This week I was lucky enough to be invited to a wine and cheese pairing evening with two-Michelin-star chef Nathan Outlaw, organised by Davidstow Cheddar. If you watch Great British Menu (and if not, why not?) you'll perhaps know of Nathan as I do - talented chef, lover of all things piscine, and pioneer of sea buckthorn, a coastal shrub with very astringent berries that formed part of his locally sourced menu on the programme. Naturally, I was thrilled at the invitation. Nathan has been working with Davidstow Cheddar - Davidstow being just down the road from his award-winning restaurant - to produce a series of recipes using their cheese, a couple of which I've tried recently. The purpose of this evening was to sample some of these recipes, try a range of Davidstow cheeses (including several exclusive varieties not for sale in the shops) complemented by a range of wines (chosen and discussed by Guardian wine writer Fiona Beckett), and hear a bit more about the production of Davidstow cheese from cheese grader Mark Pitts-Tucker.
After I'd sampled a Davidstow Cornish Crackler cheese and potato pasty (deliciously flaky pastry and tangy melted cheese...I could probably have just eaten those all night), we sat down to a brief introduction from Mark about the process of making Davidstow cheese. He stressed the difficulty of a process that uses a variable raw material (milk is not the same all year round, and can even vary according to the time of day), yet tries to achieve a consistent product. Bigger dairies and suppliers tend to standardise their milk before the cheesemaking process, whereas Davidstow take the milk in its natural form and adjust the cheesemaking to suit it. As Mark explained, if you have such a high quality raw material, it's an "offence punishable by death" to tamper with it. Cheesemaking, he believes, is a mixture of nature and nurture: working around the raw product by altering the production process. Mark tastes hundreds of samples of cheddar to ensure each batch is perfect: it is important to find the right balance between body, flavour and texture. Because he was previously involved in cheesemaking before he became a grader, Mark is able to link the taste of the cheese back to his knowledge; if there are any problems, he is able to pinpoint them to a specific part of the cheesemaking process.
The first cheese we sampled was the Davidstow Classic cheddar. Most cheddar on the market is aged for eight to nine months, whereas Davidstow age this one for twelve to thirteen. Because of the slower maturation process, the cheese is more complex with a greater depth of flavour. Mark highlighted the importance of the aftertaste; good cheese should always leave an aftertaste, but one that is not too powerful. We ate this cheese alongside a Voyager Estate Chardonnay 2007; Fiona explained that most people are "very conservative" about cheese and naturally assume red wine is the right choice, yet often the oaky notes in a white like this one can complement the flavours better. She suggested that in this case, the wine is doing the job a piece of fruit on a cheeseboard would normally do, by providing sweetness to offset the richness.
Nathan discussed his recipes for Davidstow, remarking that it had been a challenge to come up with them, as the cheese is of high enough quality to stand on its own. However, he has produced over twelve recipes so far, and if the cheese scone we then tasted was anything to go by, he had successfully taken an excellent ingredient and raised it to new heights (although he did say the recipe took him several attempts to perfect). The cheese scone features Davidstow classic in its mixture, and is topped with pickled celery, grilled Cornish Crackler (another Davidstow cheese, and one I will discuss momentarily), and a slice of ripe fig. The real star here is the pickled celery: it was sweet and crunchy, providing a beautiful freshness and textural contrast to complement the rich cheese and fluffy scone.
The next cheese on the menu was Davidstow Lighter, which has 30% less saturated fat. As Mark observed, the notion of a lighter cheese is "an oxymoron for the cheese purist". However, he explained that there is a growing market for lower fat cheese products, and that the Davidstow version is designed to deliver on flavour but not be overpowering. We drank Camel Valley Pinot Noir Rose Brut with the lighter cheese, and sampled Nathan's recipe: grilled pear and pickled walnuts with the Lighter Classic on toast. Again, this was a perfect harmony of sweetness and richness, with a lovely bit of crunch from the walnuts. I too was sceptical about the idea of a low fat cheddar, but it really does deliver everything you'd want from a cheddar, without the horrible rubbery texture I normally associate with attempts at low fat cheese.
Next up was the extra mature Cornish Crackler, which is matured for 18-20 months. Mark described it as possessing a "flinty" texture, breaking up on a board like shrapnel when cut. This is because of its low moisture content. The reason for the name 'crackler' is that the cheese is studded with crunchy pieces of calcium lactate, a natural byproduct of the maturation process. Apparently this cheese "creeps up and mugs you in a nice, stylish kind of way": it's mature, but not overpoweringly so, and its flavour builds slowly, with a wonderful creamy aftertaste that is very moreish. I just loved the little bits of crunch, they were so unusual for a cheese. With this we drank Quinto do Crasto, a red wine made from the same grapes as port. The undisputed highlight of the evening was Nathan's recipe, an amazing smoked mackerel and Crackler quiche. I have never tasted such a beautiful quiche; the filling was so light and airy, but with a gorgeous depth of flavour from the mackerel - "my fish", as Nathan called it. I had two pieces of this quiche and am still fantasising about it. The recipe is here.
While I was still snaffling pieces of quiche, we moved on to three cheddars that are not commercially available - naturally, I was quite excited by this notion of exclusivity. Firstly, a three-year old cheddar that can only be found commercially at Nathan's restaurant; in fact, he graded it himself. Mark described it as "as flinty and rugged as the Cornish cliffs but as soft and smooth as the fields around it". He was right about its texture; it was very crumbly, breaking off in jagged shards. Like "native oysters", Nathan believes this cheese should stand alone rather than be used in cooking. The appearance of the cheese was very interesting; it was covered in a white bloom rather like chocolate that has been left out for too long. This is the calcium lactate that gives the Cornish Crackler its crunch. It was once considered a fault in cheesemaking; now it is highly prized and difficult to achieve, the sign of a great cheese. This cheese "envelopes you with a pleasant hug", as Mark said. It was reminiscent of parmesan in its strength, but had much more nuttiness to it. For this reason, Fiona partnered it with Barbadillo Amontillado Sherry, the sweetness and dried fruit aromas of which worked perfectly.
Next came the four year old cheese, which Mark described as "moving the boundaries of what is possible in cheesemaking and keeping". Again, it was marbled with white calcium lactate. He suggested it has a dark chocolate quality to it, and I can see what he means: it has that intensity and strength and slight sweetness that you get from dark chocolate; the kind of intense burst of flavour that means you only want one piece rather than nine. We joked that this might be a better option for the Davidstow Lighter: it's so rich that you're guaranteed to eat less of it.
One of the qualities Davidstow pride themselves on is the creaminess of their cheese. Mark pointed out that when a lot of people think of very mature cheddar, they think of that mouth-puckering tartness that can be very unpleasant. This isn't the case with Davidstow, who see it as vital to create an identity that consumers buy into: they want people to buy Cornish cheddar because it is creamy and buttery, owing to the creaminess of the excellent milk produced in Cornwall. Good mature cheddar, Mark thinks, should produce a buttery feeling in the mouth, cause salivation, and taste almost juicy. By driving out moisture from the cheesemaking process you get a more stable product, but you lose those positive qualities.
Finally, a five year old cheese. This amazed me: it tasted like grilled cheese on toast. Somehow, in its raw form, it had a taste reminiscent of Welsh rarebit. I'm not sure why this is, or what part of the cheesemaking process gives it this flavour, but I immensely enjoyed it. I can't see how you'd want to do anything with this other than eat it and be astounded by the taste sensation. It is very strong, but not unpleasantly so, and has an incredible intensity of flavour and long-lasting aftertaste. We ate this with parma ham and bresaola; the cooked notes of the cheese matched perfectly with the saltiness of the meat. I can only imagine how it would taste in a rarebit.
This evening was a real eye- (and mouth-) opener for me. I had no idea about the complexities of cheesemaking; it had never really struck me that milk is such a variable product and therefore cheesemaking can be such an unstable process. Mark pointed out that people nowadays tend to have generally quite a good idea about wine, and how different vintages will differ in quality because of all sorts of factors involved in the winemaking process, yet they never apply those same principles to cheese. It's definitely changed the way I view cheese, and I'm now very keen to start experimenting more with different varieties in the kitchen. Starting, probably, with that incredible mackerel quiche. I'm especially eager to experiment after I came away from the event laden with Davidstow goodies, including a block of that oh-so-exclusive three-year old cheddar, and a beautiful slate cheeseboard (which had me in fits of excitement, because I'd been eyeing them covetously when the food was brought out on them during the evening).
A big thank you to Nathan, Mark and Fiona for such an interesting and enjoyable event, and to those who invited me; I feel very privileged to have been able to attend.