What was your lockdown vice? For some it was family-sized bars of chocolates. For others, buckets of gin. But in our household it was cheese. Glorious, unctuous cheese. My lockdown ‘food baby’ is roughly a quarter Gubbeen, a quarter Montgomery Cheddar, a quarter Cashel Blue, and a final quarter of Baron Bigod.
I’m paying the price for my never-been-so-big wibbly tummy now with hardcore gym sessions. Was it worth it? Maybe...
The ‘wrongness’ of throwing together an impromptu lunchtime cheese plate, the likes of which is usually the reserve of post-Christmas, pre-New Year week, somehow felt right at the height of lockdown. No, damn it, it felt like we deserved it! A wedge of Stilton a soporific culinary stand-in for a night at the pub with our mates.
I’m on the road out of my self-professed cheese addiction now...which means I’ll be slowing down – not stopping. Never!
So, what’s hot to trot in the cheese world right now?
I’d like to direct you towards St Helena. If you’re a hardcore fromage fan like myself, it may already be on your radar. If not...let me introduce you to a brand new friend for the cheeseboard.
Let’s start at the source over in a sleepy corner of Suffolk, and the meadow-ensconced Fen Farm, known largely, of course for lovely couple Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore’s silken, bloomy-rinded, earthy Baron Bigod. Smudged onto an oat cracker with a drizzle of honey and turn of black pepper, there’s probably no finer, or more sophisticated snack.
Central to the success and hype of Fen Farm’s cheese is the pure, unpasteurised milk gathered daily from the Crickmores’ handsome, well cared for herd of Montbeliarde cows – a breed of red pied stock originating from the revered Bourgogne-Franche-Comte region of France.
If you visit the farm admiring its bucolic rural setting, you’ll catch the long-lashed beauties grazing on the fat of the land – with the seasonal changes in pasture affecting the colour and finish of the cheeses throughout the year. One of the wonders of a truly artisanal product.
Julie Cheyney wound up here a few years ago – setting up her own business, White Wood Dairy (now St Jude Cheese) on site, using the very same milk used for Baron Bigod to craft St Jude and St Cera – both melt-in-the-mouth good.
She’s of good cheesemaking stock is Julie, having been one of the founders of Tunworth cheese in Hampshire ‘back in the day’.
Most recently Julie has been joined by former chef Blake Bowden, who turned up on her doorstep all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, yearning to learn the art of cheese. Together, again, using the same raw milk as Baron Bigod, St Jude and St Cera, the duo have conjured a completely different end product. The first semi-hard cheese to leave Fen Farm’s gate.
Named after the place Blake grew up in Australia, St Helena is, says Julie: “Not a true hard cheese. It’s semi-hard and there’s a bit of give in it. It’s a bit like a Saint-Nectaire. There’s quite a firm rind around it, which has a pinky-yellow blush. And once you cut inside it’s quite a squidgy, yellow cheese. I think it transfers the lovely, creamy flavours of the raw, unpasteurised milk from the Montbeliarde cows rather well.”
Unlike Julie’s other cheeses, which are lactic-style and take 22 hours to produce, from milking to ladling the curd, St Helena is turned around in five hours, being set and matured into a rather fine, fudgy end product.
First, let your cheese come to room temperature. Cold cheese is not your friend. Never forget that. Give St Helena a sniff, and you’re going to get a lot of nuttiness, and some floral notes from the edible rind.
Take a slice (in my case large chunk) and have a nibble. The texture is not unlike a French alpine cheese. It has the ‘give’ of a young Comte or Beaufort – to me, it’s more like the latter, being slightly sweet and grassy, with a buttery nuttiness.
St Helena needs only be paired with some biscuits and maybe a few slivers of sweet apple. Don’t overwhelm this cheese with lashings of pickles and chutney. Perfect for melting. Over roasted new potatoes with a few gherkins on the side. Or tucked into a cheese toastie. Bliss.