by Kevin Sheridan
The winter feast has a long history in many cultures; a time to break from the darkness and cold and the lean times, to celebrate life and plenty almost in spite of the darkness. Central to this feast has always been the preserved foods stored from the summer and autumn, kept from rotting and decay through salting, drying, smoking and pickling. One of the most ancient and most successful ways of preserving the goodness of plentiful times is cheese. A wonderful and almost magical process that turns rich nutritious fresh liquid milk from lush summer pastures into a firm food that keeps its nutritional value and can be aged and matured for months and even years. Not only of such practical use; still better we have developed ways to make countless delicious varieties of this miracle food. And so cheese is central to the winter feast; in Ireland we forgot for many generations but it has returned as part of a new Christmas tradition. Maybe twenty years ago only a ‘posh’ house would have some Stilton and maybe vintage Cheddar with Port after dinner on Christmas day but now so many households have their favourite cheeses and very often their favourite Irish cheeses.
Over the past few decades we have imported our cheese eating culture from mainly France and Italy and with that we have taken the idea that wine is the ‘correct’ accompaniment to cheese; there is no denying that good cheese and wine is a sublime combination but just as valid and often more to our taste in Ireland is some good beer with our cheese. And the lovely thing is we now have great beers in Ireland, lots of them; small breweries have sprung up across the country. These independent Irish owned enterprises concentrate on unique flavours and quality rather than marketing campaigns; instead of a Sancerre with your Brie de Meaux try a hoppy larger, rather than a Claret with your Crozier Blue try a Porter.
Every year I gather my favourite cheeses on the way out the door of the shop on Christmas Eve; looking forward to enjoying them after dinner the next day, I think only once did I manage to actually eat them at the Christmas dinner table, who has space after several delicious courses to start on a plate of cheese. Mostly they get brought out on Stephens’s day while watching a movie; and I have to say I love my Stephens day cheese feast!
The important thing to remember is good cheese is there to enjoy at any time. We have selected the four cheeses this month not on any particular theme but what we think are four of the best cheeses we can recommend; we have two Irish and a classic from both England and France. From Ireland we have Crozier blue and Dunmanus. Crozier is the sheep’s milk version of Ireland’s most famous cheese; Cashel Blue. It is quite similar but the sheep’s milk allows for a longer ripening and so a richer fuller flavour. The Dunmanus is quite a special cheese made by Jeffa Gill at Durrus Farmhouse; this cheese is made only with summer raw milk from the fields over looking Dunmanus Bay; it is semi-hard, similar to many very traditional European mountain Tommes, with a subtle earthy flavour that when given time reveals complex long flavours. From England we have Westcombe cheddar, one of the few cheddars still made traditionally; from raw Somerset milk and matured in a cloth and lard bandage rind on the farm; it is our favourite cheddar at the moment balancing a little sharpness and a lovely nutty flavour. The final cheese is Brie de Meaux from the Donge Family. Almost all Brie de Meaux is now made by huge food companies but this one is still family owned and run and you can tell from the quality. It has a richness and complexity of flavour that you just don’t get with other Bries, it is not overly strong but carries that lovely fresh mushroom aroma and sweet milk and cauliflower flavour.
We hope you enjoy your cheese this Christmas, hopefully you get to share it with loved ones; we are so proud that our cheeses have become part of so many Irish families Christmas tradition, we will raise a glass in thanks to all our customers on Christmas day.