Cheese, Wine & Biscuits: Sharpham Estate vs. Peter's Yard
People have been farming on the Sharpham Estate for a thousand years, so it's not surprising that they've got the hang of things. This is certainly the case for the cheese and wines produced there.
All their cheeses have a subtleness and delicacy in common. If you are after head-banging cheeses this is not your bag, but I would urge you to stay. Milder styles have a reticence, requiring a more inquisitive open attitude, these are cheeses you need to reach out to, which can be a rewarding experience.
'What grows together goes together' is a thing that sommeliers say, and I have often found it to be true. Sharpham's Pinot Noir with its light red fruits would be a versatile partner for many cheeses. I'm afraid I drank all mine in one go during the British Cheese Weekender, and versatile it was, but I had none left for this tasting session. That's ok though because the lovely people at Sharpham's also stuck a bottle of their Barrel Fermented white in my delivery. Eminently English, with notes of apple and gooseberry - I got some quince too - and a whippy acidic backbone, this also makes an excellent general purpose cheese wine.
Peter's Yard recently sent me a hugely generous supply of their biscuits, in all their varied forms. Now I have hitherto eschewed the biscuit, in the context of cheese that is. If I'm judging cheese I need to concentrate on its flavour and texture alone, and I tend to bring that attitude to more relaxed modes of tasting too. It turns out that I may have been too strict with myself. The clean snap of these biscuits makes a lovey foil to the texture of the cheeses and pairing the impressive variety of flavours with the different cheese has been fascinating. The mild cheeses of Sharpham have worked very well, allowing the flavours in the Peter's Yard products to come through, which surprised me, I thought that it would take a more robust cheese to face down a flavoured biscuit. You learn something new every day, specially if you're a cheesemonger.
And now for the cheese:
Pasteurised sheep's milk, vegetarian rennet.
With it's ivory-white shade, typical of sheep's milk, this is a lovely cheese to look at. There is very little breakdown - the creamy layer that is the result of the rind softening the cheese - and this tells me that the flavour will be clean and delicate. The aroma shows floral and milky notes, and the texture is silky and springy, a result partly of the richness of sheep's milk alongside a particular technique - the washing of the curd. For this method, some of the acidic whey is run off while the curd is still in the vat and replaced with warm water, a process that also brings out sweetness in the flavour. I like a little acidity to balance sweetness in a cheese, and Washbourne opens with an enticing tartness, then delivers a floral note finishing with a sheepy tang - delicacy does not preclude complexity. I really enjoyed this cheese with the pink peppercorn biscuits, the acidity of the cheese brought out the fruitiness of the pepper.
Unpasteurised cow and goat's milk, vegetarian rennet
Mixed milk cheeses are a rarity in the British Isles. They were originally made by peasant cheesemakers, who with their smaller herds needed to mix the milk of different animals to get a decent volume of milk. What with enclosure and the industrial revolution, we lost our peasantry, along with the styles of cheese that they made, so it's nice to see a cheese like this appearing on the national cheeseboard. Savour has a deep yellow colour from the cows milk, particularly so since this is lovely rich Jersey milk. Like Washbourne, this is a washed curd cheese, but the paste is less uniform, I notice more breakdown from the rind and a clotted cream texture from that Jersey milk. The flavour is buttery with a hint of earth and just a hint of piquancy from the goat's milk. This would be an excellent gateway cheese to anyone who is shy of goatiness. Continuing my journey of discovery that is matching cheese and biscuits, I really enjoyed Savour with the original Knäkebröd, which have a malty flavour. There was something very homely and comforting about the pairing, It was like having a digestive with butter, and yes that is allowed.
Unpasteurised cow's milk, vegetarian rennet, garlic and chives.
Now I don't normally hold with flavoured cheeses. This is merely a personal judgment and I make no proscriptions, I just want to experience the purity of the cheese. If I were however to make a cheese with added flavourings, this would be it. The cheese itself is subtle, making an excellent canvas for the garlic and chive, which have themselves been added with an elegant restraint. As the makers point out, this is the sort of thing you might get if the cattle had snacked on a patch of wild garlic, and so feels very natural. The salting is just right too, coming through just at the end for a satisfying salty finish. Where the flavourings were a bit complex for the pink peppercorns - just too much going on for me - the fig and spelt brought a lovely sweet/savoury effect, posh Boursin and salty caramel.
Unpasteurised cow's milk, vegetarian rennet.
I have to confess an interest here. I have a long relationship with Elmhirst that goes back to my days as a younger monger at Neal's Yard Dairy, twenty years ago. It was my first triple-crème cheese, a French style where extra double cream is added to the milk - something only the French would think of doing. The result is an indulgent luxuriant texture, enhanced in Elmhirst's case by the Jersey milk. In my early days I was more prone to linguistic flights of fancy, and I used to describe the surprisingly clean flavour of such a rich looking cheese as like taking a drink of cool mountain spring water after a long hot climb. Today's Elmhirst has some age on it as you can see from the picture. Look at that well developed breakdown, the rich colour, the heavy texture. This batch tasted like slightly edgy clotted cream. I was too overcome with the gorgeousness to be all that conscious about biscuit paring but I think that one of Peter's Yard's gratifyingly large original crispbreads, thickly spread with Elmhirst and helped along with a glass of something sparkly and toasty - Sharpham's Sparkling Blanc for example - would be a transcendent experience.
Pasteurised goat's milk, vegetarian rennet.
Ticklemore is another old friend, so don't expect much objectivity. Candidate for most amusingly named cheese, Ticklemore also stands out for its intriguing appearance - it looks like a small, snowy-white flying saucer, and is oddly large for a goat's cheese. I have always loved the open crumbly texture of a Ticklemore, which combined with its delicacy and freshness makes it the perfect picnic cheese. A rosé, particularly a sparkling one, would fit with the summery theme. Older cheeses develop a more creamy texture as the rind does its work but still retain that delicacy of flavour that makes Ticklemore another excellent starter for the novice goat fancier. Of all five of the Sharpham cheeses I tried, this is the one that really popped with the Sharpham's Barrel Fermented white, the earthy flavour of the rind intertwining beautifully with a note of quince in the wine.
You can buy these cheeses and wines direct from Sharpham's Estate, and likewise, the biscuits from Peter's Yard. Both are available in cheesemongers and delis all over the U.K., see this list for some excellent shops.
Now here is a picture of the cheeses in all their unwrapped glory, the bountiful piles of biscuits and the lovely crisp, yet fruity wine. Cheers!