You’ll see that in this third of our blog posts we have taken a slightly different direction in our quest to explore the foods of both the UK and abroad, and in our equally important mission to bring you some continental sunshine. You will undoubtedly also notice that we are entitling this as a ‘mini-series’. That’s due to the fact that in this week’s blog we are exploring the matching of cheeses to natural accompaniments and/or where appropriate drinks. We have along list of cheeses to get through over the coming months and we have therefore broken up the list into more, you could say, bite size pieces (excuse the pun) allowing you to continue the journey with us as we discover a wide variety of products, tastes and geography. This week we start the journey in Spain, and we end in France. We hope you enjoy this slightly different angle and by all means please give us you feedback in the comments section. Happy reading!
Introduction to Cheese Tasting
The most common cheese tasting revolves around Cheese and Wine and there’s nothing wrong with that, unless of course you start mixing produce from different countries and then it becomes more of a hit and miss. Interestingly small artisan cheese manufacturers of say Italy, produce wines which best complement Italian wines. French produce cheeses that complement French produced wines and Spanish Cheeses, Spanish wines and so on. That’s not to say that other cheeses and wines don’t match, but purists may tell you that it’s best to start with cheese and wines from the same country if not the same region. Here we are breaking with some of that tradition because we are intending to sample not only wines, but different accompaniments, although some of the principles we attach to wines can be associated with accompaniments.
Manchego & Membrillo
Cheese aficionados will be very familiar with this combination of Spanish cheese and its natural accompaniment, ‘Membrillo’ the Spanish term for Quince cheese…but let’s tell you a little more about where this originates, and perhaps the finer details of the products.
‘Queso manchego’, pronounced Keso man-chego, (Manchego Cheese) is a firm Spanish cheese from the La Mancha region of Spain, and is made of sheep’s milk from the Manchega breed. La Mancha is of course Don Quixote country (and for football fans the home town of Andres Iniesta of Barcelona FC fame), but as the largest plain in Spain it is important for its agriculture as much as anything else.
This zone of land is used for grazing sheep and goats, but as the windmills depict grain – along with other crops – is also an important commodity grown in the area. Of course these wonderful windmills feature heavily in the Don Quixote novel by Miguel de Cervantes and they really are a sight to behold as you drive through the region.
As Spain’s most popular cheese it has a firm and compact consistency and a buttery texture, and often contains tiny, unevenly distributed air pockets. The colour of the cheese varies from white to ivory-yellow, and the inedible rind from yellow to brownish-beige (the rind may be inedible but I know many who eat it all the same!). Manchego has a distinctive flavour, well developed but not too strong, creamy with a slight piquancy, and leaves an after-taste that is characteristic of sheep’s milk. It’s generally aged between 60 days and 2 years.
As for Membrillo – i.e. quince – this fruit is grown in abundance in Spain….as are many fruits. It isn’t unusual to drive through areas of southern Spain and see fruits growing almost wild in the campo landscape. The temptation to the tourist to ‘scrump’ is strong, as it isn’t such a sight to be found in the UK. This quince fruit was the original marmalade and when it is cooked it forms a firm-ish jelly which can be sliced. The fruit is peeled and cored, and cooked with a teaspoon of water and from 500–1000g sugar per kg of quince pulp. Preferably cooked in a pressure cooker, but it can also be left for longer (40 min–1 hr) in a regular pot, in this case with a little more water (which will then evaporate). It turns a light brick colour in the pressure cooker and on a regular pot, after a long cooking time, dark brick colour. After leaving it to set for a few days on earthenware/clay bowls (preferable), topped with parchment paper rounds, it becomes a relatively firm quince paste/cheese, dense enough to hold its shape.
At a local bar I have regularly frequented, the cook Beatriz produces her own oven trays of membrillo which gets sliced up each time a customer requests Manchego tapa or raciones (a plate slightly more substantial than a tapa). It’s sweet taste complements well the buttery texture of the Manchego cheese. This really is a winning combination, and no wonder the Spanish love it so much.
And so we have a short hop over the border, north, and off to the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of western France.
As you can see from the map, this takes in such famous towns and cities as Poitiers, La Rochelle, Limoges, Biarritz, Pau in the Pyrenees, and of course the most famous of France’s wine regions, Bordeaux. Nouvelle-Aquitaine is ranked as the largest of France’s administrative regions. But we aren’t here to sample the wines (we’ll leave that to a later date). We here to sample Fromage Chabis, with a really delicious fig confit accompaniment.
Unpasteurised French Chabis Goats Cheese – Corsican Fig Confit (for Cheese) & Peters Yard Sourdough Crackers.
Chabis is a French cheese with a delicate flavour and a texture that becomes firmer as it matures. A soft cheese at the start it is produced without heating or pressing, using goat’s milk. It has a coating of soft white mould reminiscent of other cheeses such as Camembert and this rind or mould is known as a “croûte fleurie”.
Generally best time of year for Chabis is between April and August, though it can be enjoyed through from March until December. Like many goats cheeses it’s a soft flavours with a hint of grass, reminiscent of the pastures in which the goats dine. For a more indulgent palate, herbs and spices can be added to the cheese for additional taste. That said, we prefer the accompaniment of Corsican Fig Confit by Charles Antona.
Of course, Corsica (Corse – to the locals) a French enclave is slap-bang in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, the island being a fraction north of Italy’s Sardina. Here the weather is ideal for the growing of fruit, and the figures of Corsica are renowned. In the 1500’s the island was under the power of the Tuscans and a decree was introduced ordered that each landowner and tenant had to plant at least a chestnut, a mulberry, an olive, and a fig tree each year, under the fine of three lire for each tree not planted.
Whilst we know Corsica for it’s glittering coastal waters, not many people realise that it is quite mountainous, with the mountains climbing to and elevation of 8,900ft – by comparison Snowdon in Wales is 3,560 ft – and is the home to rare animal and plant species which it protects.
In the UK we eat little in the way of figs in comparison with our continental neighbours – probably because we don’t grow figs here. This typical Mediterranean fruit is loved by all continental gourmands and it’s known for its naturally sweet and fruity taste. Fig confit goes wonderfully with salty flavours such as goat cheese or with liver pate, and therefore is the perfect accompaniment to the soft grassy goats cheese of Chabis.
And when it comes to cheese biscuits, we prefer the crispiness and the wholesome taste of Peter’s Yard Soughdough Crackers (you can try the charcoal soughdough if you prefer – either go well with the Chabis and Corsican fig confit). These small-batch sourdough crackers are fermented for 16 hrs, have no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives unlike many other alternatives and are the perfect biscuit accompaniment to most cheeses.
Whatever your choice of biscuits, cheeses and accompaniments – there’s nothing better than curling up in front of a warm fire and breaking open the cheese, biscuits and lashings of sweet membrillo or fig confit. Go on try it – you know you want to!