Go on a cheesy tour around Europe's best regions to seek out this dairy delight.
Gastro-tourism is big business right now. Nowadays we want something else from our journeys, an authentic experience that isn't just about seeing, but smelling and touching and tasting too. The cornerstone of this epicurean exploration movement is the lure of discovering delicacies at their source, and perhaps no other food lends itself to such consideration – and adoration – as cheese. From gargantuan wheels of Parmesan to chunks of rustic Wensleydale and creamy, oozy Camembert, tracking cheese's journey from paddock to plate transports the traveller to bucolic country idylls and through centuries of tradition. Of course, it also provides ample opportunity to sample the wares!
The Yorkshire Dales, England
For centuries people have been churning cheeses in the Yorkshire Dales; it's thought that the origins of local cheese-making lie with Cistercian monks who arrived from Normandy and settled in the local abbeys during the 11th century. They passed on their techniques to the farmers of Swaledale and Wensleydale and a local industry was born. Despite a steady decline in bespoke cheese-making during the 20th century, there's been a resurgence of interest in local hand-crafted cheese around here in recent years.
With the help of Wallace and Gromit, Wensleydale has become Yorkshire's signature cheese. The village of Hawes is home to the Wensleydale Creamery, where this mild and creamy cheese with a honeyed aftertaste and a crumbly, flaky texture is still made to a time-honoured recipe. Watch the cheese being made, then visit the shop to pick up a sustaining slab of Yorkshire's finest – perhaps an Oak Smoked Wensleydale or one combined with apricots or cranberries.
Look out for other Yorkshire cheeses – Shepherds Purse of Thirsk makes Harrogate and Yorkshire Blue; and the Swaledale Cheese Company in Richmond produces a fine array of cheeses including Traditional Swaledale (made from cow's milk) and a cheese flavoured with Theakston's Old Peculier ale. Well worth a visit is the award-winning Courtyard Dairy in Settle, run by Andy Swinscoe, a specialist cheesemonger with an apprenticeship in affinage (cheese aging) in France. This specialist cheese shop champions small, independent farmers and stocks a range of unusual and exquisite artisan farmhouse cheeses, like the tangy Dale End Cheddar from Botton Creamery near Whitby, and the cloth-bound Richard III Wensleydale made with a traditional pre-war recipe by Andy Ridley in Richmond.
Parma, Emilia-Romagna, Italy
With its fine local produce of hams, handmade pastas, balsamic vinegars and wines, the province of Emilia-Romagna has a rich culinary tradition. But its most famous product is undoubtedly Parmigiano Reggiano, better known to spaghetti bolognese lovers everywhere, as parmesan cheese. This ‘king of Italian cheeses' has been in existence for around 700 years and is so valuable that it was once accepted as currency.
Dotting the hills and valleys around Parma are the dairies and cheese houses where the prized wheels are made using a method little changed over the centuries (the Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese Consortium conducts guided tours to cheese-making dairies in the area free of charge). What makes Parmigiano Reggiano so outstanding is its long and careful aging process, with each wheel of cheese aged for an average of 24 months, during which time important changes occur that give the cheese its distinctive flavour, texture, aroma and nutritional value. While in the Parma area, you absolutely must sample the genuine article (look for the distinctive Parmigiano Reggiano markings burnt into the rind). Eaten with a drizzle of olive oil or a few drops of balsamic vinegar, it’s a simple pleasure of almost regal proportions.
Pays d’Auge, Normandy, France
Normandy's picturesque Pays d’Auge region is where a quartet of France’s finest creamy cheeses are made: Camembert, Pont L’Évêque, Livarot and Pavé d'Auge. With its oozy golden-yellow centre, creamy-white rind and buttery flavour, the circular Camembert is Normandy's best known cheese. Its origins are relatively young in cheese-making terms: Marie Harel, a local farmer’s wife is said to have invented it during the time of the French Revolution, selling it in the market of Vimoutiers (where excellent farmhouse Camembert is still available today).
While Camembert is a relative newcomer, soft cheese has in fact been made in Normandy since the 11th century. Two lesser-known and much older cheeses are Pont L’Évêque, an uncooked, unpressed cow’s milk cheese that is square in shape, and Livarot, an ancient and noble cheese that dates back more than 700 years, originating with the monks.
For a closer insight into cheese-making, visit Fromagerie Graindorge, a cheese producer in Livarot that offers free tours and tastings. After a tour, sample some of the cheeses, beautifully displayed in colourful boxes inside the shop. Keep an eye out for Le Grain d'Orge with Calvados (a local apple brandy). During maturation the rind is carefully washed in brine, then brushed with Calvados so it gradually becomes infused with the full flavour of apples – a delicious fromage with a soft, golden texture.