I'm sitting in the Roasterie Cafe, somewhere south of Kansas City which turns out to be mostly in Missouri, not Kansas as you might expect. I drove here. Having walked around for about a week, I finally gave in and hired a car. Which isn't an economical thing to do if you take all the insurance, and I'm taking all the insurance. But none of this has got anything to do with cheese.
I've been to Walmart. That's the only supermarket I've been to so far in the US, and I have to say, I wasn't impressed with their selection of cheese. It almost all seems to be some version of the kind of cheese slices that you would get on a cheeseburger. But I'm probably being very unfair on American cheese, which is the direct equivalent of the UK's asda, but it has to be said, again from my very limited sampling, with fewer people covered in tattoos who appear to have come to the supermarket, solely for the purpose of having a full-on domestic argument. Does it still count as a domestic argument if it's happening in the frozen food section of a major supermarket?
Anyway. Cheese. I really like Stilton. Blue cheese in general is fantastic. It's so fantastic, that I'll even eat the bad stuff – even cheapo Danish blue is pretty good. My wife really like crumbly cheese. Wensleydale, Caerphilly, Swaledale Goat's cheese. This is possibly related to her being from Greece where they have a fantastic crumbly cheese – Feta. Feta goes in every Greek salad – and in Greece it goes in in big thick slabs, not in pitiful little pencil-rubber pieces. Big thick slabs covered in yellow-green olive oil and sprinkled with olives and oregano. Like most Greek food, it doesn't really work with the kind of ingredients you get from your average Asda or Walmart. It needs Greek ingredients. Good Greek olives, good Greek tomatoes, good Greek olive oil and maybe that most ineffable of all Greek ingredients – Greece.
Try a Greek salad somewhere like Naxos, where all of the produce in the salad were probably grown with about ten miles of where you're sitting eating it and then you'll realise what all the fuss is about.
The Greeks don't just put cheese in salad. They put it in pies – that's what they eat for breakfast, a cheese-filled flaky pastry. And they deep-fry it with eggs to make something called saganaki. This is the waffer-thin mint at the end of a day of eating on Greek Easter Sunday (coming along the week after English Easter Sunday this year). After a day of eating roast lamb, and Greek salad, and cheese-pie (this time layers of filo filled with egg and cheese) at the very end, maybe two or three hours into Easter Monday, you put a pan on the embers of the barbecue and fry feta and marge and eggs (they don't seem to use butter and it always tastes great so I'm not arguing). And you scour the table to find some bread to eat it with. And you are fucking full. I'm not missing Greece at all am I? Or maybe I'm just missing my favourite Greek.
The Cypriots and the Arab countries have a pretty good cheese – Haloumi. Squeaky cheese, it kind of squeaks when you cut into it, but it's so robust you can barbecue it.
The best cheese is probably French, because famously there are more kinds of French cheese than there are atoms in the universe. So one of them must be the best. But I haven't actually come across a better all-rounder than Cheddar – not the pre-packaged mild stuff, although I actually think some of the pre-packaged extra-strong stuff is OK. But for various reasons I bought a half of a big round of the real extra-mature stuff and it was fucking awesome. Any way you wanted it. On toast. I think the Americans call cheese-on-toast (cheese on taoist, I nearly typed, that's quite a different thing). Where was I? The Americans call cheese on toast “grilled cheese sandwich.” Even though it isn't a sandwich and they call grilling “broiling.” Anyway – decent Cheddar, good on toast. Good in an ordinary non-toasted sandwich (fucking awesome in a sandwich with pickled onions). But the best thing to do with Cheddar of this level of awesomeness is to make it into a cheese sauce. A cheese sauce – that you could make macaroni cheese with (the Americans call that a “Mac Cheese”, but then again, they buy it ready-mixed in packets). A cheese sauce you could make cauliflower cheese with.
Back to blue cheese – you know, I think it'll do as a substitute for chocolate. When I'm pining for chocolate, if I eat blue cheese, especially a really good, honking, Stilton, then the craving for chocolate goes away. This isn't any kind of health tip, seeing as I'm sure that the Stilton has more fat in it than the chocolate. It's just a tip if you haven't got any chocolate.
I think I like most stinky cheese. We bought one in Vienna I think it was a Tyroller cheese, and it stank the whole flat out.
The Italians have some crazy cheese. Parmesan, which smells baaaad but is apparently one of the few things in the western diet that has a “fifth taste” that the Japanese call “umami.” I don't know where I got that particular nugget of information from. Then they have Mozarella – and like blue cheese, this is so goddamn awesome that even the cheap stuff that comes in huge blocks is good and the chichi stuff that comes floating in its own amniotic fluid is just even better.
I haven't been to Italy that often (and last time I was there I was still dealing with a meal I'd eaten in Paris) but my guess is that, just like Greece, there are parts of Italy where you could order a salad that consisted of nothing more than some Mozarella, maybe a bit of tomato and a drizzle of olive oil and it would be the most amazing meal you've ever eaten.
The Americans, I know because I've seen this in a film called “French Kiss” the Americans have this idea that cheese that doesn't come vacuum-packed in plastic, and doesn't taste like a slightly cheesy version of the plastic that it comes vacuum-packed in. The Americans right – God, I'm sounding like a drunk in a bar trying to start a fight. Deep breath. Some Americans, think that all non-pasteurised, natural, fully-matured cheese is nothing but a health-hazard. But the truth is that stinky cheese like this is designed to be eaten with a specially designed anti-biotic one-a-day drink called RED WINE. Eat the stinking cheese and chase it with red wine. If you're in Austria, it might be white wine. Who gives a fuck?
I dunno, I'm thinking now that maybe I'm very unfair to Americans. Maybe there are some really good live stinky cheeses in America. If anybody knows of any, and how I can easily get hold of them without having to drive far outside Kansas City, please let me know about them. Another thing that the Greeks do with cheese is they deep fry it, and, I have to admit, that I actually like deep-fried Camembert. Even though apparently the French have never heard of this and it's a totally English invention. But the Greek version of deep-fried cheese, I've had a bunch of different versions, but they're all awesome. I remember I had some in Pilio, the very first time I was in Greece it was gorgeous.
The Italians have a cheese that has maggots in it that you can see (as opposed to all “live” cheese, which apparently has microscopic mites in it, that you can only see with – well, a microscope). And even for me, that seems like a step too far. But it might be one of those things that you could do for a dare, you know, one of those foods that people claim “makes you strong.”
I tell you what I don't like when it comes to cheese – cheese that has other crap in it. Especially fruit. There was a craze for this for a while. Especially white Stilton (what exactly is the point of white Stilton?) Stilton without the blueness. Something tells me the kind of people who buy white Stilton are the kind of people who regret the passing of Mellow Birds Instant Coffee. White Stilton with dried apricots. White Stilton with cranberries. White Stilton laces with a trifle and a mars bar. Fuck off. This is cheese. If you want a dessert, go get a fucking dessert. Leave the cheese alone do not sully it with fucking cranberries. I fucking hate cranberries. Savoury is savoury and sweet is sweet and ne're the twain – well I suppose you can make an exception for cream cheese. I mean you can put (I think the verb actually is schmear) that on a bagel that is sweet, or has sweet stuff in it. Again, there's a whole spectrum, from mass-produced Philadelphia to Chevres. Again, you can get some really stinky kick-ass goats cheese, the kind that has a rind.
But in the end. Cheddar. A decent bit of Cheddar. And some pickled onions. I wish I had some right now.