MONDAY is the start of National Cheese Week. It’s also National Franchise Week, Customer Service Week, Trichotrillomania (hair-pulling) Awareness Week, then the big build-up to October 14 when National Knitting Week casts on.
Each has its own merits and perhaps represents a worthy cause, but a bold cheese and beer combination remains one of life’s particular pleasures and deserves its seven days in the sun. In many ways, beer and cheese have more in common than wine and cheese. Pairings can be easier as there are multiple aromas and flavours to deal with – hops, yeast, malt and their combined range of spicy, earthy and vegetable characteristics.
Fine cheeses have life, character and charm; they stimulate the senses, with every mouthful revealing a new facet and nuance of flavour. With a little grate of effort and a spread of imagination, a whole new experience opens up by placing exciting cheeses and thought-provoking ales together. Plus, as with all food and drink matchings, there are no hard and fast rules, only a few principles to make life easier.
The easiest and most successful rule for beer and cheese pairings is to match their intensities of flavour – delicate with delicate, spice with spice, cream with cream and pungent with pungent. Alternatively choose a cheese with little or no acidity; use the beer to provide a crisp freshness – and don’t forget that little rush of CO2. The bubbles provide an extra dose of acidity, that’s why beer seems so refreshing and why it lightens up the richness of the food it is served with.
Cheese can ease any bitter hoppiness, while the beer can make the cheese so much more palatable. The range of flavours in beers, from lightly biscuity and nutty through to the thunder of wintry spices and dried fruits means that there is a beer to match any cheese.
A good aperitif would be Allendale Best Bitter (3.8% alcohol by volume), from the heights of the Northumberland and Cumbrian borders. This is a golden, bottle-conditioned ale with the merest hint of malt lapping over a finely constructed hop base. Combine the experience with the Northumberland Cheese Company’s Elsdon full fat hard goats’ cheese – long on smooth milky flavour with a touch of sweetness, reminiscent of those bottle-shaped milk chews. The beer’s hoppy bitterness flows over it at first but the cheese returns with a determination and an even deeper milkiness.
Liefmans Frambozen (4.5% ABV) is a powerful Belgian raspberry beer. Reddish-brown in colour with a white, frothy head, it is at once sherbety-sweet and almost mouth-twistingly sour. It is also intensely fruity – chiefly raspberries – but with cherry and lemon notes also present.
St Tola is an Irish cheese with huge complexity and depth of flavour. It is deceptive, because the initial sensation is of a gentle, floral, lactic soul, but the flavours linger long. It combines honey aromas and a sweet organic herbal nature with a creamy, yoghurty texture. Partnered with the tart, fresh raspberry flavours of the beer, the two strike a great balance in the mouth – subtle, perhaps, but there’s a lot going on.
Duchy Original Organic Ale (5.0% ABV) is part of the brand created by the Prince of Wales in 1990 through his commitment to organic farming. The beer is copper-coloured and slightly malty in flavour, which works away in the background behind a leafy hoppiness and a distinct spritziness. It’s a perfect all-round beer, but it dulls the Northumberland Elsdon somewhat, then overwhelms it completely. Northumberland Nettle full fat hard cows’ cheese seems a better choice, though. It’s creamily buttery with a vague hint of spice, presumably from the specks of nettle through it. The beer’s malt earthiness and the hedgerow herbage settle down well, plus it helps complete a circle – according to several sources, cows fed on a diet of nettles produce better milk and meat, and chickens eating them lay more eggs. Medicinally, nettle possesses astringent, tonic, antiseptic, depurative, homeostatic and diuretic properties. And, the cereal content of beer makes it a good source of vitamins, especially B12, B6 and folate, a substance shown to have an important role in protecting against heart disease, strokes and cancer.
Brakspear Triple (7.2% ABV) is hopped three separate times in the brewing process to give flavour, complexity and freshness. With its high alcohol content and bottle-conditioning, this is a beer that will go on to develop further complexity as it matures, creating a highly aromatic ale delivering its rich vinous complexity with flavours akin to rum and Madeira. Cashel Blue is another Irish cheese with rich, voluptuously creamy textures punctuated with a little spicy lift. This creamy example has a high acidity which is similar to that of the beer. The fruity sweetness of the Brakspear Triple contrasts with the creamy saltiness of the cheese with its rich rum-like flavours until they merge seamlessly together – sweet with sweet, power with power, in a winning pairing.
Cheesemaking, like brewing, is the art of doing as little as possible to interfere with nature. Too much meddling and the finesse and delicacy that was so enticing in the first place gets lost. The best cheeses – like the best beers – are made in small quantities by artisan producers. You can substitute the words beer and cheese when you appreciate that larger producers selling to the mass market are more likely to be interested in shelf-life, price and uniformity, while the craftsman is concerned in preserving the flavours given to him by the elements in his basic materials.
Quality of ingredients is of the utmost importance. With cheese, the breed of animal, its age, feeding routine, good hygiene, soil conditions and even the weather, all have a bearing on its character. It’s what French winemakers call terroir, a term almost beyond description that means so much for those who understand it and dismissed out of hand by pragmatists lacking in romantic introspection and philosophical contemplation.
Cheeses produced on a large scale can be very good, but they tend to lack delicacy and character and often can’t take daily variations in characteristics into account. Fine cheeses and fine beers have life, character and charm; they stimulate the senses; every mouthful revealing a new facet and nuance of flavour.
Next week also includes National Poetry Day (Thursday, October 4), so celebrate with a beer, some cheese and a recital of the following from an anonymous poet:
A cheese that was aged and grey
was walking and talking one day.
Said the cheese “kindly note,
my mum was a goat,
and I’m made out of curds by the whey.
It gets funnier by the bottle, honestly.
Northumberland Elsdon and Nettle cheese details at www.northumberlandcheese.co.uk , (01670) 789798.
Cashel Blue and St Tola are available mail-order from Neals Yard Dairy, Covent Garden, London, (020) 7240-5700, www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk
Beers from Fenwick, Newcastle, (0191) 232-5100.
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Cider award for heritage pub
THE Cumberland Arms, Byker, Newcastle, has been voted North-East winner of the National Cider Pub of the Year Competition 2007. This is part of the Campaign For Real Ale (Camra) dedication of October as Cider Month,
Competing against more than 60 outlets in the region selling traditional cider, the Cumberland has been rewarded for its commitment and went forward to the next round of the competition before being pipped by the Valley Bar, Scarborough.
Judges were impressed with the 19th Century pub’s community focus, friendly atmosphere and superb location – overlooking the historic Ouseburn Valley. However, it was the choice of up to four traditional ciders and perries delivered direct from the cellar that swayed them.
Chris Palmer, Camra’s North-East regional cider co-ordinator, says: “The Cumberland has long been a regular outlet for ciders.
“Coupled with the pub’s two organic festivals each year, it means cider ‘activists’ are well catered for.”
The Cumberland is celebrating with a week-long cider fest starting today. Details: (0191) 265-6151 or www.thecumberlandarms.co.uk