Monday, 29 August 2011

Pontack Sauce

I have just made something which I'm not supposed to eat until 2018. Pontack sauce, a historic, English concoction based on Elderberries. Once made, the sauce must be bottled, and kept for 7 years before opening. I’ll be 27 before I get to try it. Prior planning indeed.
Apparently the sauce dates back to the 17th century, where it was served at the Pontack’s Head Tavern in Lombard Street, London.  I scoured old cookery books for a recipe, but even Mrs Beeton failed to give me a recipe. So did Escoffier. Even Alan Davidson’s “The Oxford companion to food” skipped from Pond Apple (a type of custard apple from the American tropics) to Pont l’eveque (a cheese from Normandy). A quick Google search reassured me that I hadn’t made up the existence, or perhaps, once existence of Pontack sauce.
I wonder where the Elderberries used by Mr. Pontack himself came from? I’m pretty sure there aren't too many Elderberry trees growing in EC3 today.
I wanted my Pontack sauce to have a little history of its own, so I picked my berries from a hedgerow behind my house, on farmland which would have been cultivated by Anne Hathaway’s (Shakespeare’s wife) family.
Not knowing what Pontack sauce tastes like (and not being too keen on Elderberries at the best of times) I only picked a modist amount of berries, about 500g.

In a pan, I simmered 200ml of vinegar, ½ a slice onion, 500g golden caster sugar, finely chopped ginger, grated nutmeg, mace, and 2 star anise for a few minutes, until it began to thicken ever so slightly. Then the elderberries went in. I cooked it for perhaps 15 minutes, the berries had broken down to a pulp and the onions were soft and melting.
I strained the liquor from the pulp and re-boiled to kill any bacteria or yeasts which may have been lurking in the sieve or the bowl in which the sauce was strained into. A few more minutes boiling and I decanted the sweet, sharp, spicy sauce into a jar. The jar was too big, but very sterilized, so I hope it will be OK for its 7 year ripening.

On that note, is it going to “ripen” or “mature”, or “mellow”? Both the jar and the sauce were in theory free from any micro-organisms. But chutney is supposed to improve with age. On a chemical level I don’t know why??    
Anyway, Pontack sauce has been made, and I’m already thinking about opening it to eat with my Christmas Goose. I guess life is too short to wait 7 years for a sauce to be ready.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Reblochon de Savoie

Cheese makers in the Savoie and Haute-Savoie in eastern France produce some of the best cheese in the world. Magnificent hard cheeses, weighting between 35kg and 100kg, such as Beaufort, Emmental, and Comté as well as much smaller, individual cheeses, Reblochon de Savoie and Chevrotin des Aravis.

The Aravis is a high mountain range, running from the eastern edge of the Haute-Savoie to the northern borders of the Savoie. In the centre of the Aravis is the Thônes valley, where farmers and cheese makers have made cheese since the 14th century, when the local herdsmen were taxed by the landowners according to how much milk they produced. In order to escape paying the full tax on his cows, the herdsman would always leave some milk in the cow’s udder. One the taxman had gone, and the cows were relieved from their remaining milk, cheese was made. This second milking was known as reblocher, meaning “pinching the udder again”, hence the cheese was named Reblochon. Novel stories like this are common for almost all French cheeses, which makes them so historic and interesting.
Today, hundreds of small scale cheese makers make Reblochon up and down the Thônes valley, sometime using milk from herds of just a few cows. Milk fresh from the cows is kept warm and very slowly acidified. Calves rennet is stirred in and once the curd is set, it is cut into small cubes and stirred in the whey before being scooped into muslin lined moulds and weighed with a metal disc. This ensures the cheeses are close textured and evenly shaped. At the point, the producer lays a small casein label on top of the cheese. Look out for this when buying Reblochon. Green labels identify a fermier cheese, made by hand, using milk from a single herd. Red labels are applied to industrial cheeses made on a larger scale in dairies using milk collected from numerous farms.

Once the cheeses have been dipped in brine made from salt and whey, the cheese maker sells his cheeses on to the local affineur, who looks after the cheeses for the next 5 weeks. Each affineur has his own secret methods of transforming the fresh, white curd into the aromatic finished cheese. He will keep the cheeses in cellars or caves deep in the mountain side where they will sit on spruce-wood shelving, and be repeatedly wiped with a sponge soaked in brine. On these shelves, surrounded by cool, still air, the cheeses grow delicate rinds. Pink, orange, grey and white moulds, yeast and bacteria settle on the cheese and break the firm, sweet curd down to a creamy, almost melting cheese.  
When you cut open a perfectly ripened Reblochon, the interior should hold itself together, but begin to run as the cheese warms up. The flavours are buttery and rich with floral, nutty qualities. Sometimes the cheese is quite earthy and farmy, but is always an absolute pleasure.
Chevrotin des Aravis is made in exactly the same method as Reblochon, but uses milk from local goat herds which roam the herb filled, rockier pastures above where the cows graze. Chevrotin are typically half the size of Reblochon, but has the same creamy texture.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Ragstone, Neal's Yard Creamery

I eat a lot of goat's milk cheese - from the fresh, acidic curd made nearby in the Windrush Valley, perfect for either sweet or savoury dishes; to the ashed French (and increasingly produced English varieties too) cheeses such as St Maure and Valencay, with creamy textures and lemony flavours; to harder, aged cheeses such as the washed rind Rachel from Somerset (she's sweet, nutty and pretty complex).

The past week, I have been eating a lot of an especially delicious goat's milk cheese called Ragstone.
This cheese is made on a hill in the Golden Valley in Herefordshire, by acclaimed cheesemaker, Charlie Westhead of Neal's Yard Creamery, who produces the cheese using raw milk from a local goat dairy farm. I recently visited Charlie at the creamery to see how he made his cheeses, and his eco-energy farm.
All the heating for the creamery (and creameries, even small scale ones, are warm places) comes from a wood fired boiler which Charlie stokes with wood from the adjacent farm.
A large amount of the energy needed for both the creamery and the farmhouse is created from a small on-site windmill, perfect for the windy hillside the creamery is situated on.

The creamery was lovely, the cheese delicious, the eco-energy inspiring, but it was the view which was most impressive. As Charlie and his cheesemaker, Haydn stir warm milk, ladle delicate curds, and brine the drained cheeses, they look out across verdant hillside pastures, steep sided valleys, and across this remote corner of Herefordshire.   

The creamery produces a good few dairy products: the best Crème fraiche I have eaten, Greek-style yoghurt (both set and stirred), a cream-enriched cow's milk cheese called Finn, which is thick, mushroomy and indulgent, and three goat's milk cheeses, Dorstone, Perroche and Ragstone. 
Dorstone has an ashed rind, and is light and moussey in texture, with nutty, yet fresh and acidic tang.
Perroche is very fresh, a drained, lactic curd, with a moist, smooth texture and clean, milky flavours.
But it is Ragstone which has interested me so much over the past few days. I have been eating the cheese both in its young stage of barely having a rind to speak of, with a light geotrichum coating and a firm, clean white interior, and in its full maturity. Ragstone grown up has a fluffy white penicillium coating, with a rich, creamy breakdown beneath, whilst retaining the firmer, lemony core.
Although most of my greedy Ragstone eating involved the cheese all on its own, I could not resist cooking with a little.
The cheese comes as a 200g log, so was ideal for slicing into discs. I warmed the slices in the oven, not to brown the cheese, or even melt it really, just to begin to soften.
Meanwhile, I fried some lardons of local Pancetta until crispy, before tossing them with a few bitter leaves (small mustard greens, rocket, mizuna), a little sherry vinegar and the smallest trickle of rapeseed oil. Slices of warm Ragstone sat on top of the little salad, with a few Mulberries scattered over.
Find Ragstone at Neal's Yard Dairy, Paxton and Whitfield, Bath Fine Cheese, Daylesford and Trethowan's Dairy shop in Bristol.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Domaine d'Esprits

Vincent and Marcellin Puget are wine makers in the romote, rural village of Buffard, 20 miles south-west of Besançon in the Doubs Jura. They, along with a handful of friends own and take care of a number of small vineyards in clearings on a wooded hillside above the village. It is a very small affair, with almost all of the wine being sold within the immediate area (a little of each vintage does get sent to wine bars in Lyon and Paris). 

I visited Vincent and Marcellin's vineyards in May, when the vines had tiny bunches of grapes beggining to form. In a few weeks time, perhaps 3 weeks, the friends will be gathering together to pick the grapes in the cooling Septemeber evenings. Everything about the vineyard is done in the old-fasioned way, because, I was told, that makes good wine. The vines are kept very low, being cut back each year to around a foot off the ground, the vines are knarled and woody. 
Honeybees were drowning softly from the wild orchids and dogroses in the hedgerows, Turtle Dove were purring from oak trees, and small lizards were scuttling across the dry, stoney turned soil. 
Vincent spoke of how although they were not regestered as an organic vineyard, they were practicing environmentally safer and more responsibly than many of the organic registered wine makers in the region. To prove his point, he said, "listen to the birds. Look at the flowers. They are living here amongst my vines. We look after them, and they help the wine." 

30 year old Savagnin vines at Domaine d'Esprits
   Between every other row of vines, the land is allowed to grow undisturbed, grasses, herbs and thistles grow; a practice never seen in large vineyards. The theory was that the wild plants growing around the vines increase the quantity and variety of wild yeasts settling on the grapes, so no added yeast is used in the fermentation process.
Nothing could be closer to a true sence of a flavour of the land, of terroir. Harnessing wild ferments from the native soil and flora.
The vines grown at Domaine d'Esprits are Trousseau, Chardonnay, Poulsard and Savagnin. 
Savagnin is the local grape to the Jura, a green-skinned grape with a long history in the region, although related to Gewürztraminer.
Savignin is a slow growing, low yeilding and unpredictable vine, but the fruits make complex, deep and interesting wines. It is the only grape that can be used to make the local Vin Jaune; a fortified wine made with late harvested grapes and aged in barrels for 7 years.
During the aging, a thick growth of yeasts form on the surface of the wine as the water evaporates, leaving a layer of air, and the wine oxidises. Vin Jaune is sweet, heady and aromatic.
A perfect match for cheese of the region - Comté.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Sparkenhoe Red Leicester

I have sold Red Leicester cheese for almost 4 years, but it was never really a cheese that interested me much. I suppose I dismissed it as little more than a brightly coloured cheddar style cheese.
However, a few days ago, upon opening a 9 month old cheese from Sparkenhoe farm, I change my mind on the cheese.

Sparkenhoe Red Leicester made 01/11/10
This was a cheese with depth and complexity.
The rind was thick, well formed and musty from its long ageing in Sparkenhoe's cheese store, and the curd was nutty, savoury and biscuity - like browned butter.
Sparkenhoe farm is situated on the Leicestershire/Warwickshire border, and is the only producer of a raw milk, traditionally cloth-bound Leicester cheeses in the county of Leicestershire.

So the only REAL Red Leicester cheese for me. 
The majority of Red Leicester is made from pooled (milk from many farms)and pasteurised milk in big creameries in Somerset. Formed in big blocks, shrink-wrapped in plastic and matured for only a few weeks, those cheeses are little more than a shaddow of the cheeese made at Sparkenhoe farm.
Sparkenhoe only makes cheese using milk from the farm's 160 strong herd of Holstein Friesian cows, which spend their whole life on the farm, grazing the green pastures of middle England grass and clover.
This sweet, rich milk is pumped into the dairy each morning where it has the addition of annatto - a pure extract from the jugle berry, Bixa Orellana, to give the cheese the characteristic deep orange colour. The milk is soured, and then coagulated with traditional calves rennet.
The curds are then cut, scalded, stirred, and drained, before being cut into blocks and stacked in order to realase more whey from the curd structure. Next, the curds are milled and salted, constantly being hand mixed to stop the mass of curds knitting together and to lower the temperature of the curd before being pressed into cheese. 
Once out of the cheese press, Sparkenhoe is a large, impressive cheese; a 20kg flat wheel, likened to a mill-stone in shape. The new cheeses are coated in lard and a layer of cloth, to form a proper rind on the cheese, protecting it over the 6-9 month long ageing period, where the cheeses are rubbed, turned and flipped on beechwood shelves.
Leicester may often be likened to a Cheddar, or perhaps more accuratly, a Cheddar style, but it is really one of our traditional territorial cheeses; it is a superbly traditional England cheese.

A final note on the cheesey history of Sparkenhoe farm - Leicester cheese was being made on the farm from 1745-1879, using milk from dairy longhorn cattle, a popular dairy breed in the Midlands at that time.
Production ceased due to "no money in cheese manufacture".

6 years ago, the current farmers of Sparkenhoe, Jo and David Clarke started making Leicester cheese once again due to the lack of money to be made in producing liquid milk. 
How things change.
New additions to the Sparkenhoe herd

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Jasper Hill's Winnimere

Jasper Hill Farm produces a small range of cheeses made by hand using milk from the farm’s own herd of 50 Ayrshire cows and two other local farms. The cows at Jasper Hill spend the summer grazing in small fields of wild flowers and grasses, between spruce forests and maple trees.
The cheese house is situated in the middle of the farm, next to the milking parlour. Every morning at 6am milk from the previous evening and that morning is pumped all of 20 yards from the cows to the dairy.
The cheese made are:
Bayley Hazen Blue – named after the nearby Bayley Hazen military road, is a dense blue cheese with rich, spicy aromas of fennel and pepper.
Constant Bliss – named after a local revolutionary war scout, is a bloomy rind, lactic set cheese with salty, sweet and tender paste.
Moses Sleeper - named after another war scout who died on Bayley Hazen road with Constant Bliss. This cheese has a thin, bloomy rind and a soft, almost runny paste.
Harbison - named after the oldest resident of Greensboro, Harbison is a brand new cheese at Jasper Hill, with the very first batches being made during my visit. 

The final cheese made at Jasper Hill Farm is particularly special. A washed rind cheese made only in the winter and spring months.
Modelled on the French/Swiss alpine cheese, Vacherin Mont d’Or, this cheese is encased in a band of spruce cambium, cut from the trees surrounding the farm. The cheese is called Winnimere, and is named after a small lane which runs down through the woods from the village of Greensboro to Lake Caspian.
Winnimere was not being during my stay at Jasper Hill, but the cambium used to surround the cheese is being cut for next season’s production. Cambium is the thin, soft layer between the bark and wood of a tree (the layer which the sap flows up a tree in).
The cambium strap around the cheese somewhat synchronises the farm’s cheese production with that of the farms in eastern mountains of France. It introduces an element of the wild, natural landscape to the cheese by impregnating the cheese with a resinous, woody aroma of the spruce forests, reflects the region and terroir.
Another unique way this cheese is tied to the farm is perhaps less tangible or visible. It lies in the liquid which is rubbed into the rind of the cheese as it sits in the Cellars at Jasper Hill, ripening. The farm takes its name from a previous owner, Mr Jasper Hill, who was part of the large family of the area (Greensboro was previously known as Hillsborough). Two miles away from the farm is one of Vermont’s most interesting and dynamic brewers, Shaun Hill, who runs Hill Farmstead Brewery. Were Jasper still alive today, Shaun would be his cousin. Shaun produces a number of beers on a micro scale, each brew being made with a single hop type, resulting in some really delicate, floral, tropical fruit, honeyed flavours. All the beers are named after one of his ancestors. In autumn, a batch of beer is made with no addition of yeast, and is taken into the Cellars at Jasper Hill to ferment. Deep underground, in the concrete vaults full of cheeses, the liquor become seeded with wild lactobacillus bacteria strains specific to the vaults. These, along with the many types of yeast present in the underground atmosphere ferment the liquor into alcoholic beer.          
The last batch of end-of-season Winnimere were about to the shipped out of the cellars on the first week of my time at Jasper Hill, and I managed to get hold of one before they all went.
It was superb. A sticky, pungent rind and the band of cambium held together the tenderest of cheeses inside - seriously rich and buttery like clotted cream; savoury and almost smoky like decent bacon; tangy and fruity when eaten with the rind. The paste was silky soft, and the rind had that discreet gritty bite a washed rind can have. The whole thing was scented with spruce wood.
Picture of Winnimere from the Jasper Hill

And to drink with this cheese from Jasper Hill Farm… Edward - made by Hill Farmstead Brewery.