Archive for the ‘Western Europe’ Category


Without easy access to a good fromagerie, one may still buy young cheese at a grocery store and ripen it at home in hopes of making it a bit more interesting. Large grocery stores will sometimes carry decent cheese that is young (and hence has shelf-life) but will be more flavourful closer to it’s best-before date. Along the lines of last year’s cheese post, we’ve stocked up for Christmas in mid-November at our local superstore (anyone from the UK will recognize these generic labels). By wrapping our cheese in greaseproof paper and hiding it in the lettuce crisper of the fridge for weeks, we hope to improve the hand we’ve been dealt. Most of these cheeses have some sort of official seal, such as DOP, AOC or PDO, which guarantee that they come from a particular region and are made in a particular way. It does not guarantee that they are good, or that we will like them, but in our experience a regional protection symbol greatly increases the odds.

I’m presently ripening the four whole cheeses in the front row of the photograph, and they all just happen to be French. Take note of the word ‘whole’: in my experience home-aging works most effectively for small whole, soft cheeses. I’ve had no luck at all ripening cheese that has been cut (is that possible? impossible?). So, starting from left to right in the front row, epoisses is an unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese from Burgundy, full fat with a rind washed in a spirits, and when ready it will smell like a horse’s arse. The pont l’eveque is a beefy-tasting brine-rubbed cheese from Normandy, politely sold in demi size. The vignotte is a pasteurized triple-cream from Champagne with no name-control; in other words it’s what passes for brie in many countries. The chaource is also from Champagne, and also similar to brie with a bloomy rind, but expected to march past the vignotte by virtue of being unpasteurized. Are these specimens going to be any good?: only time will tell. Are my cheeses from great ‘farmhouse’ producers? I doubt it, but I won’t be jetting off to Paris this December, so Tesco Finest™ will have to do. (Speaking of Tesco, the Ardenne Pate shown is gluten-free (and a £1!).) All these cheese will be improved by their native beverages: white burgundy, good apple cider, and of course champagne, repsectively.

Otherwise-pictured treats are a DOP pecorino tuscano, the aforementioned pork pate, an AOC gruyere, a PDO greek feta, an AOC issau-oraty, and finally a PDO british blue stilton from the Long Clawson Dairy, which is brilliant, and inexpensive domestically. Admittedly, not all these things will see December. Besides ripening some softer cheeses, another tip is that if you live far from cheese production is to consider harder cheeses that are designed to travel better, and are often raw-milk cheeses (once a cheese is aged long enough the FDA doesn’t care about the original milk). I’m enjoying a Swiss Sbrinz this week, a nutty two year-old, something like grano padano only creamier with and a hint of butterscotch. If Heidi can safely carry it up the mountain, an exporter can safely carry it to my cheese aisle.


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On the first and third Monday of the month, Younger’s Traditional Fish and Chips in Cardiff hosts a gluten-free night. Admittedly, I’m not a connoisseur of take-aways, indeed the biggest benefit of the family food allergies is how much we are forced to cook at home, from scratch. So bear in mind when reading onward that (a) I only ate once, (b) I haven’t compared widely, and (c) as a rarely-treated and deeply-appreciative audience, I am pre-disposed to be delighted.

That said, I thought it was quite good. The batter on the fish was crisp, much more so then the typically-floured fish I’ve eaten here. The chips were good chips. It was all less greasy than most deep-fried meals I’ve had here, take-away or in the pub. Whether that was due to gluten-free batter or fresh oil in the vat, I cannot say, but I was pleased. And the Real Live Englishman who dined with us was also pleased. He’s a Friday-night patron of this particular chippy, indeed walks past neighbouring chippies for this one, and, being English, he has greater scope to compare. Then again, mad dogs and Englishmen, be always skeptical of their judgment…

Happy Guy Fawkes Night from the United Kingdom! Here’s wishing good governance to parliamentary democracies everywhere in the coming year. And for what transpired yesterday in the American Republic, may we all be truly thankful.

Younger’s Traditional Fish & Chips
73 Caerphilly Road
Birchgrove, Cardiff
CF14 4AE
029 2062 0678

Gluten-free the first and third Monday of the month.

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A little cawl cymreig for Halloween howlers, and any other poor soul out in the chilly evenings. Cawl is a traditional farmhouse stew from Wales, very meaty and root-vegetable sweet. This is a great stew for cold weather, and it’s nippy here this week. Coming home tonight I saw a Guy flopped over stiffly on it’s box, at first glance totally abandoned. But no, its ten-year old patrons were indeed sitting behind it…and behind glass, inside the cafe with mugs of hot chocolate and an eye on their coins. Apparently they had decided that the risk of having the box snatched was less than the risk of hypothermia. Canny and sensible, or lazy and undeserving? I gave them 20p, even though everyone knows you shouldn’t give a penny for the Guy: they’ll just spend it on hot drink.

Back to the cawl. I swiftly browned pieces of lamb leg (and the bones from which the meat had been removed) in a little smoking sunflower oil, brought to boil, skimmed the foam, threw in some chopped onion and buckets of water, and left it to simmer all afternoon. It was getting toward suppertime when I fished out the bones, then added chopped swede (that’s the turnipy-rutabagaish creature), then parsnip, then carrot, then potato, then leek. There is a bit of judgment required in order to cook the vegetables appropriately – not too much, not too little, not to soon or lately added. Generations of farmhouse wisdom are behind such choreography; another forty years and I’ll have stew-perfection, as well as arthritis. For tonight, salt and lots of pepper to finish, and chopped parsley, if that’s not too fancy for the coal mines.

I’ll leave you with a few photos I took this past summer of Conwy Castle in north Wales, which I’m sure is quite spooky after dark. In medieval times the English (who were still a bit French at the time, truth be told) felt compelled to sit heavily upon the Welsh, who were so uppity as to think that the English should go home (preferably back to Normandy, but England would do) . The legacy for us today is a collection of very impressive fortifications liberally dotted along the green countryside. The very best castles are in the north of Wales, handy to Liverpool but a bloody long drive from everywhere else. Conwy is one of four famous castles in the area, and I saw a few other more modest ones on the sides of cliffs that no one seemed to know a thing about. Too many castles up here, who can keep track?

Conwy Castle and town.

Conwy Castle and town.

Conwy Castle and the valley beyond.

Conwy Castle and Snowdonia beyond.

Conwy Castle and the traffic circle it guards.

Conwy Castle and the traffic circle it guards.

The secure interior of Conwy Castle.

The secure interior of Conwy Castle.

The medieval town walls of Conwy (with parking).

The medieval town walls of Conwy (with parking).

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Poitrine d’ agneau farci? My french is many years unused, and thus crap. But I do know that to cook an unfamiliar and odd-ball bit of meat, turn to the French. Breast of lamb sounds much more exclusive than brisket, but it’s just brisket, and it’s one of the cheapest lamb cuts, available at £1.50 for 500g ($2.75/lb). I think that it’s a sign of the lean economic times that lamb breast is appearing in the high street grocery stores, where I hadn’t seen it before, and it sent me off to research. Breast of lamb is a succulent if somewhat fatty cut, and very tasty. Once cooked, the meat is easy to remove from the fat, if you like, peeling like sheets of phyllo, and those fatty layers preserve a lot of flavour and keep the meat in a delicate and juicy state. But it’s hardly heart-friendly.

As for the French sources, Larousse Gastronomic and Cordon Blue agreed that slow and low was the way to go. I sauteed in olive oil onion, garlic, a great deal of rosemary and (gluten-free, egg-free) bread crumbs for the stuffing, and rolled it up in the meat to tie. I seared the joint over smoking sunflower oil, then removed it so that quarters of onion and carrot could be coloured, too. I returned the meat to the pot, blessed it with half a bottle of white wine, covered and roasted it for one-hour forty-five minutes at 160C (325F). During it’s well-deserved rest afterward, I strained the remainder and thought about making a gravy, but decided to take my own rest, finish the bottle of wine instead and just serve the defatted juices. Maybe I fell down on the frenchness at the end there: I was supposed to make a proper sauce, but I just drank instead. Oh, well: au jus! Voila!

This really was new to me, breast of lamb; incredibly I’d never heard of it before. When I looked it up on the butchery diagram, it was of course the part of the lamb where another lamb would suckle if the lamb in question ever became a ewe (which would make the agneau an agnelle, I think). The beef equivalent is, as I said, brisket, and the pork, belly. But the best known breasts in grocery store are of course on the poultry. I’d never considered this before: I suppose I can understand the name as intuitive in a way, but I grew up with chickens in my backyard, and not in eighteen years did I see one breastfeed. Just a thought.

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Instead of a globe-trotting recipe this week, I had wanted to write a simple guide to buying and serving good cheese. Cheese is a simple and powerful link with the past. Rich and poor alike, Europeans ate cheese for hundreds, even thousands of years. But cheese, like wine, is a very complicated matter that requires time, study, and lots of good samples; frankly, anything meaningful is beyond the scope of a short article. So, because I believe that in complicated circumstances simple examples can be best, I’m just going to describe the cheeses that I’m serving over the holidays, with some pairings. I’ll follow that with a few thoughts on buying and serving cheese. If that’s interesting to you, terrific. If that’s not, well then Merry Christmas and see you next year!

My Cheese Selection for the Holidays

By category and with pairings, here’s what I’ve got:

A Blue-veined: English stilton is a semi-firm, full-flavoured, crumbly blue, typically not as salty as Danish nor as creamy as young gorgonzola. Unlike French roquefort, there is no rye bread involved in the production of stilton, so it’s safe for coeliacs. Like most blues, it works well with rice cakes (yes, those big dry disks), dried dates (stone-in are more moist and flavourful than the pitted kind), and a big fruity tannic red wine wine, or fortified wines like sherry or port. Seasonally-speaking, it’s nice against cranberry jelly.

A Crowd-pleaser: Aged Dutch gouda (as opposed to the young, semi-firm cheese) is a hard cheese that’s sweet and caramel-like in flavour and everybody loves it. I like it with fig compote and any kind of toasted bread or cracker. I think it’s meant for beer, but if you don’t have any, try a dry apple cider.

A Soft and Downy: I do have a disk of camembert fait en Normandie ripening in my fridge, although it is neither name-controlled nor made from raw-milk (more on that below, if you’re interested). I buy what I can find, and even though it’s a factory cheese, as a whole plump wheel ripened to within a few days of its shelf-life it is not half-bad: garlicky and mushroomy. Soft downy cheeses with high cream content are great with sparkling wine and fresh fruit.

Two Firm and Rich: I have both an aged Swiss gruyere, which I find to be beefy and salty, and an aged English cheddar, which is sharp and toffee-like. Swiss-made cheeses are good bets: the Swiss, and this will surprise no one who’s visited their country, hold their cheesesmakers to very high standards, and they mostly make hard, hardy cheeses, the sort that travel well. The same can be said for two-year-old cheddars, although mine came from just up the road. I think that well-aged cheddar is nice with corn cakes (yes, those big dry disks) and lightly smoked Polish sausage. I like Swiss gruyere with cured meat, too, but the dry-cured kind like bundnerfleisch. Both cheeses can stand up to big whites or reds.

A Curiosity: I blindly picked-up an AOC ossau-iraty from the French Pyrenees, because you can learn something new every day. It’s a hard sheep’s milk cheese, supposedly a Basque recipe thousands of years old. It looks promising, and I think I’ll serve it with olives, serrano ham and a rioja.

But the Little Stinker: is thus far an unrequited love, as I am still trying to find a barn-yardy, washed rind cheese for this critical category. Sadly, all the reblochon in town is fake, the epoisse dried and sunken, and the Alsatian muenster oozing and slimy. In the UK this category is the toughest to fulfill (while under the USDA’s pasteurization laws it is nigh-impossible). But I still have a few days…

General Notes on Cheese

Thumbnail sketches are necessarily incomplete with such a complicated subject, but I do shop for, store, and serve cheese with a few broad biases:

  • Raw milk cheese is usually more flavourful than cheese made with pasteurized milk. The USDA bans European imports of raw-milk cheeses aged less than sixty days to the US.
  • Aged cheese is usually more flavourful than young cheese.
  • Soft, washed-rind cheeses (the rind looks moist and there is no fuzziness) are usually the most aromatic.
  • Soft cheeses should look plump in their cases. If they are whole, I can ripen them up until near their best-before dates for maximum flavour.
  • Name-controlled European cheese (AOC, DOC, DO, or PDO are the abbreviations you will see) is usually a best bet, though not always. The control is for region, milk, and production, but does not guarantee an interesting cheese, or proper handling. But the French, Swiss, Spanish and Italians do feel they having something worth protecting, and they are right.
  • At home, I keep cheese loosely wrapped in a closed (but not perfectly sealed box) in the refrigerator. Cheese needs to breathe without drying out.
  • I present cheeses in big pieces that have come to room temperature in their wrappers for the hour before serving.
  • Each cheese should get its own knife, and ideally have some room.
  • I pair cheeses with crackers, olives, dried fruit, nuts, fresh fruit, chutneys, and compotes. If I had good bread I’d certainly use it.
  • I pair cheeses with reds, whites, ports, sherries, sparklers, and ciders. If I had good beer I’d certainly use it.
  • A safe way to pair is to match cheese to the foods and beverages that are produced nearby (eg. brie with champagne, parmigiano with chianti, queso de zuheros with almonds).

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