Ned Palmer's life was changed the moment he bit into a piece of Caerphilly cheese, a Welsh cheese. It was November 2000, and he was working with his friend in London's Borough Market. "I bit that cheese and that was it. I realised I'd never really had nice cheese before."
"Cheese is absolutely fascinating," he says. It's infinite. I’m never going to run out of stuff to find out."
For something so widely enjoyed and easily found, understanding cheese can still seem like a daunting task, but for Palmer, it should be about "craft and excellence and commitment".
In the same way that you can appreciate the time, effort and experience that goes into a bottle of wine or whiskey, cheese should be appreciated as a work of foodie art, something Palmer has explored in his book on cheese, A Cheesemonger's History of the British Isles, as well as his masterclasses.
"It’s all about having a belief in the craft."
Here, Palmer shares his tips, tricks and insider knowledge about everything to do with cheese, and answers that perennial question: how do you build a great cheese board?
Why should we be eating more Irish cheese?
There's a tragedy about Irish cheese in that the English came over and by the 18th century they’d wiped out a lot of the indigenous Irish culture, including the cheese. Since the 70s there’s been a renaissance of cheesemaking in Ireland, started by Veronica Steele from Cork, so there are varieties that are unique to Ireland.
When I was flying into Cork last year I just noticed how green Ireland is, and I thought 'it really is the Emerald Isle!’ and that plays a huge role in the local cheeses.
What do you pair cheese with if you don't drink?
A classic thing is sweet things and you start with chutneys because sweet and savoury mixed is a lovely thing. You can pair cheese and jams, actually. In the North of England they have cheese and fruitcake, and often at Christmas time, they'll have Wensleydale with Christmas cake. Fresh or dried figs, pears work well. More sour or acidic fruits don’t work as well.
It is the sign of a truly civilised city that you can buy cheese of this quality at the airport! Dublin, I'm going to miss you. pic.twitter.com/NliVeuw251— Ned Palmer (@CheeseTastingCo) December 4, 2019
The weirdest pairing I ever had was with a French cheese called fromage fort, where they get all their gnarly old bits of cheese from the shop and they mash them up in a pot with really strong booze, and they keep it for weeks and weeks and it re-ferments and turns into this stinky, powerful goo that will actually sting your mouth. The French have that for breakfast with black coffee.
How do you build a perfect cheese board?
The first principle is to have a range of different flavours and textures. You might pick a soft cheese, a hard cheese and a blue cheese. Then the next principle is not too many cheeses! If you had 10 kinds of cheese on a cheeseboard, it would be confusing for your palette. I'd have three, maybe five. I’d also think about my friends, if I was being really thoughtful. Have a range from the less challenging to the more challenging.
Go to a good cheese shop, where you can see the large chunks of cheese and they’re cutting it fresh, one where you can try the cheese and the staff will help you.
When you serve it, the one thing to remember is to take the cheeses out of your fridge before, which I always forget and end up warming my cheese over the stove!
You want to serve them in order of intensity, so if you have a really delicate mild cheese, you serve that first. If someone has the crazy intense cheese first, they won’t be able to taste the soft one after.
What are some good cheeses to try for Christmas?
Stilton is the typical English cheese for a cheeseboard that everyone will expect. Cheddar is an obvious choice for the British cheeseboard too, and both of those cheeses are rich and intense, which you want over Christmas.
A lot of people would want a soft and creamy cheese like brie or camembert, too. But it's my mental habit to do the thing differently. So when people would be expecting the Stilton, I’d be saying 'How about trying this Young Buck from Belfast, or the Cashel Blue?’
For the Cheddar, there’s an amazing Cheddar and Gruyere hybrid called Lincolnshire Poacher. For the brie or camembert there are British variants like Barron Bigod from East Anglia.
Any cheeses you wouldn't try?
No, there isn’t! I’ve never met a cheese I wouldn’t try. I shudder to admit this, but I quite like squeezy cheese in a tube. I love it because my mum used to put it in my lunchbox as a boy, and it’s comforting.
What I object to are cheeses pretending to be something else. When you get a cheese that’s presented like vintage Cheddar or farmhouse cheese but it isn’t, because it’s made in a factory. It should have authenticity. Cheese should be honest.
Ned was collaborating with Bushmills Irish Whiskey to host a series of whiskey and cheese pairing masterclasses in Dublin. For more information, click here.