Your guide to all things cheese – an interview with a cheese connoisseur
She devised the walk-in cheese room, a little library that the likes of Wholefoods Market and other gourmet stores have since copied. Her love affair with cheese started when she bought a nugget of Beaufort Chalet d’Alpage from a cheese shop in Meribel in the French Alpine Savoie region after a grueling day skiing, only to return to London with a 35 kilo round, selling chunks from her garden shed and then a Camden market stall before opening her first shop, La Fromagerie in Highbury, followed by Marylebone with the addition of a café. She’s published two books – the second an encyclopedia to all things cheese that I can’t believe I, the cheesaholic, have only just bought despite visiting her Marylebone shop a few times over the years. Jamie Oliver’s written the foreword. Well she does supply many a celeb chef’s restaurant. Would you believe the first recipe is labneh?
Meet Patricia Michelson who was in Dubai to launch Jones The Grocer’s cheese club…they do have a walk-in cheese room after all. Not only does she patiently and passionately answer my numerous questions, but I probe her for a wealth of tips on cheese from selecting and pairing to storing and serving. Say cheese and read on!
1. What do you look for when selecting/ buying cheese for your shop?
I am always looking for real artisan cheese with provenance and terroir. That’s the land, weather, animals have to be grazing, milk and traditional recipes. I like to get to know the independent producers and farms. The cheese has to have real identity. I just came back from Savoie where we go a few times a year to choose the cheese that we keep aged in the mountain cellars for two to sometimes three years. I source cheese from many European countries and the US.
The pissaladière on the left at Jones The Grocer’s cheese tasting is made to a Patricia Michelson recipe from her cheese encyclopedia. I call it ‘French onion soup on a tart’ – a more rustic version of La Petite Maison’s. Parmesan straws on the right also from her book.
2. Explain how seasonality with cheese works.
The seasons change because of when the animals have babies. The milk is left to build up so they can feed their young. Once they have weaned their babies, the cheese making starts again. In particular for ewe’s and goat’s milk, the quantity is much smaller than cow’s milk, so the season goes in and out all the time. Some larger farms stagger the season by plotting the animals to have babies at certain times of year so they have milk throughout the year. For this to happen the pasture has to be rotated as well. You can also utilise animals in different ways to get different cheeses – like with the Vacherin Mont d’Or cows where you can get Mont d’Or, Comté and Beaufort at different times of the year.
3. What do you think of blends like cambozola?
Sometimes, you have to have these sort of cheeses to understand the real thing. Sometimes you need something a little creamy with that little bit of blue. Start off with that, but then go onto others. But for me personally it tastes antiseptic and that doesn’t smell of cheese to me.
4. The import of unpasteurised (raw) cheese in Dubai appears to be a bit of a grey area. What are your thoughts on this?
Parmesan [Reggiano] has to be made with raw milk. So the parmesan that goes to Dubai is not pasteurised but it is two to three years old which is deemed free of any harmful pathogens. On the other hand, for very soft, delicate cheeses there’s a lot going on until you eat it. So with a very hot country like Dubai and with the air conditioning you have to be careful what sort of cheeses you have. The hard, ripened age cheeses are fine. But you have to be careful with the soft ones.
5. What cheese is in season now?
- Goat’s cheese is in season now and then again August/ September
- Cow’s milk cheeses are in season throughout the year
- Blue cheeses
6. Seasonality aside, what makes a great cheeseboard?
The range on a cheeseboard should always start with something light and palate cleansing like a goat’s cheese, followed by a simple crumbly cheese like a Wensleydale, then something creamy with a bloomy rind like a Camembert. Next should come a harder, fruitier cheese, then a washed-rind cheese with a rich, full-bodied flavour and aroma. Then try something with a strong outer coating like herbs or vine leaves and finally a blue cheese.
7. Could you give a few examples of what some cheeses should be paired with?
- Cheddar – apple
- Gruyère and Beaufort style cheeses – almonds
- Parmesan and goats cheeses – pear
- Fresh tangy goat cheese – Sauvignon Blanc
- Saint-Nectaire, Roquefort, cheddar and sheep’s milk cheeses like pecorino – Merlot
- Stilton and Camembert – demi-sec champagne
- Beaufort, Comté, dry goats cheese – super dry champagne
- The heavier the wine, the lighter the cheese
- The drier the wine, the less fruity the cheese
- Beware chutneys can kill cheeses – make sure they’re not too sharp and full of malty vinegar
8. How should you store cheese?
- Take it out of its store packing and rewrap each cheese in grease proof or double wax paper.
- Line a Tupperware box with a slightly dampened (but clean!) blue jay cloth.
- Place the cheeses side by side in the box. Remember to keep your blue cheeses separate because of their molds.
- Add three sugar cubes.
- Close the box and pop into the fridge.
- You have created your own little cheese room. The humidity is controlled by the sugar cubes and they absorb the air, whilst also releasing enough humidity to keep them fresh. Hard cheese can keep for three weeks if stored this way.
9. How should you serve cheese?
- Remove from the fridge 30 to 40 minutes before serving.
- Place on your cheeseboard and top with a damp tea towel until you are ready to serve.
- Never cut the ‘nose’ from the pointed end of cheese as it’s considered bad etiquette!
- In most countries, the cheese course is the link between the main course and dessert, although in Britain cheese is served at the end of the meal with a glass of port.
10. What cheese has the lowest fat content?
Here’s a little tip if you’re looking to reduce your fat intake. Take brie or camembert as an example. Cheese ripens from the outside to the centre, so all the fat is on the edge of the cheese. If you want to reduce the fat intake, take off the rind, which is a shame, and you will lose nearly half of the fat. Low-fat cheeses like Emmenthal are about 30%. The lowest fat cheeses are fetta, mozzarella and parmesan. Cheeses with added cream are 70%, but just have a little, 50g. Choose a time of day to enjoy your cheese and have that as your main course or your snack meal.
11. Last but not least, I love asking foodies this question…Stilton, Roquefort or Gorgonzola?!
I love them all! It’s how you want to eat, when you want to eat and with what you want to eat it. Roquefort with its meatiness and real sharp attack of metallic blue is absolutely sensational with a sweet wine. The density of a Stilton with its lovely nutty earthy edge and its wet rocky face – with apples and pears. Gorgonzola is so rich and voluptuous, it goes well with an Amarone wine and heavenly with walnuts on the side. I want all three!
Jones The Grocer has launched what appears to be Dubai’s first cheese club. For AED 200 annually you get:
- One cheese per month with tasting notes
- 10% discount on all cheese, cheese accessories and accompaniments
- 50% discount on two cheese events per year
- African & Eastern AED 200 voucher
T; 800 JONES E; email@example.com
Where else can you buy good cheese here? Aside from Carrefour with its focus on French cheese, and the likes of Waitrose and Spinneys, the following three gourmet retailers offer a wonderful selection of cheese – Market & Platters at Dubai Marina, Lafayette Gourmet at Dubai Mall and Finer Things next to Barracuda in Umm Al Quwain. Let’s not forget locally made Italian mozzarella and burrata from Italian Dairy Products.
I am constantly changing my desert island dish, but cheese is high up there as one of my all-time favourite foods. I’ve been known to eat one huge round of parmesan by myself in one evening. And out of the three blues, my loyalty lies to Stilton, but I will never turn down a baked camembert or a Swiss cheese fondue.
Do you share my love for cheese? Which is your favourite? Where do you buy your cheese from?
P.S – one last chance to win a Philips and Jamie Oliver steamer and hand blender before the competition closes tonight at midnight – click here.