Sunday, February 08, 2009

Two Christmas Favourites

How happy was I, when, before I arrived in England for the Christmas season, my dad told me that my stepmum had purchased a full wheel of Stilton cheese for our family's post-meal enjoyment? Even happier when it turned out to be this lovely cheese here:

Ah, Hartington! One of the best producers of Stilton. Stilton is one of the few products in England that has successfully won PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, awarded by the EU to recognize a food that is representative of the place from which it originates. As the BBC describes it, the food 'must owe its characteristics to area.'

If that sounds familiar to the French system of appelation d'origine controlée or even terroir (the idea that a food derives its special characteristics from the land it's grown on and the unique local techniques and ingredients that are used to create it) that's because the concept of PDO was based on those French ideas.

Other foods that have won PDO or PGI (Protected Geographic Indication) status in the UK include Single Gloucester cheese and West Country Farmhouse cheddar, Cornish clotted cream, Shetland lamb and Arbroath Smokies (Scottish smoked haddock), Whitstable oysters and Hereford cider.

To meet PDO guidelines, Stilton has to conform to the following:

* the cheese has been made by a licensed dairy located in Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Nottinghamshire
* the cheese has been made to a traditional recipe from locally produced milk that has been pasteurised before use
* the cheese has been allowed to form its own crust
* the cheese has never been pressed

These make a true Stilton. Tasting the results is evidence of the usefulness of the system in action, as it ensures that Stilton cheese (and other protected foods across Europe) will always have the level of quality that you expect them to.

The Hartington Stilton was delicious. I know many of you may have issues with enjoying blue cheeses, but a good Stilton can be incredibly creamy, crumbly and not too acridly sharp (although the robustness of blue cheese is one of its most wonderful characteristics!).

The wheel came wrapped in paper and encased in an aerated cardboard box, which made opening it after dinner feel like unwrapping a gift every night. You can see all the holes where the stainless steel needles pierced it in order to allow air in to form the beautiful blue veins that run through a good stilton.

Sadly I have no good pictures of the cheese cut open, but trust me, if you haven't tried a good English Stilton on a biscuit after dinner (with a little glass of port) you don't know what you're missing! If you're not a fan of blue cheese you can temper it by using it in recipes such as Stilton and broccoli soup or Meg's recipe for delicious blue cheese burgers here (there are some great sheep & goat cheese blues! Try roquefort, also PDO-protected).

Is there a similar system for food protection in Canada, I wondered? I found the VQA (Vintners' Quality Alliance) at work in both Ontario and BC, that ensures that wines "follow standards throughout the winemaking process that govern content, processes and additives" (according to their website). Apparently there are 20 wine stores that solely carry VQA wines in BC (check it out here.) I haven't found anything out about protected cheeses or other foods here yet. Are there some in Quebec? Is oka a protected cheese for example? If anyone knows more, do comment!

My other Christmas indulgence (well, one of my other indulgences) is Christmas cake. As you may know from previous posts, my stepmum makes a delightful Christmas cake, infused with much alcohol over a couple of months prior to the holidays. Like the Stilton, I slowly made my way through it over the week and a half that I was in Devon. I know that fruitcake is also not everyone's cup of tea, but it's certainly mine, especially when it's so moistly fruity and richly treacly.

But my stepmum showed me the scrimping-and-saving recipe for Christmas cake that her grandmother concocted during the Second World War, and I'm trying to imagine how it might taste. During the war (and indeed until 1954 in England) some fairly severe food rationing was in effect, and luxuries like butter, sugar, meat, tea and biscuits were in short supply. Ration books were handed out, and long lines were commonplace.

Margarine was often a substitute for butter, and it is here. The recipe calls for ingredients like margarine, dried egg, marmalade and orange squash. At the bottom it says cream, but I think that means to cream the ingredients together. In any case, cream was also in short supply, as Jenny's grandmother also lists a wartime recipe for 'mock cream' which calls for a combination of milk and margarine.

I wonder what it would have tasted like? Looking at a modern recipe for Christmas cake, such as one by Delia Smith or Nigel Slater, the sheer variety required to make a tasty cake is fairly impressive. What would a cake made with such restricted quantities and ingredients have been like? It's hard to imagine when we now have such easy access to so many global ingredients.

Certainly something to think about. I have to say it filled me with new appreciation for the sweet luxuries of Christmas.


moyrad said...

That is one enormous Stilton, i expect to receive one like this for Christmas next year (note that down).
I've never heard of any controlled designations but would think Quebec would be the most likely to have some.

Do you think rationing for so long is what gave British food it's previously bad reputation?

moyrad said...

I did find this interesting map of regionally identified food but they have no official appellation.

Anonymous said...

Your Xmas cake brings back memories of mine as a child/teenager. My grandmother made the cakes in late October, then covered them with whiskey soaked cheesecloth which she keep moist for 2 months. That was GOOD fruitcake and definitely moist. My dad used to say you could get drunk on it. I think fruitcake has a bad rep because of the horrid ones sold in the supermarkets and bakeries today. They need to be homemade from old-fashioned recipes. However, I think marzipan on top is just too too much. Too sweet and cloying. But hard sauce alongside is great because it is made with whiskey and powdered sugar and butter.