Going Above And Beyond The Cheese Course
Winter is wonderful for many reasons. It’s the crisp, cold season where estranged families can put aside their differences and spend quality time together. It’s the season where you can start layering and put all your recent Uniqlo purchases to good use. It’s the season where you can remember why it is that you’re estranged from your terrible, terrible family in the first place. But, most important of all, it’s the season where it’s finally socially acceptable for you to eat mountains upon mountains of cheese.
Cheese is obviously great at all times of the year (I could write a dissertation about how halloumi and feta are the summer dresses of the cheese world) but our consumption of the stuff really ramps up when the weather gets cold. There’s a reason that cauliflower cheese, mac and cheese, tartiflette, and potato gratin are all mainstays around November and December and a reason why there are so many brilliant cheese subscriptions out there. Cheese is the epitome of a comfort food and it’s even been proven that it can boost your body’s levels of vitamin D – a substance we all lack when we’re particularly sun-deprived.
Despite cheese very much being on everyone’s minds right now, ordering the cheese course when you’re at a restaurant is still a controversial move to make. Not only does it rob you of something sweet to end your meal on, but it also feels like you’re cheating yourself out of sampling a chef’s creativity by ordering something that you could quite literally make for yourself at home. A slice of brie with a spoonful of punchy chutney is brilliant but… is it really worth paying £8 for the trouble of eating that on a white table cloth when you could just as easily cobble that together from the comfort of your sofa? Honestly? No.
Not all cheese courses are made even though. And not all of them are examples of a kitchen phoning it in. I’ve been lucky enough to sample a couple of superbly cheesy dishes recently and I’d like to take the chance here to give a shout out to some of the chefs and restaurants who are underlining just how magical cheese can be. Especially when it’s served towards the tail-end of a meal.
From Chet Sharma at BiBi to Roberta Hall McCarron at The Little Chartroom, many brilliant chefs are paying homage to the fromage and proving that the cheese course (and British artisan cheese, in particular) can be an exciting addition to a menu.
The cheese course isn’t just an afterthought for someone with the guts to do something interesting with it, and there’s no excuse for a restaurateur to get away with serving a solo bit of Berkswell. In the right hands that piece of cheese can, like a lump of clay tossed into Aardman’s animation studio, become utterly charming. These are a few of the people going above and beyond to make the cheese course truly special.
Charlie Tayler uses Tunworth – a British, camembert-ish cheese – to make a delicate ice cream that he serves with truffle honey and hazelnut at his Soho haunt. A fitting way to end a meal.
The Little Chartroom, Edinburgh
Roberta Hall McCarron uses Baron Bigod in her all-star dessert: a crisp and rustic seada pastry that's fried with a thick wedge of cheese inside it along with a smattering of figs, walnuts and thyme. The Bigod’s Brie-like texture adds a real richness to the dish.
BiBi’s buffalo milk paneer, a straightforward dish that consists of nothing but a rectangle of cheese dusted in fenugreek kebab masala and laid to rest on a thin mattress of onions and chillies, is one of the tastiest things I’ve eaten all year. Made using free-range buffalo milk from Hampshire and grass-fed ghee, it’s soft and creamy with a subtle, almost meaty, animal undertone.
The Water House Project, Hackney
Gabriel Waterhouse uses Tunworth cheese to create his ice cream with additional flavours of pear, vanilla, hazelnut and shallot, served with burnt onion skins. Yes, it’s a bit El Bulli but it’s hard to fault the ambition.
St. JOHN, Smithfield
Fergus Henderson’s minimalist mecca is known for serving food that’s about as classic as it gets. The proper Northern combination of Eccles cake and Lancashire cheese is a cheesy dessert course that doesn’t come with any fancy bells and whistles but does succeed in bringing out the best of its composite parts. St. JOHN's little sister, St. JOHN Bread and Wine, also advocates for that sweet and savoury union via its super trad dessert of Wensleydale and raisin bread.
The Cheese Barge, Paddington
It’s sort of cheating to include a restaurant that specialises in cheese on this list but, honestly, the stuff that The Cheese Barge does with cheddar will blow your mind. Every dairy-based dish they do is rather clever but the deep-fried, curried Westcombe Dairy cheese curds are the simplest and most satisfying of all. Drizzled with chilli honey, those ochre nuggets are the most fully realised version of a mozzarella stick I’ve ever consumed.
Tim Siadatan knows exactly how much to punch up an ingredient with a writer’s room of accompanying flavours and knows exactly when to pull back and let it do the talking for itself. Trullo’s burrata antipasti is a model of the restaurant’s impeccable timing. Accompanied by a handful of seasonal ingredients (the riff at the time of writing is marinated squash, chilli, and sage), the burrata's sweet and creamy flavour is amplified by its bedfellows and allowed to loiter on your palate.
Lilac, Lyme Regis
Harriet Mansell uses Baron Bigod and serves it with carrot cake, mead-soaked raisins, and candied walnuts