A few weeks ago we got an invite to attend a wine and cheese tasting in Manchester, as part of an education campaign for Vive le Cheese, which aims to get us Brits enjoying the pleasures of French fromage. Needless to say it didn’t take much arm-twisting to get me to sample cheeses (and quaff wine too) so I made a beeline for the Soup Kitchen in Manchester’s Northern Quarter to check out the ‘chewtorial’ last Tuesday (or should that be Chewsday?)
Thanks to traffic chaos caused by Take That in concert (mental note, another reason to damn Take That to the eternal fires of Hades), my companion and I turned up slightly late. The Soup Kitchen was filled with folk, watching the fromagiére at the front of the impromptu classroom. Gherkins (heaven!) and sliced bread sat invitingly on the trestle tables. We slunk in quietly before being made to feel welcome next to some familiar foodie faces, giving us the chance to play catch up and enjoy a communal giggle as the evening progressed.
We’d walked in slap-bang in the middle of the introduction, where the fromagiére, Phoebe Weller, was warming up an excited crowd with pointers on affinage and terroir. As the first round of cheeses was being handed out she urged us to really get to know our fromage by sniffing, rubbing, and rolling it. So much for not playing with your food. I decided to scrawl notes in my notebook to combat the sapping effects of the liberal helpings of French wines.
We started off with Emmental – the common consensus around our table was that this was a wholly (or should that be hole-y) Swiss cheese – but we were assured the French had enthusiastically adopted (or appropriated) it. The aroma was initially sweet with a more pronounced sourness after it’d been rubbed to an oily lump in our hands. The taste was as I’d expected from such a familiar cheese… but amongst other things we learned the holes were caused by a bacteria called Propionibacterium freudenreichii. Yes, I had to look that up again. Our host for the night revelled in being able to trip that off the tongue on command though… a fine party trick.
Number two was Tomme de Savoie. Again we were encouraged to grope and grind our cheese in our palms before consuming. I’d learned from round one and divided my cheese in two, as a sweaty ball of decimated dairy product is not as appealing to eat as a pristine specimen. This time it had a grassy, almost silage-like smell, and a lighter, more granular texture. Then came a small mountain of the next cheese, St. Marcellin, a subtle, smooth but entirely pleasant number. Nice enough, but it was a mere flash-in-the-pan pleasure compared to number four…
Four was probably my favourite of the night, Comté. I don’t think I’ve had it before (although I have a penchant for trying a different cheese everytime I hit the the cheesemongers there are a lot to get through), and loved the lingering nuttiness of this semi-hard cheese. Bit like a more sophisticated Jarlsberg, a long-term family favourite, so no surprises I scoffed it down. I also didn’t know that Gruyere is basically a Comté which doesn’t make the grade. Loved it. And actually bought some more this weekend to have on some local Saker sourdough ryebread… mmmm!
Finishing off the first half of the cheese selection was a Brie de Meaux, which prompted the second bacterial namecheck of the evening. Hurrah for penicillium candidum. This was a lovely bit of brie, with a delicate but rounded flavour and slight notes of turnips. Another soft northern number – Camembert – came up next. We were several glasses of wine into the evening by this stage, so the audience was getting slightly more rowdy and less inclined to wait for the background info, instead eating the cheese as soon as it was handed out. I think the gist of the story behind Camembert is that it was a sort of bootleg Brie based on a recipe which was surreptitiously sneaked out by a priest on the run.
Following up quickly was Pont l’Evêque, another familiar cheese which I invariably associate with Port Salut thanks to Monty Python. I’ve never been a huge fan of this cheese but this was a meltingly soft and flavoursome example. Really rather delicious. My tasting notes (and tweets at the time) definitely recall the rather heady aroma of the next number, Reblochon, which was was wildly whiffy. People often talk about a ‘farmyard’ aroma… and this was the most manure-like of the cheeses that night. Thankfully, much like Stinking Bishop or other washed rind cheeses the smell and taste were only distantly related, it having a sweet mildly nutty and complex flavour. I really liked this, having several helpings of this rather antisocially-smelling cheese.
By this stage audience engagement was dropping off rapidly, voices were more animated and I was worried about getting a slight dose of the cheese sweats from the copious amounts of Gallic goodness I’d been ingesting. I liked Epoisses too, another fragrant fromage which I went back for seconds on. My notes are almost entirely non-existant by this stage apart from the words “festival” and “cheeky”. No, I’m not sure what that means either, but it was another delicious slab of gooey gorgeousness.
Finally we ended on a familiar note. I’d been to the Auvergne for a school French exchange trip in my teens and was left with an abiding soft spot for random volcanic rock formations, oddly accented provincial French, and a nice hunk of Bleu d’Auvergne. It’s a creamy and well-balanced blue with just enough of a savoury note to tantalise, without being a full-on, cheek-tinglingly intense flavour. Of course by this stage we’d all enjoyed a few glasses of wine so whilst the cheese was being enjoyed the notes
All in all it was a highly enjoyable and informative evening, and I really relished being given some fascinating facts and anecdotal information about such cheesy goodness. Phoebe really knows her stuff and the craic was great. Thanks to Sarah and her colleagues for the invite, the Roving Fromagiére for the wise words, the suppliers for the wine and cheese and the Soup Kitchen staff for all the smiles!
Disclaimer: this was a PR event and my opinions may not be entirely objective when somebody is foisting fine cheese and wine on me. Further disclaimer: I scooped up a big doggy bag of leftover cheese and created a monumental melted mélange of cheesy toast for breakfast in the office the next morning. I probably enjoyed it much more than my colleagues did!