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Christmas isn’t Christmas without Stilton. But why is it such a staple at our Christmas dinner?

Historically, most cheeses were seasonal, only produced at certain times of year, often to suit the conditions of the milk. At the end of summer, drier grass caused the cattle to produce richer milk. This milk was ill-suited to making harder cheeses, so – much like the Comte makers in France, who would turn to making Vacherin – the cheesemakers would switch from hard, crumbly cheeses to softer, veined cheeses, ideally suited to the richer milk. Even now, Stilton is still at it’s best at this time of year, when it becomes richer and developes a smoother, more rounded flavour, thanks to that late summer milk.

By the early 18th century, the blue cheese had been discovered by Cooper Thornhill – an innkeeper of the Bell Inn in Cambridgeshire – and was being marketed year round and was finally given the name we know it by today, named for the town which the Bell Inn served. There’s some dispute as to whether a similar cheese was historically made in the town, but today, it can only be made in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire if it’s to carry the protected name.

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The Final Countdown

Dare I say it? In just one month, it’ll all be over. The gifts will have been given, the Christmas Day walk will have been walked (come rain or shine) and we’ll all be sitting back with that comfortable sense of repleteness that follows the long festivities
Of course, that means there’s just a few weeks left to get everything ready…
As a child, I remember my parents becoming increasingly irate and stressed as Christmas approached. Looking back, I can understand now the pressure they were under, the drive to make everything perfect with three young children getting underfoot, hunting for presents (we never found them – our mum was a teacher, and revealed, years later, that she would hide them in her classroom cupboard!)
These days, we’ve all learned to be a bit kinder to ourselves. We’ll be having mexican for Christmas dinner this year – easy to prepare ahead, so Christmas Day can be spent enjoying each others company, instead of slaving over a prep sheet and agonising about getting the turkey cooked and rested in time for the roasties to be crunchy on the outside but fluffy on the in and the pigs-in-blankets to be golden and the gravy to be thick – but not too thick – and the sprouts to be just right and… You know the feeling.
Of course, for me, there’s one bit of Christmas Day that has become more lavish over the years, rather than less. Growing up, the Christmas Day Cheeseboard was a wedge of cheddar, a hunk of rather dry Stilton and a slice of hard brie. Small wonder then, that I never discovered the ‘joy of cheese’ until years later, when I was introduced to the staggering – and ever increasing – variety of the golden stuff.
The Christmas Day Cheeseboard has become something of a big deal these days, as lavish a spread as the main meal. If (like me) you plan your cheeseboard well in advance, think about ordering your cheese – it’s one less thing to think about in those last few days if all you have to do is pick it up, rather than waiting for it to be cut and wrapped for you. (You can download an order form here or pick one up from me in the van, or you can order online if we’re too far away!)

With so much to choose from, it can be hard to decide what to put on your cheeseboard. This time last year, I wrote a bit about how to choose your cheeses, so I won’t repeat myself. Instead, here’s a few thoughts about how to match your cheeses to the perfect accompaniments.

Drinks

Classically, we’ve been taught to pair wine with cheese. In fact, it’s often the worst thing to do – the cheese coats your mouth so you can’t taste the more subtle flavours of the wine, while the dry tannins of the wine clash with the sweeter, lactic flavours of the cheese.
There are exceptions, of course – if you’re serving up bubbly (be it champagne, prosecco or some of the marvelous english champagne-styles) then a lush but fresh-tasting triple cream cheese is perfection itself. My favourite at the moment is Chaource – a marvellous little cheese from the Champagne-Ardennes region that is uncutously soft just under the bloomy rind while retaining that unique crumbly-but-melting texture inthe middle.
Fortified wines work better with cheese – if you’re lucky enough to be able to find a well aged sherry, you’ll find the deep, raisin-y notes stand up beautifully to the more powerfully sweet/sharp flavours of a viejo Manchego or aged Pecorino. But while port is the traditional accompaniment to Stilton, I always prefer to pair sloe or damson gin with it – blue cheese loves stone fruits, after all, and it can be less cloyingly sweet than some ports.
If you’re putting cheddar or a british territorial cheese (Caerphilly, Wensleydale, Lancashire etc) on your board, think about a smooth cider liquer. Ice cider is produced by freezing barrels of cider – the water in the drink freezes first and can be removed, leaving a concentrated, intensely flavoured drink. An opposing method uses a slow simmering to achieve the same result – pyro-concentrated cider. Both are sweet but clean and fruity, and a more natural match to our traditional cheeses.

Chutneys, Pickles and more

Perhaps the fastest growing sector of accompaniments is the ‘preserves.’ Fruit or vegetable based, they need to be carefully balanced between the sweet and vinergary-sharp to work well with cheese. Chances are, most of us have a shelf full of homemade chutneys. These will be great, as they’ll be made to suit your own palate, but think about something a little more ‘out there’ to go with them. A spicy, fragrant pickle can stand up to the bigger flavoured mountain cheeses that could overwhelm an apple or green tomato chutney, and if you’ve got a board full of oozing, rich cheeses, a sharp, crunchy pickled onion, apple or gherkin is a welcome contrast.
Fruit ‘cheeses’ have made a welcome comeback over the last few years. A sort of thick but slightly soft jelly, they’re intensely flavoured and often packed with fruit pulp, making them slightly coarse. The unusual texture is a great addition to a cheeseboard, and the range of flavours now make it easy to find something that will work with most cheeses – quince is a traditional accompaniment to manchego, but works well with any strong, aged cheese. I also stock damson and fig – both are great with soft cheese, while damson is particularly good with blues and fig with goats or ewes.
Fruit ‘slices’ – no, not the sugar-encrusted jelly slices that bear as much resemblance to fruit as Susie does to a formula 1 car. These slices are fruit pressed with nuts into loaves and sliced. Typically based on fig, date or apricot, they’re quite sweet, but a thin slice/small chunk (some are easier to break than slice) works well with pretty much any cheese, and they’re still unusual enough to intrigue the most jaded palates.

Biscuits

There’s a bewildering array of biscuits for cheese out there, but they broadly break down into two categories: plain biscuits and biscuits with stuff in. Try and have a bit of each – for some people, the biscuit is there as a vessel for the cheese and nothing more. Plain biscuits are best for this, with gentle flavours that will subtly complement the cheese without confusing or detracting from it.
For others, who wouldn’t dream of having their cheese on anything at all, a flavoured biscuit is a welcome texture on a cheeseboard. A crunchy slice, packed with fruit, nuts and seeds sits well beside the cheese, being interesting enough to enjoy on it’s own – although most do benefit from a dollop of a rich, luxurious soft cheese!
These days, gluten free biscuits are widely available too, and are a far cry from the dry, powdery slabs that used to be the only alternative. So now, no one has to miss out!

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Wincanton here we come!

I’ve been waiting for a while, but the paperwork is finally through, and I’ve got a date to start coming to Wincanton. Susie and I will be there every Thursday, between 10am and 3pm, outside the memorial hall (at the top of the high street – just about the only level ground in town!) Wincanton already has a fabulous bakery, butchers and greengrocers, as well as some superb boutiques and cafes. It’s a small town, but it’s been undergoing something of a rebirth over the last couple of years, much as Shaftesbury did over the early years of the millenium.

See you there!

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A big day

This Friday will mark a year since a transporter arrived on my doorstep, quite early in the morning. Unlike today, the weather was perfectly Autumnal – crisp and clear, cool enough that we could see our breath, sunny enough that the vehicle being transported shone, as blue as a summer sky.

The Truckle Truck project had, until then, felt largely unreal. Everything existed on paper, insubstantial and almost as if the project wasn’t really happening at all. The idea behind it grew out of a very simple desire to make a living selling cheese, and how to make that work against a climate that was increasingly tough on traders and shopkeepers. It was a practical solution, certainly – trading from a van is far less costly than a bricks-and-mortar shop, as well as offering a broader reach for customers. But there was an element of nostalgia in it too. My mother grew up in a small, rather isolated village, and often told us stories about the peripatetic traders who came to the village; the cornucopia of the grocers van and the eagerly-awaited baker uncovering his trays of bread and buns.

The reality, of course, bears little resemblance to that hazy dream where the weather is always kind and traffic is always accommodating. From heat waves to downpours, howling gales to deep freezes, coping with the extremes of our climate has been a challenge, whether it’s keeping the cheese cool and the stock dry or just making it through the day without frostbite or taking flight. I’ve had to get used to leading a convoy of increasingly irate drivers too, and spotting lay-bys big enough to pull over in is slowly becoming second-nature.

Twelve months ago, Suzie arrived on my doorstep. The exciting, slightly terrifying moment when The Truckle Truck went from a dream to a tangible reality. The deadline of the first event – booked months earlier, when I had still planned to be on the road for the latter half of the summer – was looming, and thus began a frantic rush to get the last pieces of the project completed.

The bespoke chilled counter was measured up, made and installed in record time, the decals calculated, tested and applied at breakneck speed and the first deliveries arrived.

We made it, just.

Setting off for Peterborough, just six weeks later, I had no idea how my fledgling business would work. It’s been a steep learning curve, and the challenges that we’ve faced have come from some very unexpected quarters. But, thinking back over the last year, I wouldn’t change it for the world.