We catch up with Bahrain's cheese guru Mike Britton
Time Out Bahrain staff
So, how did you become the Cheese Guy? After coming from a really boring job in insurance, I had a friend who managed this delicatessen and I used to do a lot of Saturdays there. I sort of adopted the cheese section, purely through love and indulgence of cheese! I just taught myself. I didn’t have a clue to be honest, apart from what tasted good in my opinion. And fortunately I pretty much liked everything.
Cheese 101. How many kinds are there? There are four or five different varieties. There are soft cheeses, semi-soft, semi-hard, hard and blue. Most people will know some of those cheeses - stilton or a cheddar or a brie. Stilton is a blue cheese, cheddar is a hard cheese and brie is a soft cheese. Some of the semi-soft cheeses would be the rind-washed cheeses, they’re just washed in a juice and that flavour filters through. They’re usually the really pongy cheeses.
What’s the appeal of that? I’ve never understood eating something that smells like feet (on a good day). Once you get inside that cheese, you have actually a very, very creamy, flavoured product. Just dig in! You just have to get over the smell.
If it already smells that way, how do we know when it’s been in the fridge too long? You will get a very pink mold, a very black mold, if they’re over ripe soft cheeses for example they’ll go very hard on the outside, and that’s not how they should be. They should be very soft, very gooey. It’s not that you can’t eat them, but they just won’t be very nice. And some of them go particularly smelly. For instance, some of the bries will go, the camembert will go hard and sort of really ammonia-smelling. You would just be a little bit repulsed by it. Some French man somewhere will probably want to eat that and be ok! I’ve seen cheese that’s so smelly and they even have little worms inside, and that’s sold like that. For me, that’s a bit too far!
But you don’t draw the line at mold. . . I don’t know whether it’s the sharpness [of blue cheeses], they also have a slight creaminess, the length that it lingers on your tongue, it tingles in the back of your nose like when you have wasabi or chili, it’s an addiction. Something like truffles or caviar, these sort of exquisite almost not perfect and beautiful flavours, it’s something that’s almost exclusive. I really don’t know how else to describe it. It’s a bit more advanced I think. It’s almost a culinary status that you’ve gone to the extreme. I think that’s it. It’s like ‘I’m going to have my really smelly cheese’.
So mold is good? If it’s a mold that’s similar to the colour of the natural mold that’s forming, it’s fine. If you’ve cut your cheese, a brie for instance, and it’s starting to grow the white mold that you see on the front facing, it’s not a problem. On the blues, if you start to get a fluffy blue around, it’s the same. Even if it’s fluffy, you just wipe it off. If you look inside a cross section of a blue cheese, you’ll see that kind of intense blue, green that if you saw it on top of yogurt in your fridge you’d just be repulsed and throw it away. But on these types of cheeses it’s meant to be there—it’s what gives them that lovely flavour.
You’ve now just confirmed that my mum was right all those years she insisted you could just lop the moldy bit off. Drat. It just depends on the colour. So give it a go and you’ll be fine! Don’t’ waste that lovely cheese!
What about that rind? Are you meant to eat it? Leave it on the plate? It depends. Certainly with your cloth-wrapped cheeses you need to take it off before you serve it. With your mild or slightly less ripe soft cheeses, you can eat the rind. I’ve seen people who are eating the rind of the manchego, which is coated in wax but they’re still popping it in their mouths. Until your rind is getting a very florescent pink or a very black mould, it’s probably ok. Some people just prefer not to.
So break this down, what are some good ‘starter’ cheeses? If somebody didn’t have a clue, I would just give them some of the milder flavours to begin with. I wouldn’t want to put a really smelly blue or roquefort on their plate and them not enjoy it. The truffle brie is very, very creamy and it’s a good way of sort of introducing people to quite a full flavour. The cantal which is a really old French cheese, I think it’s about an eight- or nine-hundred-year-old recipe, this is a nice mild agreeable cheese, but a bit more depth of flavour. Another place to start is the really creamy cheeses that mix well with a sharp fruit paste. And maybe put a cheddar in there as well, especially if they’re from the UK or America, they’re comfortable with that. Manchego is another sheeps’ milk cheese. People always get a bit ‘ew goats’ cheese, sheeps’ cheese’ but sheeps’ cheese is actually creamier and milder with just a slight farmyardy taste.
Right so take the training wheels off, what’s next if we’re learning about cheese? Then you go with cheeses that have depth of flavour. You certainly work into your vintage cheddars. Vintage cheddar is something that’s been aged in cloth. You find that it wouldn’t be as strong as the extra mature, which you would expect it to be, it just has a great depth of flavour and will last longer on your palate. And it’s much drier as well, while a mature cheese is a little moister. Certainly brie would come next. Everybody loves a brie, but maybe you’d give them something that’s a bit riper. As soon as you cut it it will start oozing off, and it will be a bit pongy. Some of the rind-washed cheeses, the milder ones, like Saint Nectaire, maybe a Morbier, a Mont Comte is a fantastic 18-month-old French cheese that has tiny little salt crystals on it, a little bit tangy, a little bit sharp. Also in that range probably at the far end of that is Beaufort, which is a raw milk cheese that has quite a stinky rind, but when you eat it, it has a really nice mild flavour, with a tang of the smell.
Once we’ve mastered those, how do we prove our foody worth? What are the full-on cheeses? Roquefort. Always roquefort. It’s almost the king of blue cheeses. Some of the stiltons, Shropshire blue, that’s a very, very nice strong, lovely cheese. You could move on to the slightly smellier rind-washed cheeses. The stinking bishop for example, raquette is a nice melty cheese but very smelly.
How do you eat this stuff? Does it involve a cracker (everything is, after all, better on a Ritz) I prefer mine to be just simple, on a plain cracker. I think keep it simple. Baguette and simple crackers. I think when it comes to cheese, people think they know, from the scientific facts, they go ‘oh you must do this’ or ‘oh you must do that’, or they try to flavour cheese with really weird things. Just keep it pure, keep it simple.
Quick Ordering Guide
Snip this and stick it in your wallet, to seem like a cheese-ordering culinary pro!
Starter cheeses Cantal: one of the oldest cheeses in France, it’s firm with a mild flavour
Cheddar: can be mild or sharp, good with crackers
Manchego: A Spanish sheep’s milk cheese, it’s slightly creamy and has an slight aftertaste
Brie: Creamy, opt for a milder variety for a less-sharp flavour, you’re meant to eat the crust
Training-Wheels cheese Vintage Cheddar: Aged at least two years, it’s like a chedder on smooth, lingering steroids
Ripe Brie: A stronger, more intense flavour, with a bit of whiff when you cut into it
Saint Nectaire: Louis XIV of France loved this slightly acidic, mushroomy cheese
Morbier: It’s got a bit of a pong, but the flavour is creamy with a slightly bitter after taste. There’s also a layer of flavourless ash in the middle.
Mont Comte: Little salt crystals give it a tangy, sharp edge
Beaufort: The stinky rind gives you foodie cred, the mild inside flavour let’s developing palates still enjoy it.
Full on cheeses Roquefort: One of the most famous French sheep’s cheeses, it’s studded with bright green mold, and has a smoky, salty flavour. There’s no rind, and you’re meant to eat the salty crust.
Stilton: An English cheese with blue mold throughout, it’s actually fairly mild and creamy. Hard core foodies want the traditional variety, that comes with tiny maggots. That you’re supposed to eat. It’s also rumoured to cause disturbing dreams.
Shropshire Blue: A Scottish cheese with a bright orange colour and dark mold, it’s creamier than Stilton with a sharper flavour.
Raquette: A creamy cheese with a hearty flavour, that’s made for melting (if you can get past the smell).