Are You Tasting the Pith? - 28th October 2007
I have a very good friend who lives in London, who does something with art in an old power station south of the river. He is a real cheese aficionado, working close enough to Neals Yard Cheese Shop to be able to pop in every lunchtime, and track the maturation of any number of cheeses over days and weeks, buying them when they are what he considers to be á point. Whenever we see each other, he has a few portions of cheese to hand, wrapped in waxed paper. Perhaps he travels like this all the time, and is known to his work colleagues as "Old Cheesy Pockets", but my uncontrollable egomania makes me think that he buys cheese when he knows he can give share some with me.
He likes pretty strong cheese. About 18 months ago, he and his wife arrived to spend a weekend, with the usual couple of pounds of strong cheese in tow. At this point, I was still a bit scared of these cheeses; they made the roof of my mouth itch just by looking at them. Coincidentally, a week after this visit I was hospitalised with acute lobar pneumonia. Convinced that he and his cohort of evil cheeses had something to do with my illness, I suggested to the doctor that I had contracted listeriosis from unpasteurised cheese. This proved unfounded, but not before I had sent Old Cheesy Pockets back to the Neals Yard Cheese Shop to enquire about the possibility of their cheese giving someone listeria. Sorry, everyone; I over-reacted.
Anyway, this preamble serves to illustrate the fact that I'm still at the conservative end of cheese appreciation. I've managed to overcome my morbid fear of goat's cheese, and am slowly upping the ante in the strong cheese stakes. A recent foray to Leeds' farmers' market yielded a range of good vittles, and being of a sociable bent, my better half and I invited a few people over for a cheese and beer lunch. On the cheese front, there was a crumbly Lancashire, some ordinary Cheddar of unknown origin, a ripe, organic English Brie (or "brie-style cheese", as we shall soon no doubt have to refer to it), and a slab of mature Lincolnshire Poacher. This last cheese is my new favourite, a hard, cheddar-style cheese, moving from sharp ripe cheddariness at the centre to a nutty, slightly mouldy rind.
Of course, there was beer to go with the cheeses. Meantime IPA (7.5% abv), a classic English IPA, with a strong hop presence and a lovely bitter marmalade character; Brooklyn Local 1 (9% abv), a pale triple-style bottle conditioned ale, with a pale stone fruit character and a little sweetness; and a bottle of the 2003 vintage Thomas Hardy Ale (11.7% abv), a massive concentrated barley wine, with a viscous, spirity quality. There was also a quantity of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot 2007 (10% abv), should the need arise. As it turned out, the various permutations of cheese and beer turned out to be more than enough.
But this wasn't really a quest for the ultimate match; I think that approach is a bogus, because then you are defining what people should eat and drink together, and that sort of prescriptive approach sticks in the throat, no matter how much beer you try to wash it away with. Far more interesting just to experiment and report back, to see how different beers fare with different cheese, and vice versa. At the back of my mind, I knew that there would be all of the three C's of beer of food matching; cut, compliment and contrast. Some worked better than others; the Greenwich IPA was a good compliment for the Cheddar, cut well through the Lancashire, and held up against the inside bit of the Poacher, although struggled as we got towards the rind. The Brooklyn Local 1 was a surprisingly good all rounder, acting as a nice compliment to the brie and the Lancashire, it's sweet fruit notes bringing out a rich creaminess, and a sweetish contrast to the Poacher's sharpness. The monster Thomas Hardy Ale pummelled all the cheese into submission, along with a couple of the lunch guests. The Poacher just about stood up to it. The cheese is fully mature, the beer less so; it reminds me of a calvados-soaked Camembert I ate at No. 3 York place. It came as part of a cheese platter, and fully 10 minutes before it arrived, I was thinking "what in God's name is that deathly stink; I hope it's not my cheese". Sure enough, it was my cheese. I was convinced it was Époisses, but apparently not. I've since eaten Époisses, and it's nothing compared to that soused Camembert that made my soft palate itch and swell, and my dreams vividly multi-coloured
But back to the beer. The Thomas Hardy still needs a few years soothing rest in the bottle before it becomes properly approachable. I would guess 2010 before this vintage starts to really blossom. I've really got something to look forward to on my 40th birthday.
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