Sunday, February 26, 2012


I’ve been thinking a lot about cheese lately.  Perhaps too much.  In order to lower my cholesterol I’ve been eating a lot less cheese.  It’s worked very well, cholesterol down and I haven’t missed cheese nearly as much as I thought I would.  But it does mean that I’ve forced myself to avoid cheese plates, turn away from cheese counters, and certainly never dare to buy a copy of Culture magazine, “the word on cheese.”  And so I’ve missed articles with titles such as “Nigerian Dwarf Goat: The breed’s small stature belies big benefits for cheesemaking” and I very nearly missed “5 Cheese Questions for Jonathan Gold.” 

Actually, by my reckoning, only 4 of them are really about cheese.  The fifth one is “In all of your experiences as a food critic, what is the worst thing you have ever eaten?”  And the answer isn’t cheese.  Full article here:

The hot news among LA foodies is that Mr Gold is moving from the LA Weekly to the LA Times, no doubt a big deal for the man himself and perhaps for the publications, but the common reader assumes it’ll be a change of venue rather than of form or content.  No doubt I'll be proved completely wrong.

The best thing about Gold is that he knows his stuff, is able to turn an exotic phrase, but remains essentially unpretentious, so that when Culture asks, “You're eating cheese, what are you drinking?”  He replies, “I would like to say an old Maury, because it is amazing with cheese, but it is usually a modest Alsatian Riesling with just a bit of sweetness - or really, whatever is left in my glass at the end of dinner.”  A fine descent into bathos.

T’other night the Loved One and I went to Loteria, a well-scrubbed, and occasionally chaotic Mexican restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard, and I’m afraid I let my cheese urges got the better of me.  Perhaps they’d been repressed too long.  Certainly I’ve never found it easy to resist the Chicharron de Queso, thinly sliced cheese melted on a griddle until it resembles pigskin.  

And then I had the Queso Panela a la Plancha con Nopalitos which was a slab of seared panela cheese cowering under a heap of cactus paddle salad with salsa verde.  This sounded more fun than it actually was, and if I’d thought about it, I’d have realized it didn’t really sound all that much fun in the first place.  It’s said that queso panela is great for absorbing flavors but it is essentially a bland little number, and mine lay rather inertly under the cactus.  The Loved One had beef tongue with tomatillo sauce, and I had food envy.

We wondered if perhaps the Mexican heart isn’t really in cheese making. My copy of The World Encyclopedia of Cheese (Harbutt and Denny) devotes just one page to Mexican cheese, and says that cheese was unknown in Mexico until 1521, so I guess they managed just fine without it for a good long time.

I wonder how they’re managing in Afghanistan. This isn't quite as irrelevant as it might sound.  The World Encyclopedia of Cheese only mentions Afghanistan in passing in a less than one page entry on the cheeses of India, and they may have missed a trick.  I’ve been rereading Peter Levi’s The Light Garden of the Angel King: Journeys in Afghanistan, first published in 1972, with a revised version in 1984 (and some editions add With Bruce Chatwin to the title).  On page 182 Levi eats “a delicious crumbled cream cheese,” on page 188 he has lunch of “cheese and brandy,” and by page 194 he’s hooked: “we bought a solid round goat cheese about a foot across and two inches thick … it was one of the best country cheeses I have ever eaten.”  Not prepared to leave it there, he has a footnote about the cheese, “it would hold its head up even in Paris.  Considering all that is being done for less interesting communities in Afghanistan, it seems a pity no one has thought of marketing Nuristan cheese.” Well, yes.

A personal aside: about a decade ago when I occasionally wrote for the London Independent an offer came through, would I like to go to Afghanistan as a guest of the Afghan raisin industry to see the progress being made in raisin production?  I didn’t immediately turn it down.  “What’s the worst that could happen?”  Loved ones described exactly the worst that could happen, and then I did turn it down, not least because I suspected raisin production wasn’t inherently fascinating in Afghanistan or anywhere else.  Had the offer come from the Afghan cheese industry it might have been a different story.  I haven’t been able to find a picture of Nuristan cheese but here’s one of Afghani Kishmish Panir (cheese with raisins).  I imagine it tastes quite a lot like queso panela with raisins.

1 comment:

  1. I can get you some Nuristani Cheese straight from the highlands. Let me know if you are interested.