A monthly column by Justin Tunstall of Town Mill Cheesemonger, Lyme Regis
FRANCIS is an outstanding Dorset cheese success story. Few cheeses win consecutive Best in Category gongs at the British Cheese Awards (our Oscars), yet Francis, a lovely washed-rind gem from Child Okeford has achieved this feat, scooping Best New British Cheese in 2012 and Best Semi-Soft in 2013. This has led to the cheese appearing on many top-end restaurant cheeseboards and it’s also served in BA’s First Class cabins, for those fortunate to turn left on embarking aircraft.
Washed-rind cheeses have an interesting history: it’s said that the technique was mastered by mediaeval monks forbidden to eat meat on Fridays. Not given to self-sacrifice or asceticism, they still wished to feast on food that gave a punch and ensured that they didn’t miss their meat. Taking a cheese that had not been hard pressed (ie NOT a cheddar type), they developed a knack of washing the cheese in either brine or alcohol as it matured. This arrested the customary growth of a fluffy white exterior, like Brie has, and gave a sticky, almost orange rind in its place. Depending on the washing medium, cheeses ranged from sweetly fecund to outright pungent. When Henry VIII approved the dissolution of the monasteries, we lost this method of manufacture from our shores – until the artisan cheese boom of the last 20 years.
We can now enjoy a raft of washed-rind cheeses from here in Britain, which can rival many of the French classics, such as Epoisses de Bourgogne. Having appeared in Aardman’s “Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Were Rabbit,” Stinking Bishop is perhaps the best known. It’s named after the pear from which its perry wash is brewed, and although it packs a devastating and pungent assault on the nose, the cheese itself is subtle in flavour.
Francis is rapidly becoming almost as well known as The Bishop and is the result of dedicated effort from one man..James McCall started his cheese-making dairy some two years ago. He is a washed-rind maven, learning his craft with the late James Aldridge after whom Francis is named – it was Aldridge’s unused first name. James went on to work at Daylesford Organic and then the Cranborne Chase dairy, the demise of which in 2011 left a massive void in the range of Dorset-made cheeses. Thankfully its redundant cheese-makers launched two new enterprises, so we’re now better off than before! Although James’ Cheese is a separate enterprise from Chalk Valley Cheese, run by his ex-colleagues, they cooperate extensively, selling each other’s creations at market. Indeed, selling beautifully wrapped flavoured cheese balls off market stalls enabled James to experiment with his new cheese and to refine it. We in Lyme were fortunate to stock Francis early in its manufacture and it has proved consistently popular with both visitors and local cheese aficionados. It’s a cheese with a slight “pong,” but one which is unlikely to offend. The rind is somewhat sticky with a blush peach effect. The paste is both dense and malleable with a meaty and creamy flavour together with a savoury tang. There’s a lot going on here!
A whole cheese of around a kilo comes wrapped in cellophane, tied with raffia and sporting a manila “luggage label” tag. It would make a fabulous cheese for the end of a dinner party, served with a sticky pudding wine – Sauternes might work well. For retail, we cut the cheese down into quarters (and sometimes even eighths, though that’s not enough for any more than two to share!).
You owe it to yourself to try this cheese – find it in independent cheese specialists or track James down at a Farmers’ Market.Mercifully there’s no need to re-mortgage for a First Class air ticket.