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Anson on Thursday: Battle of the cheeses

Jane Anson attends a tasting in Paris that pits British cheese against French cheese with wine, and explores the art of eating mindfully...

Let’s once again amend the rules of a dry(ish) January and celebrate instead modifying our consumption by what we can call mindful eating and drinking – as I tried to do at a tasting that saw British and French cheese go head-to-head.

Mindful eating

It’s a thing; as anyone who has downloaded the Headspace app from former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe will know. It’s also pretty self-explanatory. Puddicombe talks about taking the time to think about your food, where it has come from, who produced it, and why you are eating it before you begin, as a way to reconnect with what we are putting in our bodies. It’s an easy step to extend this to wine – and in fact it’s easy to argue that mindful drinking is the exact point of magazines like Decanter. But it never hurts to remind ourselves of its importance, and January is surely the perfect time to do so.

Part of being mindful is to ignore pre-conceptions and judge simply by what is on the plate or in the glass in front of you. It’s the idea behind blind tasting during En Primeur (something that is being dispensed with this year, sadly in my opinion) and can lead to wonderful upsets such as Steven Spurrier’s Judgement of Paris that was held in May 1976, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. It was also the idea behind a celebratory lunch held this week in honor of Spurrier’s achievement, back in Paris (but minus Steven, who is off to Florida with George Taber and Bo Barrett to commemorate the anniversary at the Naples Winter Wine Festival).

The wines

The wines were all French this time, excepting one fabulous Colheita 2000 from Quinta do Noval, and the country taking up California’s baton was a little closer to home. Hosted by the Gardinier brothers of Château Phelan Ségur at their Le Taillevent restaurant in Paris’ 8ième district, the lunch concentrated on pitting English artisan cheeses against their French counterparts.

The cheese

Both countries have around 700 different styles of locally-produced cheeses but there is little doubt that the French have done a better job of recognising and celebrating their local talent to date. Where England has just 12 cheeses with protected status (so IGP/AOC or equivalent, with a designated place of origin), France has 56.

I perhaps learnt more about the different psychologies of the French and the English through this tasting than I have in 12 years of living over here. The French cheeses, time and again, were fully unafraid to push the limits in their search for taste, more confident of taking chances with ageing – the gloriously rich and pungent Epoisses being the epitome of this. Described by Brillat-Savarin as the King of all cheeses, the French palates around the table were confident in its success, pitted as it was against a more buttoned-up but beautifully creamy St Cera from Jamie Montgomery in Somerset.

The Epoisses is without doubt an incredible cheese, but for wine lovers, I would suggest going with the English version. Both unpasteurised, washed rind cow’s milk cheeses, the St Cera rewarded me with what I am confident is going to be among the food and wine pairings of 2016. The stunning concentration of Domaine Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet 1999 was brought out perfectly by the St Cera, but was smothered by the Epoisses, which needed a rather astonishing 1994 Marc de Bourgogne from Domaine de la Romanée Conti, aged for 20 years in their Vosne-Romanée cellars, to be wrestled into submission. Both the Leflaive and the Marc de Bourgogne come from Epoisses’ home territory of the Côte d’Or, making the St Cera achievement even more impressive.

The Comté/Cheddar pairing, served with an exemplary Château Chalone in the form of Domaine Macle 2005, were both amazing, although the table gave a slight nod to the French. No doubting the quality of the Comté, but its 42-month ageing inevitably gave it a depth and richness which highlighted the potential of the Montgomery Cheddar, made at Manor Farm in Somerset with just 12 month’s ageing. It already displayed an exceptional texture and persistency and could clearly be pushed further. It was the same for the Mimolette and Red Leicester pairing – 24 months for the Mimolette against four to six months for the Sparkenhoe Red Leicester (worth adding that David and Jo Clarke of Sparkenhoe are part of the slow food movement which is simply mindful eating by another name). Some dispute over the winner, with most tasters preferring the granular saltiness of the Mimolette to balance the magnum of Lafite Rothschild 1985, but loyal British palates choosing the softer Red Leicester, although here perhaps we need to demur to Hugh Johnson, who has anointed Mimolette many times for ‘the finest mature Bordeaux’.

The Brie-style cheeses were served with Jacques Selosse’s cult cuvee Substance, made from a solera system of every vintage from 1986 to 2002. The result is an oxidative style that sits somewhere between a vin jaune de Jura and a vintage Champagne, and was a brilliantly unusual choice from Taillevent’s wine director Pierre Bérot to stand against the Baron Bigod from the Dulcie family in Suffolk and the Brie de Meaux produced by Edmond de Rothschild at Ferme des 30 Arpents near the forest of Crécy. Both producers deserve huge credit for their artisan methods, with the Suffolk farm using only gravity-fed milk to protect the fat globules in the milk during production, with no pumps at any stage.

One cheese where there was no argument for the English style was the Stilton, which was served against a Bleu d’Auvergne. Produced by the exceptionally-talented Billy Kevan, a third-generation Scottish cheesemaker working with Colston Basset cooperative, this was the only pasteurised cheese in the English ranks (none of the French were), and yet had the perfect mix of creaminess and saltiness to melt into the smoky spice of the 2000 Colheita.

A fascinating tasting, with the English cheeses standing up valiantly against the French – and offering further proof that England is in the middle of a gastronomic awakening with its local foodstuffs, from cheeses such as these to West Coast Scottish langoustines, Dexter beef, Yorkshire rhubarb to sparkling wine and small-batch British gin.

One surprising thing that became clear over lunch is that its acceptance in French culinary circles is in no small part due to Prince Charles and his appearance at the COP21 climate talks in December. Invited to give one of the opening speeches, he was also awarded the Rabelais prize by France’s institute of science and arts for his long-term commitment to organic farming. To cheese producers, this is a serious subject. French consumption of raw unpasteurised cheese is falling by about 4% per year, and around 50 local cheeses have disappeared over the past 40 years, something noted by both Thierry and Laurent Gardinier when they applauded Prince Charles’ talk highlighting the risk to artisan cheeses posed by national food safety regulations that favour big farming over small producers. They called him, ‘a figurehead that we are sadly lacking in France’. He might be getting a hard time in England right now for his Black Spider memos, but it’s worth remembering that Carlo Petrini has called him the ‘patron of the slow food movement’ so perhaps – for January at least – we should suspend our disbelief.

Thank you to Neal’s Yard Dairy and the Fromagerie Langlet-Hardouin for supplying the British and French cheeses respectively.

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