Monday, 31 July 2017

Comté, the Cheddar Cheese of France

Tas the cowboy and dairy farmer with Montbeliarde cow, comté, Franche-comté

Comté, L to R, mature to new.
La fruitière à Compté, de Chilly sur Salins, Franche-comté
Every day in France, at least one farmer commits suicide. Isolation, few marriage prospects, poor status, long hours, no holidays and a low income contribute to this sad situation. But dairy farmers living in the French département of Franche-Comté are an exception. Their farms are home to the most beautiful cows in the world, the brown and cream Montbeliarde. Cow bells tinkling, they pasture on the green hills of the Jura, like a children's picture book illustration. Each pampered cow has a hectare to graze upon.

These farmers earn a good living. The milk they produce is so rich, so high in protein that it is worth twice as much as British dairy farmers get for their milk. This high quality milk produces France's most popular cheese, which is not Brie or Camembert or Roquefort - but Comté. Comté is the nearest French cheese to cheddar. I met a passionate farmer with the mononym 'Tas', a leather hatted cowboy whose parents and grandparents farmed before him. 
'Why are you called Tas?' I asked, thinking it wasn't a very French name.
'From travelling,' he twinkled.
'Is it something Turkish?' I guessed.
'Further south.'
'Yes, that's it.'
I wasn't sure if I believed him.

Tas was ruggedly handsome, with blue eyes and blond hair. He looked more German than French as Franche-Comté is close to the Swiss and German borders. We chatted over dinner in the grand dining room of the hotel. He was wearing a crisp white shirt with a 'Comté' appliqué on the collar and two wolves and a moon appliquéd on the pocket.
'I like your shirt,' I said.
'Tas always wears a Comté shirt,' he puffed proudly.
Then: 'Tas thinks the internet is a terrible thing. Tas thinks the work of a blogger is imperceptible,' he announced. 
'Uh huh.' I was so confused by the fact that he spoke about himself in the third person, I didn't have time to feel insulted.
Sandra, the red-maned French PR came over, crouched between us and said:
'Please explain to Tas why the internet is important.' 
Tas replied: 'Tas thinks parents who let their children be on the internet in their rooms is not a good parent. Tas thinks families who allow mobile phones at the dinner table are making a big mistake.'
I agreed with Tas but explained that to choose not to use the internet is the equivalent today of refusing to learn to read and write. 
His blue eyes burned at me. 
I clarified, trying to appeal to Tas, by saying that the internet - blogging, social media - is a way of democratising self-expression, publishing and writing. Tas nodded. 
La fort Saint Antoine, cave for comet cheese, Franche-Comté

The next day Tas leads myself and a group of bloggers to an enormous cheese cave, a former fortress, housing 100,000 wheels of Comté. The smell of ammoniac is overpowering. 

Every day these cheeses are turned and inspected. As time goes on, the cheese is inspected once a week, then once a month and so on. They are aged up to 18 months. Each wheel weighs 40 kilos. 
'This is why only men could work here. A woman is allowed by law to lift up to 25 kilos,' explained Tas. 'Today a robot does most of the work, guided by the 15 affineurs (cheese maturers) that work here.'
The cheeses are stacked on rows of spruce wood shelves up to 40 metres high. We watch a robot trundle along the passage way, lift up a metal shelf with a plank of wood, pull out a yard-wide cheese wheel, lower it, brush the top with a brine solution then raise it back to its place on high. The work is hypnotic.

Towards the last few months of maturation, the wheels are tapped all around with a sonde (both hammer and cheese iron). The sound of the cheese hints at the age within: a hollow sound suggests a crack. The other end of the sonde is used to sample a tube of cheese. The cheese is sniffed and rubbed between the fingers - if the top part breaks off, it's ready. The rest is reinserted back into the cheese and smoothed over.

Comté is a thousand years old, but until the 1960s it was referred to as Gruyère. Comté comes from the Gruyère family of cheeses. Emmentale, often conflated with Gruyère, is an industrialised cheese that is 'matured' very rapidly, hence the lack of flavour, using gas and heat to create the holes. 
Fruitiere sign,comté, Franche-comté
a dripping Montbeliard cow's udder, Comté, Franche-Comté
Churning the milk for comté
vacuuming out the milk to put into comté moulds, Fruitière, Franche-Comté

Fruitières et affineurs

Comté is made with raw milk, which I tasted warm and frothy from the udder. A farmer such as Tas will milk his cows and deliver it directly to a fruitière. In the Middle Ages, farmers had only one or two cows each. They formed co-operatives called fruitières to supply enough milk to make cheese. We visited a fruitière: the fruit of the workers. 

The dairy or fruitière smells like steamed milk. The cheesemakers wear white rubber boots, doctor's coats, hair nets. It's hot in there.  The raw milk is heated to 12ºC then 'ripened' to 31ºC in a huge open copper tank. Cheese culture is added and the milk is further heated for 45 minutes to reach 56ºC when the rennet is mixed in.

The curds are finely cut to the width of a grain of rice and at this point, the petit lait (whey) and curds are separated. The whey is drained into another tank to be dried into a powder and used in baby formula, biscuits, medicines.

The curds are vacuumed - literally, with a giant sterilised vacuum cleaner - into smaller Comté wheel-sized tanks, where it is pressed into moulds. To make the distinctive rind, the cheeses are washed with salt.
'The cheese are ours for only a few weeks,' explained Tas, 'then they are taken to the affineurs, a cave where the cheeses are matured'.
Each cheese wheel uses 400 litres of milk and weighs 40 kilos at the end. A ratio of 40 to 1. Cheese is, after all, portable milk. 

 These 'hieroglyphs' scratched on the side of a wheel of Comté mean something to affineurs.
This is hay.


You can tell the difference between a Comté made from summer milk and one made from winter milk. During the summer, the cows eat grass and flowers. The cheese is yellow. In winter, the cows eat hay, dried grass. The cheese is an ivory colour.

Everyone was bandying around this term, 'hay'. Finally, I asked:
 'What actually IS hay?'
The country dwellers rolled their eyes. Hay is dried grass. Straw is dried grain stalks. So now I know.

Comté is the most popular cheese in France. Locals eat 30 kilos a year of the stuff.
'You can eat Comté three times a day,' asserts Tas. 'Tas eats Comté every meal.'
France eats the most cheese in the world anyway, around 26 kilos a year per capita.

At the end of our visit to the Fort/cave we tasted a three year old Comté. 
'When a Comté is this good, you don't cut it, you chip it,' murmurs Tas.
The cheese is creamy, dense, nutty, long lasting with crystals. It's a huge chunk but between the ten of us, we finish it. Comté is well matched with a Vin Jaune de Jura, an almost sherry-like wine. You can use younger Comté for cooking as it melts well.

Outside I take pictures of Tas with some Montbeliarde cows in the lane. He calls out to them, a strange sound, a kind of echoing sing-song:
'Tas' cows, they recognise the timbre of a voice. Tas doesn't know these cows so Tas has to approach them carefully.'
He advances sideways, eventually inclining his head, tipping his leather hat towards them, letting them smell him. The brass bell around the cows neck clangs as the cow allows him to come near, it's a gentle scene.

Back in the van, I sit in the front next to Sandra.
'I'd marry him,' I announce. 
Sandra laughed.
Chipping a piece of mature 3 year old Comté, Fort de Saint-Antoine, Franche-Comté
Franche-Comté countryside, very green, Vin de Jura vineyards.
Dairy farmers and cowboy Tas with a Montbeliarde cow, Franche-Comté

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Kilburn and the High Road: where to eat, drink and shop

roman road Watling St kilburn pic: Kerstin Rodgers

Carving a straight line through North West London or Norf Weezy as it is known by postcode gangs, Kilburn High Road, aka the Celtic Watling Street, paved by the Romans, numerically known as the A5, along a route stretching from Marble Arch to Edgware, is always busy. Even on Sundays the traffic on this road crawls along. There is a gritty romanticism associated with this grimy highway: Kilburn and the High Roads was the name of London lyricist Ian Drury's band. Boudicca and the Iceni tribe journeyed this route for the final confrontation with the Romans.
Post-war this was an Irish area jocularly known as County Kilburn. It is said that Kilburn was the distance that an Irishman arriving at Euston station could walk in one day. 
'We'll give you back Kilburn if you give us back the 6 counties'  joked an old punter of the now closed pub Biddy Mulligans where they would collect for the IRA in the 70s.
I remember going to gigs in the 80s in Kilburn:  Elvis Costello, Madness, The Who at the Gaumont State which is now, like so many great venues, an African church. The morning after the night before, the run down cafes of Kilburn thrummed with loneliness: with Irish navvies emerging from their bedsits for a solitary fry up. 
Of late accents down the High Road tend to be more from Africa and Eastern Europe than Ireland. In the late 90s, the Irish departed and young Irish stayed home due to opportunities delivered by the Celtic Tiger. Since the recession in 2008, young Irish tend to move to Clapham.
Kilburn is a transient area, consisting of renters and city workers hugging the Jubilee line rather than families. It retains an inner city atmosphere, not yet being gentrified, despite the price of property. Shops and delicatessens selling Romanian, Hungarian, Turkish, Polish, Czech, line the A5.  Women in full veil shop in the local branch of Primark, shadows flicking through rails. The architecture of local beauty parlours boast of 'hijab rooms'. 

Pound shops, charity shops, vape bars and nail parlours are liberally scattered. The division between Brent and Camden separates each side of the high road. Food tends to be chicken and kebab shops: every window is scored with the glyph for 'halal', even the pizzerias.
Sometimes I think it'll never be nice. There is too much traffic, too much dirt. Cleaning it up is a work of the Forth Bridge. Former Lib Dem candidate Majid Nawaz wanted to run a tram through up from Marble Arch, which would certainly make a difference, however the road is too narrow.
But times are changing. There have been a flurry of openings. Here is my guide to both new and old. 

Just opened: 

This newly opened restaurant by former St Johns chef Ruairidh Summers boasts local seasonal ingredients drawing upon his Irish heritage. I went with my Irish friend Sylvia who ordered the ox tongue, which she declared 'very tender'. She's a coeliac so she was pleased to try a selection of gluten-free beers.
I ate asparagus with crab butter, freshly baked soda bread, rhubarb fool while we shared an Irish cheese plate featuring Cashel Blue, Durrus, Rubeen, Mossfield. 

Downstairs is the Sir Colin Campbell pub: good draught beer and live Irish music at the weekends.

Summers 264 - 266 Kilburn High Road London NW6 2BY

Neapolitan style is the latest incarnation of the ever popular pizza: thin, crispy, wood fired, slow risen and using only San Marzano tomatoes. Quartieri is a disciple of Pizzeria Trianon Vomero, Naples second most popular pizzeria after L'Antica Pizzeria Da Michele (which has opened a branch in Stoke Newington)
The best ingredients are used: flour, olive oil, tomatoes and house wine from their own vineyard in Gragnano.

Quartieri 300 Kilburn High Rd London, NW6 2DB

This is mostly a nightclub and music venue with DJs but presently the Chicago Rib Shack has a concession there. The wings looked good.

Soul Store West  34 Kilburn High Road, NW6 5UA

Stemming from an American chain, they call themselves a 1950's themed ice cream parlour.  I was very impressed with their Italian gelato, iced yoghurts, sundaes, hot waffles and 'cold stone' ice creams. The latter is where ice cream is scraped on a frozen granite stone with additions such as fruit and nuts blended in.

The Sweet Spot  284 Kilburn High Rd.

A kebab shop with a difference, these are served in a kind of waffle. I ordered a vegetarian doner, which was pretty good, especially if you ask for 'all the sauces'. They boast of their fresh meat imported from Germany. This chain is set to grow.

German Doner Kebab  304 Kilburn High Road, London, NW6 2DB

Sweet and Savoury

This Iranian Bakery does great coffee and fresh home baked pastries particularly the Persian style and croissants. Free wifi and sofas to sit on. 

Sweet and Savoury 237 Kilburn High Rd, London NW6 7JN

This Filipino restaurant opened last year, the second branch after the Earls Court original. I mentioned it in a tweet and Nigella asked for more information. So Filipino is hip! I haven't eaten here yet, mostly because Filipino food is very meaty.

Kamayan 227 Kilburn High Rd, Kilburn, London NW6 7JG

Old Favourites:

This bar opened in 2015 and won a Time Out 'Love London' award. They have a burger and taco menu (the tacos were rather expensive), Happy Hour between 5 and 8 pm, live music on Thursdays, average cocktails (the Margarita was a disappointment) and good draft beer.  

Kilburn Ironworks 332 Kilburn High Road London NW6 2QN

Istanbul Mangal

Excellent fresh food in generous portions at this large Turkish restaurant. The vegetarian meze were great: a verdant tabouleh was one of the best I've ever eaten. Meat-eating pals rave about the chicken shish and lamb kofte. Bread and sauces come with every meal. It's cheap too.

Istanbul Mangal 363 Kilburn High Rd, London NW6

Just off the Kilburn high road on Willesden Lane, Vijay is one of the best southern Indian restaurants in London. I love the uthappam (above), a fermented crumpetty bread with chillies on top; the dosas, the vadai, savoury doughnuts; green banana curry and various other regional specialities. It's one of the oldest Indian restaurants, dating from the 60s, with a sauna style orange pine interior. It's always packed.

Vijay 49 Willesden Lane, London, NW6 7RF 

This Aghan restaurant has had rave reviews from Time Out. As a non-meat eater, I just thought this was not very tasty Indian food. Best for carnivores. Plus point: you can BYO.

Ariana II 241 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 7JN

This fast expanding pizza chain is now in Kilburn. The famed sourdough 'mother' comes from Tuscany and dates back 300 years old. Reasonably priced and very good pizza.

Franco Manca 42 Kilburn High road London NW6 4HJ

This gorgeous pub is one of London's most beautiful with a grade II listed interior. It's worth going for the ceiling alone. In winter there is a coal fire with leather chesterfield sofas to sit on. The food, however, leaves much to be desired. The last time I ate there, a selection of meze was spoiled by the use of old frying oil. I complained to the nice barman who was sympathetic but did not offer a refund. Quiz night on Tuesday. Guest house rooms available above.

The Black Lion Guesthouse Bar Restaurant 274 Kilburn High Road London NW6 2BY

My pioneering supper club opened in January 2009 sparking a movement. And it's in Kilburn! Expect creative cooking, generous portions, a fantastic atmosphere and themed meals in my living room. Pescatarian/Vegetarian.

Address on booking but near to Kilburn tube.

I really enjoyed my Brazilian meal at this friendly and popular restaurant. The feijoada was pronounced 'authentic', my rice and beans was simple but fresh and flavourful with a palm heart salad on the side. Highly recommended are their exotic fruit shakes at £2.50 each: I tried a soursop and a cashew shake. On Fridays and Saturday evenings, they have live bossa nova music. If there is good weather you can sit outside and survey the local council estates. 

Barraco Cafe 10 Kingsgate Place London NW6 4TA

I moved to Kilburn in 2000. This local restaurant had the same formulaic menu for around 10 years. Alex the owner from Istria, took over in 2011 and the menu now features classic Italian and Croatian food. 'The last owners were charging £5 for two courses. This isn't possible, as my dad used to say: 'cheap soup will burn your lips'. S and B do a fantastic spaghetti vongole, served with clams on the shell

This very cheap local restaurant with a French menu and frankly bizarre decor (gothic with strange 'Swiss' chalet-style Juliet balconies) has been a Kilburn fixture since 1992. Owner Peter Ilic from Yugoslavia was a pioneer in offering affordable eating out. He used to own a 'pay what you want' restaurant in Finchley Road nearby. The Little Bay in Kilburn was the first of this small chain of restaurants. They do a 3-course menu for around £13, prices are more expensive after 7 pm.  

The Little Bay 228 Belsize Rd, North Maida Vale, London NW6 4BT

Decent well priced Indian tandoori house. Good service and fresh tasting curries. I should probably go back, it's been a while.

Fire n Spice 312 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 2DG

I haven't eaten here in a while but it used to do good gastropub food. You can have some oddly trippy nights here with an entrenched bar of locals who 'never leave Kilburn'. Don't go on a full moon unless you like excitement.

North London Tavern 375 Kilburn High Road Kilburn London NW6 7QB

Speedy Noodle

I've never liked anything I've ordered in Speedy Noodle which is a shame, as I love noodles. Oily, gooey and not very nice. I wouldn't trust it if you are vegetarian. But cheap fuel for some locals.

Speedy Noodle 238 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 2BS

Locals rave about Spicy Basil and it's always full. If you've had halfway decent Thai food in your life, this isn't it. Awful inauthentic watery green and red curries. Yuck. Some people have no tastebuds. Abrupt service but cheap prices.

Spicy Basil 165 Kilburn High Rd, London NW6 7HY

Shopping and other highlights:

Where 2 save
This is my favourite food shop in Kilburn. The Kurdish owners are very friendly. They stock seasonal specialities such as fresh green almonds in March, cheap globe artichokes, small green sour plums, large flat Polish cabbages, interesting citruses such as Indian limes or Italian lemons. The quality of their fresh produce is excellent and well priced. Inside the shop, they offer vegan cheese, soy milk, Biona products, all kinds of weird and interesting Eastern European cheeses.

Where 2 Save 352-354 Kilburn High Road LONDON NW6 2QJ

Hilal Food Centre
A large supermarket featuring food from around the world. I've seen uncured olives, strange spiny vegetables from Brazil which got stuck in my tongue for days, more types of feta than you can imagine and a good selection of Persian imported food. Foodies will spend hours wandering around scratching their heads in wonderment.

Hilal Food Centre 322-324 Kilburn High Road, Kilburn, London, NW6 2QN

A place to hear live music and DJs but I go on Monday nights where you pay £4 for a brilliant night of comedy hosted by Ben Van Der Velde. You will often get top acts trying out new material. Cash only.

The Good Ship 289 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 7JR

Art house cinema and theatre featuring Irish, Black and often political films and plays. Occasionally there are live shows from people like Mark Thomas. This place is an important centre for the community.

The Tricycle Theatre 269 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 7JR

Folkies is a bright yellow independent musical instrument shop near Kilburn tube. They also do instrument repairs, particularly violins and lutes.

Folkies Music 358 Kilburn High Road London NW6 2QH

Saturday, 15 July 2017

A few days in Swansea: Welsh cakes, Joe's icecream, laver bread and cockles

Coach Trip

On the Megadeath coach, the driver with the silver earring talks throughout the journey.
He says: 'Coming up on the right we will see the somethings which something the train which is electric up to here.'
'Huh?' mutters my sister.
Somehow I've vaguely understood what the driver is saying. He's saying these metal rods over the train line electrify it. A bit like trams.
We are sitting in the front because the back of the coach is periodically overcome by waves of faecal odour, despite the initial warning from the driver asking people not to do poos 'unnecessarily'. 
'It must have been necessary' we nod.
My sister and I have a row about the talk/demo I gave last week at Willesden Library.
'My friend thought you were very personable.'
'What does that mean? That I'm a person?'
I google it: charming and friendly.
'Yes, that you are very human,' expands my sister.
'This sounds like the faintest of praise.'
But my sister continues: 'but she thinks it's not foodie enough. That you could talk for a bit then demo a bit then talk. Plus she thinks you are underestimating your audience.'

I'm starting to get annoyed.
'It's not a fucking theatre piece. Anyway your friend walked out after a few minutes.'
My sister says: 'I refuse to continue this conversation. God you are so sensitive.'
I try to explain that I think her friend is being rude.
My sister sticks her index fingers in both ears and repeats 20 times:
 'I'm not having this conversation. I'm not having this conversation.'
Eventually I give up. We fall asleep.
I wonder if I should immediately get on a coach home.
I wake up in a slightly better mood.
The coach driver starts talking again.


After arriving Swansea station where there is large branch of 'Greggs', we walk around Tesco. I love going to supermarkets. Particularly in foreign countries but even in different parts of England. In this one I discover they sell Welsh butter, 'Dragon' cheese and packets of skinned frozen avocados.

I see a young man at the till, maybe 25 years old, paying for his shop which consists of packets of instant noodles, all the same flavour. I can't stop myself from talking to him.
'You really like noodles?' I confirm.
'I'm staying at my dads,' he says apropos of nothing. 'These'll last me a couple of days.'
I look at the quantity. He must have about 50.
'How many do you eat at one time?'
'Oh two or three.'
I'm dragged on. We drive through Swansea.
Betty points out the patches of wild flowers that line the main road.
'This is saving the council a fortune. They used to plant municipal flowers. Now they have areas where they don't mow and sow wild flowers.'
Sprouting from the emerald lawn we see poppies, cornflowers, pink and yellow wild flowers. It looks lovely.
Betty's house is a bungalow on a hill from where you can hear the sea and the swallows who circle over the adjacent barley field.
We smoke a joint.
We walk to a cliff.
We sit on a bench over the inlet, The Gower. My sisters' blonde extensions glow next to Betty's pale turquoise hair.
'Over the water there you can see Devon.'
I watch as a fishing ship twinkles in the dusk, waiting for high tide, to make its way upriver.
Perfectly spherical hydrangea bushes glow ultra-violet in the dampening light.
A tiny dog barks furiously: a jackahuahua, a mix between a Jack Russell and a Chihuahua.

Betty cooks a red Thai curry. The sauce is from a ready-made paste. It was so hot I had to pant as I was eating it. 
'I'm mortified' she says.
Later we drink wine and eat Caerphilly cheese.

It's time for bed.
My sister and I sleep toe to toe on the L-shaped sofas.
Betty: 'My weed dealer gave me 2 flannelette sheets. Do you want one?'
Strange dealers they have here. 
'Ok' I say.
A mermaid's tail is pinned upon the wall, I watch it flick as I fall asleep.
In the morning we made a watermelon dress, dyed our eyelashes and drank Colombian coffee. We rowed about Brexit and transsexuals. We drove back to Swansea, to the central market. 
One stall was cleaning the griddle where they made hot Welsh cakes.
Surrounding a central pole were a few stalls selling the local speciality: laver bread and cockles. Cockles can be collected at low tide, so can the seaweed for laver bread, which is similar to Nori. It's not actually bread, but stewed seaweed. The texture is sticky, gummy, while the flavour is strongly mineral, of the sea. I also buy a hewn-off hand-made chunk of local butter. 
'Extra salty' recommends Betty.
Many of the girls in Swansea wear heavy makeup, a dark honeyed base with 'contouring', crowned with the 'Scouse brow'. On their pale faces, thick drawn-on eyebrows look comical. It mars their delicate beauty. 
On the way back we visit Joe's Icecream parlour,  a block of aquamarine heaven, one street back from the sea. 
'This ice cream is special, almost salty, with an unchurned condensed milk flavour,' explains Betty. 
I order a Caramel Sundae. The subtle savouriness turns it into salted caramel. It's delicious. I think about it all night. 
Again on the bench overlooking the peninsula, stretch marks upon the water, we see the moon rise in Sagittarius and a lurex thread of town lights in the distance.


We walk downhill to the fine sandy beach at Mumbles. The weather is hot. But I'm enjoying the air. I'm enjoying breathing.
'You can even smoke here and be healthy, the air's so fresh' claims Betty, who smokes a lot.
At Mumbles pier we order a fry-up from the Beach Hut Cafe: cockles and laverbread are standard with the bacon and egg. I have a veggie burger which is not very nice. It tastes a bit like meat.
There is smoke billowing in from the hillsides.
'Oh that's the local kids' says Betty,'every summer they set the cliffs on fire'. 
Through the grey particles, we tread towards the sea: the water is icy. Eventually, I have the guts to dive in and gradually the water feels warmer. 
'I found a hot patch' I yell.
There are a line of empty painted beach huts. You have to go on a waiting list to get one. It's very hard. Mumbles as a name is related to 'breasts', mamucium

Welsh Cakes recipe 

Welsh cakes

Makes 12

225g plain flour

85g caster sugar

1tsp baking powder

100g butter, cut into small pieces plus extra for frying

50g currants or sultanas

1 egg, beaten

  1. Tip the flour, sugar, baking powder and a pinch of salt into a bowl. 
  2. With your fingers, rub in the butter until crumbly. 
  3. Mix in the currants. 
  4. Work the egg into the mixture until you have a soft dough. 
  5. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured work surface to 1/2 inch/1 cm thick. 
  6. Cut out rounds using a 6cm cutter, re-rolling any trimmings. 
  7. Grease a flat griddle pan or heavy frying pan, and place over a medium heat.
  8.  Cook the Welsh cakes in batches, for about 3 mins each side, until golden brown, crisp and cooked through. 
  9. Delicious served warm with butter and jam, or simply sprinkled with caster sugar.