I admit it. I’m a cheese freak, a cheese chomper, a cheese lover. I’m not addicted to its taste and texture, at least I don’t think I am, but meals and life would be bland without cheese.
Ever since I can remember cheese has captivated me. When young, it was Scottish Cheddar, occasionally Dunlop. That’s all that was available. Traditional Scottish cheeses had disappeared and it took decades for us to rediscover the will and prowess for making fabulous cheese.
Process cheese entered the arena, its slices alluring to those who disliked cutting slices for sandwiches; or the triangles of the spreading variety whose taste hovered somewhere between plastic and sawdust with a consistency that stuck to teeth and roof of mouth like rogue bubble-gum mixed with wood glue.
No, for me cheese has to be cheese. The natural and simple process of turning milk into cheese was first revealed to me on a school trip to a farm in Ayrshire. The education department obviously thought children raised in Glasgow didn’t know what a cow looked like, despite most of us having easy access to the countryside. My enduring memory of that visit was the overpowering animal smell. I seem to remember it was the pigs. Of the cheese-making process I remember nothing.
For packed lunches at school and later, a chunk of cheddar and an apple was often my choice. Though when I worked in one place in Glasgow city centre I was able to indulge all my cheesy fantasies. Ferguson’s, I think the place was called, a large upmarket tearoom, near the Central Station, selling wondrous choux pastry concoctions, alongside a delicatessen I’d never seen the like of before but which is now replicated in a constrained and shadowy form in every supermarket.
From the moment hand pushed open door, the aroma of pungent cheese and herby, garlicky or spicy meats enveloped the customer. A counter that swept from door into the dim recesses of the shop was decorated by a myriad of colours and shapes. Cold meats and salamis I never knew existed, and the most tastebud-drooling array of cheeses, soft, hard, medium, cow, ewe, goat. I was in seventh heaven and set out to work my way through them all, buying a sliver of each, five days a week for my lunch. Sadly, I now can’t remember whether I achieved my aim. Perhaps, I found a few I really liked, at a price I could just about afford, and stuck to them.
Over the years I’ve been fascinated by seeing the milk to cheese transformation take place in a number of dairies, large and small, cool and damp, making firm, crumbly and soft cheeses such as crowdie. In one large establishment, saying it was up north keeps it safely vague, husband and I were horrified to discover the smoked cheese we occasionally bought never saw a smokery. Our vision of cheeses carefully smoked over slow burning oak chips was shattered when we saw a bottle of artificial smoked flavour tilted into the vat. We’ve never bought that particular cheese since, and steer well clear of any other food labelled smoked unless we are assured of the authenticity of the process.
Cheese remains a favourite food, sometimes cooked, sometimes on a slice of homemade bread, occasionally just a slice or chunk surreptitiously enjoyed on its own while making a meal. Camembert is a favourite, thought best enjoyed in private as the smell can lead guests to wonder what nasties lurk in fridge and kitchen. Pecorino has recently become a staple, replacing Parmesan, as it’s easier to grate and the depth of flavour means it’s economic to use and zings in quiches and on homemade pizzas.
In recent years Scotland has emerged from the dark side of the moon. A look at the Taste of Scotland website lists a wonderful array of cheeses made here. In fact reading through them I’m almost tempted to do what I did all those years ago with the cheeses in Ferguson’s, and work my way steadily through them. Though perhaps I already have!