add the potatoes, stirring so that it doesn't stick to the bottom (lower the heat), then after ten minutes add the peas. Simmer for ten minutes then leave to cool.
Prepare the filo pastry by cutting it lengthways into thirds. Pile the strips on top of each other and cover with a slightly damp tea towel. Keep the rest covered so that it doesn't dry and become unworkable.
Take three layers of filo, lay it out in front of you and cut in half crossways.
Put a heaped teaspoon of the cooled curry mixture into one corner of the filo.
Brush the rest and the edges lightly with butter.
Fold over the filo so that you form a small triangle, continue to fold 2 or 3 times. Seal the edges then brush both sides with butter.
Dip one edge of the triangle in the seeds then lay it down on the silpat or parchment paper covered baking tins.
Fill two trays with the triangles until you have finished the potato mix and the filo pastry.
Preheat the oven to 200c.
Cover each tray with clingfilm while waiting.
Remove the clingfilm and bake the samosas for 5 to 10 minutes.
Remove and eat hot or cold.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Brexit Blue at the British Cheese Awards

Theresa May tries cheddar at the British Cheese Awards at the Bath and West Show

Bath and West Show devil cow
British Cheese Awards at the Bath and West Show
Bath and West Show
pigs at the Bath and West Show
After Shindig Festival, I went to be a judge at the British Cheese Awards. 
The awards take place at the annual Royal Bath and West show, which is basically Glasto for farmers. The Cheese Pavilion nestles within a large maze of farming activities. There are grunting hangars full of mobile sausages: bristly hogs or albino-nude pink pigs whose flesh looks creepily human. There are long tented barrows of penned sheep, different colours and sizes, the males with horns so curved you wonder if they grow back into their own skulls. Tall stables of Belgian horses, 20 hands high, like something from a fairy tale, double the height of a person. Shire horses with an Ugg boot effect, their lower legs shaggy with a calf-length creamy sock of fur, their arses decorated with a plaited braid, pony-porn. 

This show enabled me to understand Kate Middleton's Vogue cover: the one where she is sporting a hat, a simple white or checked shirt and a brown suede coat. Hers is in fact a modern country style, casual-wear for aristos. Although France is the centre of haute-couture, their style is ultimately an imitation of English country clothes: heathery tweeds, riding coats, barbours, hacking jackets, 'le smoking', waistcoats, crisp flawless high-necked polos; in short - beautifully tailored, quality classic wear. Stalls for Barbour, Ariat, Brocklehursts, shirts with horse motifs, foxes, sold by smart men in red woollen waistcoats and yellow ties and kerchiefs revealing the subtleties of English country style. 
Farm-children play with Tractor Ted toys. Adult farmers buy big shiny tractors. Areas are devoted to cider, owls and hawks roost on gnarled branches. Farmers line up to lead their potentially prize-winning cows by the nose, their wives spraying and combing the back end, that last minute touch-up. Men in brown plus fours showed off their obedient dogs, by lightly stroking the back of an English Pointer, you can freeze it for minutes, mid-step. A whole new world for this Londoner- I was in agricultural Disneyland. My only dismay was the description of the animals as 'meat machines'. One stand, selling a 'brand' of cows, boasted a banner: 'The supreme grass to beef machine'. 
On arrival I was given a white apron with the words British Cheese Awards embroidered upon it by my BnB landlady. I was also handed a blue ribbon on a pin, like a medal, with the words 'judge'. I've  felt proud, like I'd won a prize myself.
We were allotted judging partners. I got the elegant Simeon Hudson-Evans of Fromage to Age who I dubbed my 'cheese husband'. Later jokingly he referred to me as his 'cheese bitch', I got revenge by calling him my 'cheese dad'. 
Cheese people: the farmers, makers, affineurs, maturers, dealers and sellers, are a rumbustious and informal lot. I got the feeling that plenty of wine, beer, cider and cheese 'matching' occurred both before and after the awards. I also discovered that I can eat an unfeasible amount of cheese. I ate even more at the raucous Cheese Awards dinner in the evening.
I'd declared myself a bit of a goat cheese expert (meaning that I like it a lot) so we were given 'soft whites' to judge. There are seven different types of cheese altogether, using something called the 'rind method' of classification. I quote here from the British Cheese awards:

  • FRESH CHEESES (No rind)

Examples: Cream Cheese, Feta, Mozzarella
Typically only 1-15 days old without time to develop a rind and only a subtle 'lactic' flavour. Often covered with leaves, herbs or rolled in ash.

  • AGED FRESH WRINKLED (Whitish, blue or grey rind) 

Examples: St Tola, Aged Cerney, Crottin, Pablo Cabrito
Some Fresh cheeses are left to dry out, the rind wrinkles and Geotricum and other moulds – from white, to bluish grey – develop, creating a more pronounced flavour. Traditionally made with goats’ milk but can be made with any milk.

  • SOFT WHITE (White Fuzzy Rind)

Examples: Tunworth, Flower Marie, Somerset Brie
The curd retains much of the whey, ensuring the cheese becomes soft and creamy and grows a white mould, Penicillin candidum. Unpasteurised varieties develop a reddish-brown ferment on the rind whereas pasteurised versions are more 'Persil' white in appearance. Some are made by adding cream to the milk.

  • SEMI-SOFT (Brown-orange to grey-brown)

Examples: Stinking Bishop, Keltic Gold, Gubbeen, Ardrahan
The curd is placed in moulds and typically lightly pressed to ensure the texture is supple, elastic or even almost liquid. Some are encouraged to develop a multitude of moulds which are regularly brushed off building up a thickish rind, protecting the cheese and allowing it to mature.


Some are 'washed' in brine creating an orange/pink rind with a strong, piquant flavour and aroma.

  • HARD (Thick, dense rind often waxed, clothbound or oiled)
Examples: Cheddar, Wensleydale, Cheshire
These range from small truckles with a fine crumbly texture and only a week or 2 old to hard 36 month old cheddars. They can be made with cow, goat, ewe or buffalo milk. Many are packed in moulds lined with cheesecloth and firmly pressed.

  • BLUE (Gritty, rough, dry or sticky)

Examples: Stilton, Barkham Blue, Shropshire Blue
Traditional British blues have dry crusty rinds and internal blueing however modern cheesemakers often make more European style blues with higher internal moisture and sticky, grey-blue rinds. Some blues are made by encouraging the blue mould to grow on the outside.
Apparently if you are in the top judges bad books, you get to taste vast yellow blocks of industrial cheddar all day, virtually indistinguishable from each other. One fellow judge complained about being given the butter tasting. 
'I'd like that' I admitted. I can eat butter in chunks, without bread. 
Judges are asked to bring a cheese iron, which I don't possess. This is a long metal tool that looks like an apple corer. It is inserted into large wheels of cheese, pulled out with a sample from a cross-section, then the hole is patched up again. The tubular section of cheddar, for instance, is rubbed together, smelled, sniffed, checked for taste, flavour, length and faults.

The judging criteria works thus:
10 points for appearance
15 points for texture/body
25 points for aroma, flavour, balance

Gold: 46-50 points
Silver: 41-45 points
Bronze: 40-46
Good: 31-35
Acceptable: 26-30
Fundamentally flawed: 1-25

We have about 15 -20 goats cheeses to try. We start by unwrapping them to save time. None of them are identifiable by name, only by a numbered code. 
Simeon suggested we try five cheeses to adjust our tastebuds. The first five were all ok-ish, but the sixth blew our minds: salty, acidic, no ammoniac smell, lovely texture, artisanal look.  Cheese number 8 is gorgeous: wrinkly on the outside, buttercup yellow, perfectly ripe with a perfectly round central core of chalky texture and a gooey outer rim which doesn't slip off the rind. We give it 50 points. 
'How often does this happen?' I ask Simeon.
'Rarely' he admits. 'When it's this good, you are looking for faults- reasons to remove a point.' 
'It just keeps going' I say. Prickles of new flavour keep happening on my tongue. 'This has length'. 
'It's on a whole other level', nods Simeon appreciatively. 'So unique'.
'Extra-terrestrial' I pipe up, trying to think of apt descriptors. 'More than a cheese, a new dimension even'.  
I want to eat more of it, which is a good sign because I've already had around 300g of goat cheese. 
Cheese number 10, a late arrival, is too cold and we leave it till last. When we circle back round to it, the long rectangular bullion shaped cheese is beautiful, garnering another 50 points, full marks.
'I think I know this cheese' confesses Simeon.
He calls over a steward.
'I think I know the maker of this cheese, I need to declare this. I think it's a winner from last year'. (It turns out to be a St. Thom)
The steward says 'Declaration noted'. 
Then something unexpected happens: a flurry of activity, urgent hisses of 'look busy' and 'act natural' or 'Fill that empty patch of the room over there' and 'She's coming'. 
Our Prime Minister Theresa May walks into the room, with a couple of men in suits. She's wearing a bright green jacket and heavy chain-linked silver jewellery. Simeon shoves his iron into a cloth bound truckle and proffers it:
'Would you like to try some cheddar?'
T May pulls out a tube of inner cheese and munches on it thoughtfully. She's about to pass on. I want to make contact I think.
This anarcho-rebel doesn't wrestle the Conservative Prime Minister to the floor shouting something worthy and revolutionary. I say: 
 'Love ya jacket'. 
Theresa's face breaks into a smile: 
'Thank you.'
She then moves onto another cheese maker who asks if she wants a taste of Brexit Blue, a cheese that Tim Rowcliffe copyrighted 10 days after the referendum. She throws her head back and laughs. 

It's funny because last week I met Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the street unlocking his bicycle. Despite being in a hurry to go to his next meeting, he took the time to chat. I talked to him about doing a veggie supper club. Two leaders met in a week, fancy that! 
I'll be voting for Jeremy. I like the Labour manifesto and it's time to give a properly left-wing leader a chance.