My Life in Cheese

Hello, dear readers! Had you given up on me? I’m sorry I’ve been away for so long. I’ve been starting a food writing course at the University of Adelaide, and also starting a new job! Sadly I don’t think I’ll be able to post very often over the next few months as I have so much study to do, but I will put up here the pieces I’m writing for my course. So, here goes with the first one…

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“There’s just bread and cheese for lunch,” my mother would say apologetically every Saturday when I was growing up. Often there was, in fact, something else too: a few slices of ham or salami, a pork pie, or a pot of fresh crab meat. But ‘bread and cheese’ was short-hand for a picnic at the kitchen table, and those two items were central.

I can tell you the story of my life through cheese, from early childhood around that table to adulthood far from my parents’ home. As I grew and matured and moved on, so did my taste in cheese.

It all started with foil-covered Kraft Dairylea triangles. They were impossible to unwrap; the only solution was to squeeze the glossy, cream-coloured gunk out of a tiny hole in one corner. Soon after, I ‘progressed’ to another great insult to the honour of cheese: square, shiny, bright-yellow Kraft Singles, best enjoyed in a floury white roll smeared with margarine. My father referred to them contemptuously as “plastic cheese”, but I wasn’t perturbed.

In my ‘tweens, my Aunt would collect me after Saturday ballet class and take me back to her lovely neat flat for wholemeal toast, a cut-up apple and Jarlsberg, or ‘holey cheese’ as I called it. It was reassuringly always the same balanced lunch and I am very fond of Jarlsberg to this day. Gruyère was first encountered molten and bubbling on top of scalding hot onion soup at L’Experience, a favourite French restaurant for special occasions.

There was always a brick of tangy, bitey Cheddar (known as ‘mousetrap’) in the fridge. It was equally satisfying with my mother’s apple chutney or in a sauce blanketing cauliflower florets and browned under the grill. Powdered parmesan on top of our spaghetti bolognaise was replaced, once we were old enough to appreciate it, by real Parmigiano Reggiano that we grated ourselves.

Through my mother I learned to enjoy pungent washed-rind cheeses like Port Salut and Chaumes, and to glimpse the travelling and life abroad I, too, hoped to undertake one day. A flirtation with the mild, sweet soft blue Dolce Latte lead to a love of the more daring Gorgonzola and eventually, when I worked in France for three months post-school, a full-blown affair with the king of the blues, Roquefort.

It wasn’t until I moved to London, after university, that I properly discovered goats cheese. I still remember those musky, tart discs perched on top of a perfectly dressed salad, at an elegant West End lunch with colleagues from my first real job. And despite growing up in Europe I didn’t have my eyes truly opened to the joys of Italian buffalo mozzarella until recently in Sydney. The newly-opened mozzarella bar my husband and I discovered in Darlinghurst air-freights these magical, milky pillows from Naples three times a week.

Despite all these years of cheese adventures, I feel I’m only really beginning to get the hang of what’s out there. With so much yet to learn and love, I can only hope it continues to be a case of life imitating cheese imitating life.

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A grandmother remembered

My paternal grandmother, Joan Pearce (Granny, to me), would have turned 99 this year if she were still alive. I always remember the year of her birth because it was the year after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. It’s hard to imagine what her life would have been like as a young girl, coming into consciousness in the midst of World War One, blossoming into adolescence in the roaring 20s, only to live through another World War in which her husband fought with the RAF and was away for years on end on highly secret missions. It’s a wonder my father and uncle Gavin were born; obviously there must have been short spells of leave to return home! My father recalls meeting his father, for the first time that he remembers, when he was five years old, at the end of the war. Having been brought up solely until this point by his mother and his beloved Granny Lucy, it was very odd to suddenly have this strange man in the house.

My first memories of Granny are of visiting her on my own when I was six. I grew up on the Isle of Man and she lived in Montacute, a sweet little village in Somerset with a stately home that had enormous goldfish in a round ornamental pond. I also remember the sweet shop not far from her house where she’d buy me a quarter of pear drops in a little paper bag. And dragging a dolls pram down the back lane which she made for me from a cardboard crate and a piece of string. She also made me an outfit for my doll out of grey woollen material with red blanket stitch around the edges, and she knitted me countless jumpers, my favourite of which was an apple green mohair affair. We’d play hide and seek (I nearly always hid in the shed and locked it) and Grandma’s Footsteps, and I’d make mud pies from soil and water and stick little wild flowers into them. In later years, after she moved to the Isle of Man, she taught me to ride a bike on the promenade in front of her flat, to play Gin Rummy, and to knit, spin and weave. She also told the most wonderful ‘Farmer Guppy’ stories which were always based on my siblings and I and our cousins; my favourite one was about Christmas time when we’d go sledging with Mr Guppy and Mrs Guppy would stay home baking all sorts of treats for us.

A great number of my fondest memories of Granny involve food. As a little girl she’d give me tinned peach halves – two of them in a bowl with some syrup from the tin, and cream floating on top so that they looked like fried eggs. ‘Thunder and lightening’ was soft, white bread rolls split and spread with a magical mixture of butter and golden syrup. For a treat I’d have an orange into which she’d cut a hole at the top and push in a sugar lump or two to suck the juice through. We’d make chocolate chip cookies, which I remember being big, flat and crisp, and we’d eat them straight from the oven while the chocolate chips were still melty. She made a fantastic chicken and vegetable soup with pearl barley, and roast leg of lamb with wonderfully crispy roast potatoes. And she taught me how to cook leeks, braising them gently in a knob of butter with the saucepan lid on, a method I use to this day.

In my late teens I stopped seeing Granny so often, preoccupied with other things, and she eventually moved back to the UK, to Surrey, to be near our younger cousins. But after finishing university and moving to London, I’d visit her quite regularly, catching the train down to Guildford on a Friday after work, and then the bus to Cranleigh, or driving down with uncle Nick and his partner Kiki. We all had such fun together, taking Granny out for a nice pub lunch, or to a garden centre, and then in the evenings we’d do the cooking, telling Granny to put her feet up, although I know she found it hard to stay out of the kitchen. Then we’d chat or watch the telly, getting tiddly on Cointreau or Amaretto over ice.

For her 90th birthday the family threw a huge party in a gorgeous old tithe barn surrounded by lush green fields. It was beautifully decorated with flowers and balloons, my aunt Christine produced a fabulous buffet spread, and the weather was stunning, one of those rare perfect English summer days. Everyone was there: family spanning four generations, and friends young and old including Granny’s bridesmaid, now quite an elderly lady herself! I’d been living in Sydney for just over a year and was about to start my first proper job here; I was very concerned about taking any time off. But my employers agreed to let me go and I was gone and back again within a week, the most ridiculously short trip to the other side of the world that I’ve ever made! I’m so thankful that I did make that trip. By Christmas of the same year she had deteriorated further from earlier strokes, and in May the following year she died.

Thank you, Granny, for being a wonderful friend, a great teacher, and for your wicked sense of humour and surprisingly modern outlook on life. Thank you for fuelling some of my earliest food memories. I can’t look at a tin of peach halves, or a jar of golden syrup, without thinking of you.

Granny at her 90th birthday party

Granny at her 90th birthday party, July 2003