A while ago, longer than I dare to remember, I worked in a cheese factory. It was a yearlong contract to unfortunately close down a large specialized cheese importer – HT Webbs and transfer the most profitable cheese to the Danish dairy company Arla Foods.
The job was fascinating mainly from the point that to cost out all the cheeses, I had to learn about every aspect of the business, from importing from Europe into the Rungis, the Paris food hub, and then into our stores and production areas, where cheeses were categorized and graded and according to retailer , ie Waitrose at one end or Somerfield at the other, or the distributors who took cheeses into Harrods and other fromageries in London, the cheeses would be either sent onto the retailer whole, or passed through our cutting area to be reduced to different kilo weights and either wrapped in saran a type of plastic wrap, but breathable, or waxed paper, the latter usually for the posher outlets.
I learnt about the cheese manufacture, the distribution of cheeses [Edams and Parmesans are dense, large sized and very heavy and as a consequence require more robust cartons and racking for transporting and storing], and cutting [customers want rind, they like to see that edge, the mould, to smell the aging, and that means cheeses have to be cut in a certain way, not only for presentation, but to avoid wastage. But also cheeses are delicate sometimes and cutting too thin a wedge can damage the cheese. In the last months of my time there, we were trialling an expensive high pressure water jet system that was less evasive on the cheese. But like any asset stripped company, it never transpired], and selling cheese. Customers have an infinite requirement to have choice, cheese sizes and labelling. In reality the industry would be better to spend more time supporting far-flung, less well known producers that spending so much time and money on re-creating packaging and fancy cheese baskets. To me cheese is a pure thing and choice of local produces, or rarer cheeses outweighs the purchase with a cheese knife!
At Christmas the factory was a buzz of packing cheese selections and pairing with wine and jars of chutneys, fruits and biscuit packs. Cheese is a good food all year round and all cheese that went through production had to be checked. That meant tested for taste and quality and aroma, and that meant that cheese, the one chosen from the batch, couldn’t now be sold. It ended up on the test office desk with a weekly call for anyone who wanted free cheese to take ownership. I have never met so many people who didn’t like cheese working in a cheese factory! I would bring home a huge carrier bag each week and sometimes parmesan chunks that would cost around £60.00 if I had bought in a shop.
But why this post about cheese. Well I love photography, especially food and after my business with pine syrup fell, I missed cooking recipes and exploring food pairings. Cheese was an ideal substitute and I also love researching the cheeses and tasting them. Today I tried a local Creuse cheese, made with raw cow’s milk – Maissoneix. This is a lovely goat’s cheese substitute if like me you love the texture, the dryness of goat’s cheese, the sharpness, but not the goatiness. The farm is not far from my home, so today I asked if I could visit in the New Year and photograph the dairy herd and cheese making process.
My other choice for this week was Tomme Savoie – another raw cow’s milk cheese from the Rhone-Alps area. Typically on the boarders of the smokey, rubbery cheese-making neighbours, this cheese has a springy texture and holes. It has a very strong, dank cellar, mouldy aroma from the rind, but the paste [edible part], is mild.
Last week in search for a cheddar equivalent I came across Cantal from the Auvergne, south of where I now live. This cheese is popular in France and very, very similar to cheddar, firm, dries with age to a crumbly texture. The two cheddars available in the supermarkets – Wykes Farm and Cathedral, are not a great representative of our great cheeses and they are expensive. So Cantal is my go-to cheese now for where I need a good sandwich, melted with jambon, crumbled on roasts, or simply my “passing the fridge nibble”.
Photographing cheese is quite difficult. The light creamy shades only broken by a darker rind, play havoc with exposure. The white bloomy mould cheeses are like taking photos in the snow. One solution, as in my set up here today, was using organic grease-proof wax paper in a soft brown. The natural light was lovely and although sometimes it can be too harsh, I liked its warmness, but it created a dark shadow behind the cheese. Resolved with toilet roll, which actually bounces light well – being curved.
The Cantal I took a nod from its linen wrapping when it matures, and used an old Irish linen tea towel. I have had these for many years and this one has holes in it, but worked ok with this photo I think. My white balance is a bit off and I need to solve that.
I was due to visit the food photographer William Reavell in London for a one-on-one, but due to ill health, travelling isn’t too easy for me nowadays with the migraines, he very kindly said he would be able to critique me via on-line as cheese was a challenging subject. One day I will push to have a few days at his studio and will be in food photography heaven.
I also cook gluten free food. Today I made cheese straws. I make flat breads weekly to have for breakfast with scrambled eggs and bake crumbles and pies. It is another project I will work on once the barn kitchen complete. Evenings in winter can be a little dull, so no excuses not to fill with edible projects.
And one last thing – a little political issue. I support Compassion In World Farming. Their recent investigations into Italian Parmesan and Grana Padano should make any person worth their salt feel uneasy. Have a read and give support. Cheese is dairy and there are so many issues concerning welfare it’s enough to make you go vegan. I make no excuses not to love cheese, but my stomach turns at the thought any animal is suffering for my gastronomic needs. Support local farms that you can visit, support welfare and have curiosity to try the less well known and therefore less commercial cheeses. Take the pressure of dairy herds by diversifying your taste buds.