Opening times for the New Year

Brief update here: We’ll be re-open from Saturday the 8th of January.

Our opening hours for the new year will be: Tues – Fri: 10.30am – 5.30pm, Sat: 10.30am – 6pm.

Thanks to everyone for a good 2010; looking forward to a fresh 2011.

Hmm.  More of a tweet than a blog update.  #nevermind

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A response to the ‘Check Your Cheddar’ Post

Morning friends!

Following my cheddar related rant, I was gently surprised to find a little note on my personal facebook profile left by the British Cheese Board.  We had a civilised chat, and they’ve agreed to allow me to publish their correspondence to me, providing their side of the argument.  Needless to say I still have grave reservations regarding the unintended consequences on focusing the campaign purely on country of origin and not including tradition – but I think I’ve said enough about that for now.  So, to avoid appearing to straw-man the BCB, here’s what they wrote:

Dear David,

We appreciate your interaction with our Facebook page, and are always keen for discussion on the issues that we raise as part of our campaigns. However, we wanted to briefly clarify what we were hoping to achieve with our Country Of Origin story. The aim of our campaign was to raise awareness amongst consumers that not all of the cheese they are buying, thinking it to be British, was made in this country. So we wanted to encourage them to check the label of the Cheddar they’re buying. If it doesn’t say on the label that it was produced in the UK (or has other descriptors telling you it was made in the West Country or in Wales, Scotland or any other part of the UK) then it probably wasn’t! At the same time we are calling on Government to introduce compulsory Country of Origin labelling on all dairy products. Many of the value Cheddars simply say packed in the UK – which normally means they were made elsewhere.

We are a great supporter of West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, with a number of our members producing this type of cheese, but we hope you’ll understand that our campaign’s aim was to make British produced cheese accessible to everyone whatever their palette or price range.

Best wishes,

Nigel White

Secretary of the British Cheese Board

So there you go.  Stay tuned for next week when I call out the National Association of British and Irish Millers, the British Asparagus Growers Association and the European Starch Manufacturers Association for good measure.  <—-Witticism: please said organisations don’t take offence thanks.

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Check Your Cheddar

‘Check Your Cheddar’ goes the catchphrase of the latest campaign launched by the British Cheese Board, after their research had revealed that the UK, traditional home of Cheddar, actually imported 130,000 tonnes of the stuff last year, and that near half of the supermarkets failed to indicate that this imported cheese was of non-UK origin.  Dutifully, bits and pieces of the media picked up this easy filler copy, and ran with it, much as the Mail does here http://bit.ly/9acjQW, blithely asserting the inherent superiority of English cheddar.

All very well and good, noble in fact, at least considered in terms of

Cheddared cheeses in cloth binding maturing at the farm

reducing foodmiles.  Probably a lot less than you would imagine, given that most cheese in this country is industrially produced, and that cheese factories buy in their milk rather than having a herd on site.  As the massive super-dairies can offer milk at the lowest price, and that the cost of milk rather than locality or quality are the principle concerns of the factory cheese manufacturer, then most industrial cheeses have quite a few food miles under their belt before the cheesemaking and national distribution even begins.  But still, checking that the cheese is British would reduce food miles, so fair enough.

What I’m struggling with is the stated aim of the campaign to “ensure that people know what they are buying through increased awareness of cheese origin labelling”.  This seems more than a touch mixed up; Knowing where a cheese comes from and Knowing what the cheese is are two distinct entities: knowing that it is made in Sussex, or Latvia or Sydney does not tell me whether it is not, in fact, Cheddar.  In fact, I would argue that the Check Your Cheddar drive does more to decrease consumer awareness of what precisely it is when you pick up something labelled ‘cheddar’ than the

Dreck

Uncheddared, pasteurised bought in milk, wax wrapped, flavour added "cheddar" cheese courtesy of Snowdonia Cheese Company, affronting cheddar 24/7

opposite, in that it legitimises the use of the term ‘cheddar’ for cheeses that are not, by any stretch of imagination, a cheddar.  This all sounds a bit radical, and cheese snobbish. But bear with me.  We simply need to hit upon a definition of cheddar.

What Cheddar is, or, Welcome to the most deleted and edited paragraph in blogging history

This is an exceptionally tricky subject, and one that is still controversial in cheese circles.  What we know is that the progenitor of what we can consider Cheddar was based on a recipe taught to us by the Romans several hundred years ago.  However, what we now agree upon as Cheddar hails from the early 1900’s, when the recipe was standardised.  I would argue that the most basic requirement of a cheese to dare call itself Cheddar would be that it had been Cheddared during production.  Despite the dogged insistence of MS Word’s little wiggly red lines, cheddar is also a verb.

To cheddar a cheese, the curds are first cut into small pieces, releasing more of the liquid whey content than leaving it in larger clumps, and increasing acidity levels.  These cut curds are then stacked upon one another, with the bottom curds being placed on the top at regular intervals.  This has the effect of evenly applying pressure to the curds, which pushes out further whey, and results in the unique compacted texture and brittleness of the finished cheese.  And that’s it.  At the least, that’s all that’s required for a cheese to be cheddared, to be a Cheddar.  Of course, cutting curds into small pieces, stacking them and then alternating their positions in a stack… that’s a bit too labour intensive for a factory.  So factory ‘cheddars’ tend to skip the cheddaring step when they produce cheddars.  Still, even before we enter the more hotly contested sufficient conditions for Cheddar-hood, with this one step we have pretty much eliminated the majority proportion of the cheeses made in the world that claim to be ‘Cheddar’.

The next condition people often outline for something to be called a Cheddar is that it comes from Somerset/ the West Country.  Admittedly this is a view held by the more zealous than usual, but given that cheddar has been made in many countries since the 1800’s, I can’t help feel that this is a case of closing the barn door roughly two centuries after the original horse bolted.  By all means we should celebrate the particular buttery, earthy qualities of a good Somerset cheddar, but in my view cheddar was globalised too long ago to insist that it is geographically specific.  I’ve tasted lots of dreck that happens to be made in the West Country, and lots of incredible cheddars that hail from elsewhere.

Huntsman: One of the many English Cheeses defended by the British Cheese Board. If you're wondering, that's an inauthentic Double Gloucester interspersed with layers of industrial stilton

The cheese-nerdiest clause – but also perhaps one of the most important – is the variety of starter used to convert milk sugars into lactose acid prior to the renneting.  Traditional pint starters of early Somerset cheddars used the mesophilic bacteria present in raw milk of the region.  These bacteria tend to produce a mellow, earthy character in the finished cheese.  However, more often than not, Supermarkets have demanded a sweeter, sharper character for their cheeses, best achieved with the Thermophilic bacterial starters used in traditional Swiss cheesemaking – these are responsible for the aniseed finish of a good Gruyere.  As producers live and die by the whims of the supermarkets, most things called cheddar made in this country use a Swiss style thermophilic starter.  I feel this insidious redefinition of cheddar on a daily basis: the first time customer looking for a puckersome sweetness in a traditional English cheddar that simply isn’t there (don’t worry too much: Samaritan that I am I soon help them discover an unanticipated appreciation of handmade Continental European cheese).  Regardless, I’m on the fence with this one.  There are some great, otherwise traditionally made cheddars coming out of the UK made with thermophilic starters (i.e Lincolnshire Poacher, Hafod etc) that are more deserving of the appellation ‘Cheddar’ than the majority of the vac-packed rubber cheese littering supermarket aisles.

Finally, there are a whole raft of conditions for a cheese to be ‘cheddar’ set out by the Ark of Taste, the project unveiled by the Slow Food Movement to give assistance to heritage foods in danger of extinction.  These include the cheddaring clause (which is in my view an absolute requirement), the mesophilic pint starter clause (to which I say: take it or leave it – it produces different cheddars, not things different to cheddar).  It also stipulates the use of unpasteurised milk.  I can see their point: pasteurised cheeses are not traditional, and simply don’t develop in the same way raw cheeses do; but I think the difference here is between good cheddar/bad cheddar rather than cheddar/not cheddar.  They also stipulate traditional cloth binding, which I again sit on the fence with; cloth binding is traditional, and a mostly reliable  indicator of a good cheese, but modern cheddars like Lincolnshire Poacher dispose of it (it’s sprayed with some odd compound that permeably seals it for a while before naturally decomposing).  Lastly they insist that a cheddar must be made from the milk of the herd on site.  Again this is an indicator of good cheese, but not a necessary condition of it.  While it’s certainly true that no single condition they set out aside from cheddaring is sufficient to make a cheddar, they are all helpful things to check to ensure that the cheese was carefully prepared outside of factory conditions.

So there you have it: what precisely makes cheese cheddar is hotly contested, but largely confined to the details; for me, as long as someone took the effort to cheddar the cheese, then it’s a cheddar.  By no means necessarily a good cheddar, but a cheddar nonetheless, and something worthy of the name.  Sadly, the British Cheese Board is even less interested in the details than it is the fundamentals.  The pressed, uncheddared, European style, semi-firm, pasteurised bought in milk, immature, vac packed block cheese is, to them, a cheddar as much George Keen’s, or James Montgomery’s, or any of the other handmade, cheddared cheddar cheeses of the UK.

Check Your Cheddar, II

Huntsman Spider: Still more appetising than Huntsman Cheese

Well, hopefully you’re all armed with the information needed to get a decent Cheddar worthy of the name.  The point is, not just to check whether that thing in front of you comes from the UK or not, but whether it actually happens to be Cheddar or not.  This is the crucial element missing from the discussion, the one bit of consumer empowerment not touched upon: what is our heritage? How has it changed?  For better, worse?  This is what galls me so much to read the industry voice piece of the BCB telling us to buy British: British what? What precisely has this stuff being sold got to do with our heritage?  How can the Mail smugly assume the superiority of British Cheddar, and effortlessly position itself as a defender of English heritage while actual British Cheddars become shifted out of the marketplace in favour of those peculiar plastic wrapped block cheeses that taste like the illegitimate lovechild of Haribo sweets and Sarson’s vinegar?  I’m finding myself unable to continue, so to steal/paraphrase Jamie Montgomery (whose family has made cheddar for 100 years) on his recent address on the subject “I dunno.. I’m getting – I’m gonna have to stop soon… I think I’m getting too angry. But there you go.”

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I Know thee well enough, thy name is Single Gloucester-

I’m desperate to avoid giving the impression that traditional UK cheesemaking is a tale of never-ending woe, so I thought I would profile one of the British cheeses that has it all; an auspicious beginning, a problematic second act and a triumphant third.  Or at least as triumphant as small-scale independently produced traditional cheesemaking allows.  And still avoiding the subject of cheddar.

Gloucester cheeses have been traced back to the 8th century, but only became distinct, recognisable entities in the 17th century, and in this intervening time (like most UK cheese) losing the sheep’s milk base and transferring to cattle – in this case, the native Old Gloucester breed of cattle.

Gloucester Cow. Likes: Producing milk with smaller fat globules and high protein content much prized by cheesemakers. Dislikes: being an endangered species

The two recorded Gloucester cheeses, Single and Double, emerged reflecting the life of a 17th century dairy farmer.  Double Gloucester would be the cheese sold at market, and Single Gloucester would be the cheese eaten in the household.  The difference in making a Single is that the butterfat would be skimmed from the morning milking (to be turned into the farmhouse’s butter), and the remainder would be used for making cheese.  With the reduced butterfat content, the cheese loses its yellow-russet fat content indicating hue, and becomes unsaleable at the market where higher-fat products are prized.  The same reasoning presumably explains why Double Gloucesters took on their annatto induced orange hue, as producers competed with each other to make a more appealing cheese in an historic cheesemongering arms race.  The consequence was naturally that the consumer lost out and could no longer tell the

Gloucester cheeses maturing on Smart's farm

difference between better and worse cheeses, as the better cheeses were forced to fight fire with fire and compete by institute their own annatto dying – but hey, this is the cheese that history has bequeathed us, so who are we to argue?

Traditional Gloucester cheese was dealt two death blows: the first was a cattle plague that wiped out a great deal of Gloucester cattle stock, being replaced with Longhorn cattle, which produced greater quantities of milk at the cost of quality.  The second was the industrialisation of cheese in the mid 18th century, where farmhouse cheesemakers found it near impossible to compete with the industrialised creamery.  Real Gloucester cheeses became effectively extinct, although many creameries produced and marketed ‘Gloucester’ cheeses, despite being made elsewhere, with non-Gloucester cattle, to a recipe bearing little to no relation to the tradition.  Times were so bad for farmhouse cheese in general that Paxton and Whitfield, Britain’s oldest and most prestigious cheesemongers, temporarily moved markets into greengrocery as factory cheese became predominant.

By 1975, Old Gloucester cattle were officially an endangered species, with only one working herd remaining in the country – that of Charles Martell, latterly more famous for his Trappist style washed ‘Stinking Bishop’ cheese.  Charles worked tirelessly with other local farmers to re-establish the breed, and ensure that Gloucester cheese did not die out.  With the re-establishment of the Old Gloucester cattle society, a successful application to the EU to give Single Gloucester a Protected Designation of Origin status, and ongoing assistance in the form of a Presidiuum grant from the Slow Food Movement, there are now around just under a thousand registered Gloucester cattle in the UK, with around 400 breeding females.

A round of Charles Martell's Single Gloucester (PDO) in the shop

Single Gloucester (PDO)

Milk: Unpasteurised (Old Gloucester) Cow’s milk

Rennet: Modern vegetarian rennet

Type: Firm/semi-soft

The Single Gloucesters being produced today are all flaky textured, mild cheeses, not entirely dissimilar to a Caerphilly.  The curds are cut into relatively large pieces during cheesemaking, which acts to increase the acidity in the final cheese: this step ensures that all Single Gloucesters have a tang, ranging from mildly sweet to approaching acerbic.  Martell’s single Gloucester has the creamiest mouthfeel, with a sweetly-acidic astringency like a natural set yoghurt.  Jonathon Crump’s Wick Court farm Gloucester is the gentlest in terms of flavour, and lightest textured.  Smart’s Gloucester begins mild, but as it matures takes on tangier notes, and becomes mouthfillingly chewy.  Each of the cheeses displays different characteristics depending on the producer, batch, age and season, as with any handmade cheese.  However, the fact that we have four different Single Gloucesters to compare is incredible given how close we came to having none at all.

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Sparkenhoe Red Leicester

I thought I would start off profiling the artisanal cheeses that we sell

Open face of a cut Sparkenhoe

at Capeling and Co with one of the best territorial cheeses that is being made on our doorstep.  Well, actually I wanted to start with Cheddars but found it exceptionally difficult to not descend into vitriol or petty ad hominem attacks that, I am reliably informed, are “inconsistent with what we are trying to achieve”.  So instead, I decided to warm up and focus on a cheese that ticks all of the boxes for a cheese-nut: a cheese made from raw milk taken directly from the farm’s own herd (no bought in anonymous cooked milk from a super-dairy), clothbound and matured on site (rather than hopelessly immature vac-packed block cheese), handmade according to traditional recipes, and made just a whisper outside of Birmingham (google maps tells me the farm is 28.2 miles outside of the centre – B1 1AA – of Birmingham).

Sparkenhoe Red Leicester:

Milk: Unpasteurised Cow

Rennet: Traditional Animal

Type: Hard/Firm

Most territorial UK cheeses can trace their genealogy back to either Cheshire cheese (Britain’s earliest recorded indigenous cheese) or Cheddar (most historians agree that this was originally a relic of Roman presence in Britain) along geographical lines: Northern cheeses were Cheshire variants, Southern cheeses were Cheddar variants.  Leicestershire cheese, becoming a distinct territorial cheese in the 1600s in the Midshires of England draws upon both traditions in a peculiar hybrid.  It sits in the middle between the smooth, compacted mouthfeel of traditional cheddar and the rough crumblies of the North.  Leicestershire cheese followed the example of Cheshire and was distinguished from other regional cheese by the addition of natural vegetable colourants, with beets and carrot juice being used at first, and later from the fruit of the annatto bush as colonies were established in the ‘New World’.  This was partly to differentiate it from regional competitors, but also to artificially mimic the russet hue of cheeses made from the milk of cows grazing on lush pasturage, in an unsettling demonstration that seductive, tricksy marketing has been around for centuries.

Sadly, like most traditional UK cheese, Leicestershire cheese was effectively made extinct by rationing during WWII.  The government proscribed recipes for cheesemaking throughout the UK, eliminating all soft cheeses as they did not keep for long periods of time, and fundamentally altering the recipes for hard cheeses to ensure that they were easily transportable and lasted a surprising amount of time.  Only after WWII was there such a thing as ‘Red Leicester’ as the prescribed ration recipe forbade cheesemakers from wastefully colouring their cheese; several post war Leicestershire cheeses sought to differentiate themselves from the dreck produced during rationing by re-introducing vegetable dye as a ‘Red’ Leicester.  Brute economic forces eventually killed off Leicestershire cheese, as small scale producers who abided by the pre-adulterated recipe could not compete with their far-flung industrialised counterparts.  The last Leicestershire farmhouse cheese abiding by the traditional recipe using raw milk was recorded in the 1970s (although the mediocre Stilton makers at Tuxford and Tebbut made a pasteurised Leicester into the ‘90s).  Until brothers David and Jo Clarke began production at Sparkenhoe farm near Upton in the early noughties.

Sparkenhoe Red Leicester justifiably holds the crown as the only

A natural mould rinding appears on the cloth mid maturity

true Leicestershire cheese being made in the world, in that it is the only Leicestershire based farm using the raw milk from its own herd of cows working to an original Leicestershire recipe.

In terms of the cheese itself, it is incredible.  It tends to have a strong flavour of freshly turned earth with an underlying sweetness and a nutty backnote.  However, these strong flavours tend to express themselves in a measured and gradual fashion; they smoothly segue into each other and persist without overpowering the palate.  The texture depends upon age; younger examples have a cleaner mouthfeel, whereas the older tend to vary – first smooth, then breaking down in a mildly granular, Cheshire fashion.

I would apologise for the sermonising, but I can’t help myself.  This is a true Midshires cheese of unimpeachable provenance and heritage that sadly seems to be more often appreciated outside of rather than in the West Midlands.  Compared to the claggy, lactic, slightly sour tasting offerings of things that dare to call themselves “Red Leicester” clogging up supermarket shelves and deli counters, there is no competition.  Sparkenhoe, unfortunately, is the only game in town, and all down to the efforts of David and Jo.  Surely I’m not the only person who finds it faintly terrifying that a cheese can live and die based upon the vision and expertise of so few?

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Let them eat cake

There are many small pleasures in being an artisanal cheesemonger.  Being able to spend fifteen minutes with someone tasting their way through the family tree of cheddar.  Tracking down a cheese that was tasted once on holiday a long time ago and not tasted since.  Taking a brie from its polite, unassuming youth to a full, belligerent maturity.  Essentially being some peculiar, dairy-based equivalent of the Man from Del Monte, giving the thumbs up to no-one in particular regarding a new truckle of cheese.  And then there are the times when you get to sit down with someone and play the Fantasy Football of cheese.

After a batch of successful commissions from private enquirers, Capeling and Co is officially offering bespoke cheese celebration cakes for special occasions and large gatherings.  Put simply, this is where wheels of complementary and contrasting cheeses are stacked upon one another in a savoury riposte to the traditional wedding cake.  As part of the service, we offer private consultations in and out of hours where a wide variety of cheeses can be tasted to create a bespoke, personally selected ziggurat of cheese.

To give a flavour of what we have co-created so far, on the right

A professionally dressed cheese celebration cake

there is a four tier cake of Kirkham’s Lancashire, Colston Basset dairy’s Shropshire Blue, the creamy-herby Spanish goats’ cheese Garrotxa, and topped off with the oozing, rich French Langres.  This was a cake that was a pleasure to put together and behold; it worked perfectly aesthetically with the colour tones of the cheeses alternating, and offered a real spread of tastes and textures from the best of UK and continental cheeses.

A selection of artisanal UK and ROI cheeses

Here is a more decidedly anglocentric cake, celebrating some of the best handmade cheeses of the UK and ROI: a base of Lincolnshire Poacher, a meaty, craggy cheddar, Rachel, a sophisticated and nutty Somerset goats’ cheese, Cashel Blue, the Irish cheese that kickstarted the renaissance in Ireland’s artisanal cheesemaking, and Finn, an indulgent cream-added Herefordshire soft and bloomy cheese.  Acting as edible supports between each layer are mature Crottin, the sharp little goats’ cheeses.  This cake was a monument to some of the great modern cheeses that are being handmade in the UK, running the gamut of hards, softs, blues, washed rinds and goats.

And that is one of the more satisfying moments for a cheesemonger: being able to work with a vague impression, thrash it out and finally realise hitherto unknown heights of personalised cheese decadence.  As ever, email us at capelingandco@gmail.com, call us on 0121 443 3223, or better yet, drop in to the shop and we can start crafting something epic together.

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Caramelised Shallot and Fourme d’Ambert tatin

Here’s a recipe I tried from Patricia Michelson’s book, The Cheese Room – she owns and runs La Fromagerie, a pair of artisan cheesemongers in London.  What attracted me to Caramelised shallots with Fourme d’Ambert on flaky pastry was less the M&S style title (these aren’t just shallots; they are slow-cooked, caramelised shallots with an exotic sounding cheese…), and more the fact that we are dealing with a plain old cheese and onion tart.  Now, I think it’s fair to say that the cheese and onion partnership could not be less fashionable; it is a pairing that has been largely lost to processed, flavour-added, edible-food-like-substances mass produced in some factory.  Thus the gauntlet was thrown down: could cheese and onion be rescued from foodie obscurity and factory processing?

bunch of ingredients

All of the ingredients required, except for the ones I forgot, and also some spring onions I had to use before they went funny

So, ingredients gathered I set about making the recipe.  With the oven pre-heating to 200c, the flaky pastry gets rolled out to the fit the 20cm tin that I had to borrow upon discovering that once again my blackened, shoddy, severely less than adequate cookware had been binned without my knowledge by people with higher standards than myself.  Undeterred, the pastry gets scored just before the side, and the base is pricked with a fork.  Looking at the cooking times and the thickness of the pastry involved, all of my instincts scream that it should get a light blind-baking at this point, but as usual, I cave in and follow the recipe, regretting it later.  It annoys me that so many recipes skip pretty important details just for the appearance of simplicity.

Pictured: shallots caramelising. Not pictured: the three score raw shallots on the floor, one of which later picked up and eaten by my son.

Next, the shallots get caramelised in butter.  This takes at least 45 minutes; Leiths maintains at least an hour.  The recipe suggests putting in a bit of balsamic at this point: I do.  Although Fourme’s a pretty laid back blue, I’m anticipating the need for sweet/sharp to cut through its creamy richness.

While the shallots are gently caramelising, the cream-cheese mixture is made.  The Fourme d’Ambert is roughly mashed with fromage blanc and cream, as even mild cheeses need to be leavened before cooking with them in this kind of recipe.  Thyme leaves are incorporated into the mixture, and in my case, small rings of the spring onion that would otherwise have gone manky.

Once the shallots are caramelised, they are lifted out of the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool.  The remaining onion-butter-balsamic in the pan is hit with a high heat and reduced to a golden liquor.

the caramelised shallots sit on the creamed-fourme base

Finally, the cheese-mix is pressed onto the pastry, and the shallots are pushed through the mixture.  The cooking liquor is poured sparingly over the top.  At this stage it goes in the oven for an advised 25 – 30 min.  I kept mine in a great deal longer following my craven failure to give the pastry a light blind bake, just to get a decent crust.

Once the cooking is done, remove the tart and set it to cool.  A horrifying gelatinous quality at this point is normal: during cooling the paste will set.  A note on re-heats: you can only ever melt cheese once.  Further exposure to heat will simply lead to burning.  This isn’t too bad if you want to give it a pleasant black-spotched top between the shallots, and I ended up with this result trying to save the pastry from chewiness.

And here’s the finished tart.  The pastry was far from perfect given the lack of blind baking, but the paste was pretty spectacular.  Despite the added cream and fromage blanc, the normally retiring Fourme asserted itself in a strong, savoury fashion.  The smoky-sweet shallots just about managed to cut through the rich cheese.  Unlike the bland-pappy prepared cheese and onion tarts available, this is definitely indulgent: a small amount goes a long way, and is best balanced with something like a clean salad.  The tatin also benefits from resting for a day, for the flavours to settle down and even out.

http://bit.ly/dlMfTJ is a copy of the recipe used above, which they fail to attribute to Patricia – I would recommend picking up the ‘The Cheese Room’ as it has a whole bunch of recipes on my hitlist.  Let me know if you have any great success or failure with it.

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