What A Friend We Have In Cheeses


Slightly Bemused writes:

Of course at Christmas Life Of Brian (1979) keeps coming to mind. “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” “Maybe he means makers of all dairy products”. There is a town in a country where I used work. To get there you did not ask ‘how far’, it was ‘how long’. But there was a farm there, originally set up by a Belgian, but had since passed it back to his workers after he became too old to manage it. Before he passed, he taught them how to make cheese.

They also had a hostel, and when I say that people would endure the hours on those roads to come, stay overnight, drink the excellent beer from the local brewery, just for that cheese, please do not think I am exaggerating.

The cheese was not unlike Edam in flavour, but he had no wax, so he wrapped them in a muslin-like fabric, and they developed a hard crust, with the inside being the softer texture. An Italian colleague loved the rinds: he would grate them like parmesan whenever he made pasta, simply cutting off any mold that developed. Nothing of the little rounds was wasted. I do not recall what happened to the muslin. Most likely taken by the housekeepers for their own use.

Weeknights were fine – you could hardly get in the door at weekends. I once had to sleep (quite comfortably, I assure you. I still have the sleeping bag) on the floor of the common room as all beds were taken, and my important guests had nabbed the couches. Once or twice I had to stay at the nun’s convent nearby. Basic, but clean and safe. Not so much beer though.

I had met them years before that, when I was travelling alone. He was only building the guest quarters, I slept in the same room, but that time on a couch. Everyone ate around the same table. His wife was ruthless as the workers came in if they had not taken off their boots and washed their hands outside. But she made sure there was food enough for all, and would at the end send one of the workers off with food in insulated dishes for the guards and workers who could not attend the table.

And that first night he told me about his passion for cheese. It came about simply because when he started the farm he had no refrigeration, and the milk from his cows would go off.

He tried yoghurt, but without pasteurisation and refrigeration, people got sick. So he turned to cheese. On one of his visits back to his home he visited local dairies and commercial cheesemakers. He was rebuffed a few times, but one told him he was asking in the wrong place. He needed what I guess we now call artisanal makers, or farmers. He eventually found a farmer who made small batches, mainly for family use, as the dairy took most of their milk and that was their income.

So he learned from this family, where when the children came home, one of their chores was turning the cheeses as they matured. At home, I had to clean the grate and lay out the firebox of the range, twisting yesterday’s newspapers into little firelighters. Or maybe a different day it was laying and clearing the table, or the washing up team. I thought turning cheeses sounded more cool, until I saw this man’s operation. It looked like hard work, not so much for the effort as the monotony and the amount of it, and the care that needed to be taken.

He told me this over several glasses of Chivas Regal – the real stuff. Knock-off could easily be obtained, but blindness is a risk. He told me he was sure one of his staff sold his own empty bottles for that illicit dealing. He was not worried about that aspect, but was about the dangers. But lectures did not help, although I do recall his admonishment not to eat yoghurt in that country.

I always brought him a new bottle every time I traveled, varying the whiskeys, introducing him to Irish ones he had not tasted. He really liked the Jameson, Black Bush went down well, but the 12 year old Bushmills malt went down better. I never tried Paddies on him. The last one before his passing was a Middleton. On that night, we talked rugby.

And had it with cheese and Belgian mustard, and slices of his own farm apples.

Slightly Bemused‘s column appears here every Wednesday.

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31 thoughts on “What A Friend We Have In Cheeses

        1. Janet, dreams of an alternate universe

          I know except know I’m humming the hymn ! thanks a lot guys…what an earworm….All our sins and griefs to bear
          What a privilege to carry
          Everything to……aghhhhhhj

  1. Clampers Outside

    I still have my sleeping bag… if I told a story about it, it might start with “4 continents and 20 years ago…” :0)

    Enjoyed your story Slightly, keep ’em coming! And Merry Christmas to you and all those you hold dear!

    1. Rosette of Sirius

      Here’s mine… 30 years ago I was inter railing / backpacking around Yurop for about 14 months. Was a blast. Anyways, was time to go home and found myself in the Hook of Holland ferryport waiting for the ferry to get me home via Harwich. When trying to board, was told that my ticket didn’t cover night sailings so me and some other Irish lad were stranded. We buddied up and wandered around a very dark townland looking for a place to kip. We found somewhere and pulled out my trusty sleeping bag for a night under the stars….well no stars as it was overcast and very dark. Woke up the next morning in a schoolyard with some very concerned looking teachers, parents and kids looking at us from afar. Needless to say we scarpered back to the ferry port terminal as fast as we could for the morning sailing…. Was really rather funny.

      As an avid outdoorsman, and having traveled – like you – a number of continents, I’ve gone thru about five or six bags over the years. I do miss that old bag. Was my first down bag and cost me a pretty penny at the time. Was an Ajungiliak from The Great Outdoors. Today I have a superlight Rab for the summer outdoors and for winter a bag from a French company called Valandre. There you go. Bag nonsense nobody wants to know about!

      1. Slightly Bemused

        The lady who is the mother of my darling daughter and I had identical bags – we bought them at the same time. Now, I am not being naughty, but if you zip them together right, you get a double sleeping bag. Very pleasant on certain cold nights. Allow me to say we had fun.

        A few years ago I was over to see my daughter, but she was feeling cold. So suddenly the other half of my sleeping bag came out, and little Slightly tucked herself under it to watch whatever it was on TV. I started laughing. Her mother started glaring, so I said no more.

        Little Slightly may have come about because of those sleeping bags. Not sure, but it actually warms my heart to know that despite the differences life put between us, something remains and shelters my darling.

      2. Janet, dreams of an alternate universe

        can’t beat a bit of camping, I ‘ove the taste of food outside, I swear a tomato sliced up on a rock with your favorite knife tastes better for it, I did a month wild camping in croatia, the fee of real sheets and a shower when you get home …the best

        1. ReproBertie

          I spent a summer working in a hospital in Germany. For the entire summer we lived on a campsite. The day before flying home I ended up, for reasons too long to go into now, sleeping in a bed in the apartment of an Australian friend. I had forgotten such softness existed!

          I feel like I’m letting the side down by not knowing what sort of sleeping bag I had.

        2. Rosette of Sirius

          I’ve hiked and camped, climbed and bivouac’d all over the place but there’s nothing like getting back into my own bed after a long time away from it!

  2. GiggidyGoo

    Nice one Slightly. Hope you eventually write a book with these. Very enjoyable. I’m sure you would be like yer man in The Quiet Man, Michaleen Flynn “ I could tell ya blood curdling stories….” as well.

    Keep ‘em coming.

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