Friday, 30 September 2011

Two fondues and cheesy suppers

It's been British Cheese Week this past week - I don't normally get excited about "official weeks" for this, that and the other as most seem rather trivial, but the revival of artisan cheeses in this country is to be applauded. Some 20 years ago, when I upped sticks to France for a bit, UK supermarkets were full of generic slabs of factory cheddar and it was almost impossible to find real cheese in this country. There has been a revolution since then, with cheesemakers all over the UK vying to create some truly delicious cheeses that can easily match those from across the Channel. (Sadly, the supermarkets are still full of factory cheese.)

Cheese is a staple for solo food lovers. As a lone gourmet, once in a while I'll dig out the oatcakes and dine on a cheeseboard - a slice of Brie so ripe it's almost running off the plate, a slab of tangy, salty Roquefort and a wedge of artisan cheddar plus an apple make a very decent supper in front of the TV with a glass of wine. And I sometimes resort to the comfort of cheese on toast in the evening when I'm not massively hungry and feeling a bit lazy. I aim to have good bread in the house and will spread the untoasted side with some French grain mustard or some onion marmalade before topping with slices of cheese. I have a particular liking for Red Leicester, if I can find a decent piece, but all the traditional British hard cheeses toast up nicely.

Melted cheese, yummy as it is, always makes me yearn for fondue. It's a dish for sharing, of course, and it looks difficult, but it's actually really easy to knock up enough for one person and you don't even need a fancy fondue set (although I get mine out if I have guests). This takes under 10 minutes after you've prepped the ingredients.

What you need: 
100g Emmental, grated
50g Gruyère, cheddar or other hard cheese, grated
2tbsp Kirsch
1/2 level tbsp cornflour
1 clove garlic
Sea salt and black pepper to taste

What to do:
Peel and cut the garlic clove in half then rub it all over the inside of a small non-stick saucepan. Carefully blend one tablespoon of Kirsch in a mug or small jug with the cornflour. Warm the pan on the stove over a moderate heat and slosh in the second tablespoon of Kirsch until it starts to simmer. Turn the heat to low and start adding the cheese to the liquid a bit at a time, stirring the whole time with a wooden spoon to stop it sticking and burning. Make sure each handful of cheese is fully melted into the Kirsch before you add the next.

When all the cheese is in the pan and has melted, add the cornflour and Kirsch mixture to it and keep stirring furiously - this is really important, else the fondue will separate and curdle. Let it cook for two to three minutes more so the cornflour cooks through - it's ready when it looks like a creamy cheese sauce and comes away from the sides of the pan. Season to taste, though you'll probably find you don't need salt at all. Tip into a bowl and get stuck in. You can use chunks of crusty bread, boiled potatoes or crudités to scoop up the fondue. I usually have a small green salad on the side too - it helps cut through the richness of the cheese.

Cook's tips:
Be sure to use Emmental for the most authentic flavour and texture - this rubbery Swiss cheese has a high melting point and a pleasingly nutty flavour. Emmental usually, but not always, has holes in it, like Gruyère which is the other traditional cheese in a fondue. You can substitute other cheeses for the Gruyère, such as cheddar, but the results can be a little unpredictable as their melting point will be different so do keep an eye on the pan if you experiment.

If you don't have Kirsch, white wine is a good substitute. I have even used vermouth, vodka and grappa as a replacement when there's been no Kirsch in the cupboard. The point is to have a clear alcohol in which to melt the cheese.

The lazy gourmet option
I'm no fan of prepared foods, as it's usually just as quick to cook from scratch and it'll certainly be healthier, with less fat, salt and additives.

However, the lovely artisan cheesemakers at Butler's Cheese were kind enough to send me a sample of their new product a few days ago, to mark British Cheese Week. I've been a big fan of Butler's ever since I discovered their amazing Blacksticks Blue on the cheeseboard at the Mark Addy when dining there a year ago. A striking tangerine colour with thick grey veining and a black rind, it has a creamy texture and a defined mould taste that easily rivals Stilton, although I'm not sure it'll displace Roquefort as my favourite blue cheese.

Anyway, the cheese boffins at Butler's have created a mini microwaveable fondue made with their own handmade Lancashire cheese - I had my doubts when I first looked at it, because I struggled to believe you can make an edible prepackaged version, but the ingredients list is tiny and apart from cheese, milk and cream it has only a small amount of preservative. No Kirsch, but it is veggie-friendly and it comes in two little white plastic ramekins (see, I told you fondue is for sharing).

Putting my scepticism aside, I prised off the lids and popped the ramekins in my microwave, which is normally only dusted down for defrosting or reheating. Thirty seconds, a quick stir, another 15 seconds and another stir and it was ready.

I have to admit I was impressed - this really is almost as good as a homemade fondue, being both creamy and slightly stringy, and you could really taste the sharp and salty Lancashire cheese. Shared between two people, it would make a great tasty starter. For a lazy lone gourmet, the two pots together made a surprisingly filling meal with some crusty bread. If you don't have the confidence to rustle up a fondue yourself, this is a very acceptable alternative.

You'll need to be quick though - the Butler's fondue is only available between now and Christmas at Sainsbury's. It'll set you back just £3.