Fromage to Lancastria

Yesterday I went to a cheese and wine party, where the cheese was the main attraction: a friend had gone to the Cheltenham cheese festival and brought back nearly 20 varieties. Actually 20 varieties at first, so rumour had it, but the stock had been decimated by cheesy thievery since the turn of this month.

Weird cheeses, like such parties, are normally indicators of middle-class aspiration, as much as Jamie Oliver books and flavoured oils. Waitrose specialises in them, in other words, and Sainsbury’s makes a big deal of offering them as an occasional “Taste Your Mother” Argos-like product. Normally they’re all bettering-yourself polish to the packaging and little substance inside, with an occasional cranberry to please the massed ranks of consumers wishing to better themselves through their choice of food.

But from the often rather contrary and unwelcoming oddities on display last night—anonymous, uncompromising Crumbly Goat, or a Parmesan-like delicacy produced by a man who apparently spat at the mere mention of his Italian competition—one got the idea that the original Cheltenham event had been more like the milky-corpse equivalents of a real ale festival than like people standing round swapping idées reçues about new-world offerings and the character of French vintners. No less a shibboleth, of course, these campaigns for real realness (utilised in different social circles from those that accommodate the fine nose of a Merlot), but certainly nowhere on the axis that runs from upwardly-mobile quiet evenings to the studenty drink-unto-death parties that I still occasionally grace when not being a curmudgeon at home.

I remember my parents going to cheese and wine parties, but as they were organized by their local wine circle, there was never more than the usual candidates: chedder, stilton, occasionally brie but I think that was considered not British enough in 1980s Northern middle-class society. They made good wines, apparently—from elderflower, various fruits, even tea at one point—but I was only ever really interested in the post-boiled, pre-fermented mush. Full of sugar and juice, it was tantalizing and hot like it had been mulled; subsequently full of sugar and juice myself after “just testing it”, I couldn’t understand why anyone would let it go sour with alcohol.

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