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Wednesday, 2 October 2013

My Nirvana at the London Cheese and Wine Festival, Southbank, 11th to 13th October 2013

Words & Photography by Greg Klerkx

I adore cheese, whether it’s the most eye-watering Pont l’Eveque or a disc of snowy, virginal goat so fresh that one is certain the churn itself must still be nearby. Perhaps more than any other food, cheese is my nirvana. And if by some cosmic quirk we have the option of choosing the setting for our afterlife, mine might look very much like Paxton & Whitfield. 

Founded in 1797, Paxton & Whitfield was apparently Winston Churchill’s favourite fromager: the shop proudly quotes the great man as having once said, “a gentleman only buys his cheese at Paxton & Whitfield.” The rest of us will also find plenty to love amidst the artfully arranged discs, pyramids, wedges, and rounds, of which roughly two-thirds is typically of British provenance. For further evidence, if needed, that UK cheese is now of world-beating status, Paxton & Whitfield proudly notes that it exports a goodly amount of our nation’s finest to – wait for it – France.

What a perfect spot, then, for the launch of the London Cheese & Wine Festival, which will take place at the Southbank Centre over the weekend of 11-13 October 2013. The Festival exists to celebrate all things cheese: there’ll be cooking demonstrations, food pairings, tastings, and even a daily quiz for those truly in the cheesy know.

The Festival launch event at P&W was co-sponsored by D Vine Cellars and The Flour Station, who will also be front-and-centre at the Festival. The Flour Station is a happy spin-off of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen experiment/empire. Like many of its artisanal peers, The Flour Station prides itself on traditional baking methods, with a particular focus on long dough proving and sourdough recipes that are guarded more closely than Trident nuclear codes. The result is evident in a slew of festival awards and supply deals with top London restaurants and hotels.

D Vine Cellars is the creation of former IT manager Gregory Andrews, whose business card title - ‘Wine Enthusiast’ – absolutely reflects his passion for sourcing unusual offerings. The D Vine Cellars shop near Clapham North tube station features tasting machines stocked with wines from vintners who prioritise sustainable farming methods and ethical winemaking processes. A nice touch is that, for a small corkage fee, shop visitors can enjoy a bottle in the shop along with specially selected cheese and charcuterie.

On offer at the Festival launch event were five cheese-bread-wine pairings offering a sense of the delights in store at the Festival itself. Each vendor had its standout offerings. Flour Station’s walnut levain managed somehow to be feather-light yet hearty and deep, with just a hint of sourdough tang to lift the milky Aldwych goat it was paired with. The company’s bestseller, the Tortano Crown, similarly managed to practically float on the palate despite being made with whole baked potatoes – a few semi-crisped skins were studded throughout the toroidal loaf – which gave it an almost meaty savouriness.

The story behind D Vine’s star of the evening, a 2004 Lemaire-Fournier Les Morandiers, was slightly sad. The 2004 was Lemaire-Fournier’s last vintage owing to the death of the vintner, whose widow subsequently sold the organically farmed vineyards. Thus is the world left with only a small amount of this luscious, honeyed, beautifully shaped Vouvray: an absolute steal at £15.50 per bottle and still available from D Vine (though you’ll have to get there before I do).

Ah, yes…the cheese. The Brie de Melun (“the little brother of Brie de Mieux,” according to P&W) was a nice example of the type; made from unpasteurised cow’s milk, smaller and gentler than its ‘older sibling’ but with a salty, earthy snap to each mouthful. A Spanish offering, Picos Blue, was milder than many of its bluish cousins but matched nicely with the Tortano Crown and a Beaujolais-like 2011 Famile Perrin Ventoux. 

But the big winner for me was a marvellous Westcombe cheddar – chewy, almost caramel-y, and tangy yet lacking in the astringency that some unpasteurised cheddars can tend to carry. Fortunately, the event organisers saw fit to send me home with a healthy wedge of this lovely stuff. Is this step one in assembling my cheesy nirvana? Stay tuned.

For more information about the London Cheese and Wine Festival, visit their website here.

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