Chair­woman of the cheese­board

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

Inside Pax­ton and Whit­field’s Jermyn Street shop just off Pic­cadilly in cen­tral London, the air is dis­tinctly chilly. But the woman I have come to meet, shop man­ager Hero Hirsh, is clear that is ex­actly how it should be. Not be­cause the smart cus­tomers of the ven­er­a­ble London cheese­mon­gers are al­ready swathed against the cold, but be­cause it is the tem­per­a­ture the cheese prefers. Pax­ton and Whit­field may have held a Royal War­rant for 200 years, but here the cheese is king.

“It is 12C in here, the same tem­per­a­ture we keep the ma­tur­ing room in the base­ment. It’s the tem­per­a­ture cheese­mak­ers use to ripen their cheeses,” the 32-year-old ex­plains, lead­ing me past the counter laden with ev­ery­thing from Ched­dar to chaorce, and Manchego to mas­car­pone.

Hirsh, named (con­fus­ingly) after the hero­ine of a tragic Greek love story, dis­cov­ered her love of cheese while work­ing as a pas­try chef. Last year she was ac­claimed as Cheese­mon­ger of the Year and is one of the bright­est young ex­perts in the cheese world, qui­etly au­thor­i­ta­tive and with a dairy­maid com­plex­ion to boot. No bet­ter per­son, surely, to pro­vide the low-down on the cheeri­est cheese­board for Christ­mas and beyond. We set­tle in the P& W back room for a spot of cheese chat.

The first ques­tion is how many cheeses is enough? Less is def­i­nitely more, ac­cord­ing to Hirsh. “I think four is the most – after that your palate be­comes con­fused,” she de­clares. “Nice, healthy-look­ing chunks of a few cheeses – that is much bet­ter than lots and lots of lit­tle bits of things that you will def­i­nitely for­get the names of – and so will ev­ery­one you are serv­ing.”

For four cheeses, Hirsh would choose a blue, a creamy, a hard and a goat’s or sheep’s milk cheese. “If I had three cheeses I would say a hard, a soft and a blue. If I had two then a hard and a soft. One stand-alone cheese? That’s too dif­fi­cult… prob­a­bly a blue, as they are so mul­ti­fac­eted.”

To prove her point, Hirsh cuts me off some sliv­ers of creamy Stilton to nib­ble as she con­tin­ues. “Aim for a range of strength from mild to strong. Or you can put a cheese­board to­gether on a theme, so you can have just blue cheeses, or goats – a soft goat, a hard goat, a goat Gouda.” And how much should I buy? Hirsh laughs. “Well, how much do you want left over? 100-125g per per­son is enough – but it de­pends how lav­ish you want to be.”

Stor­ing the cheese well is key too, ex­plains Hirsh. “You need to con­trol the hu­mid­ity and the tem­per­a­ture.” While 12C, which would equate to a win­ter­time garage or a cel­lar, is great for tak­ing a soft cheese like a whole Brie from firm to per­fectly runny, once the cheese is ripe it is bet­ter kept in the fridge at about 5C.

The salad crisper drawer is the best spot, as it is more hu­mid than other parts of the fridge. But don’t wrap your cheese in cling film as it will get too sweaty, and if you use a plas­tic cheese box, keep the lid ajar so that the air can get in. Too tight a seal – whether in a box or cling film – and bit­ter flavours start to form on the out­side, which in turn form moulds.

“When you peel back a bit of cling film on a piece of cheese and you can see a high shine you know the cheese has been sweat­ing – that will be slightly bit­ter – so I would scrape the sur­face of the cheese be­fore I served it,” coun­sels Hirsh.

But it’s bet­ter to avoid cling film al­to­gether. A piece of wax pa­per is the best wrap­ping (Pax­ton and Whit­field sell all their cheese in wax pa­per, nat­u­rally) although a piece of grease­proof pa­per will do as well.

How long the cheese lasts de­pends on when it was cut from the large piece – pre­cut pieces, the kind that lan­guish in vac­uum packs in the chill cab­i­net, will last less long than pieces that have been cut from a large piece in front of you. But as a rule of thumb, hard cheeses last two weeks, soft for a week. “After that time they start to change,” ex­plains Hirsh. “A blue cheese be­comes more blue, a hard cheese starts to dry, a soft cheese might turn more liq­uid and form es­cape plans. That’s not to say they are not good. But they will only be as they were when you bought them for one to two weeks, kept in the fridge.”

Judg­ing when a Camem­bert-type cheese is ripe can be tricky. Look for a bit of pink or brown on the sur­face, rather than a pure bright white. If it is sticky, then it is over­ripe. “But also touch it – Camem­bert ripens from the out­side in, un­like Stilton say, which ripens from the inside out. You can feel if there is a soft “heart” to the cheese. If it is bouncy, springing back, it needs another week or two.”

We dig into an exquisitely ripe round Vacherin, creamy and glossy as a pot of mag­no­lia paint. Cheese nir­vana – as long as I keep my coat on.

Yel­low fever: Hero Hirsh at work at Pax­ton and Whit­field

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