Blooming good blue cheeses

I was thinking about Bloomsday recently – well, on Bloomsday to be precise. For those non-Irish or non-Joycean-scholars amongst you, or anyone who may have been out of this green isle of ours on June 16th just gone (as was I) and so managed to miss the annual reminder, Bloomsday is a peculiarly Irish phenomenon in which gangs of otherwise ordinary people get dressed in clothes which ‘represent’ – with varying success – the get-up ordinary people of 1904 Ireland might have gotten-up in, or at least gone walking about the city in.

These people (today’s, that is) also like to eat the kind of breakfast they’d never normally dream of cooking up, namely kidneys, and other offal while they’re at it. They start their day in this way because that is how a certain Irish Jew who never existed liked to start his, specifically with “grilled mutton kidney which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine”. Indeed this is the very first thing we learn about Joyce’s leading man, the anti-Homeric hero in his epic Irish classic, Ulysses:

“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish” (we are told, and I don’t think he meant of the Ballymaloe variety) “the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys…” (and you already know why).

Later on that fictional day of June 16th, 1904, James Joyce sent his leading man into Davey Byrne’s pub just off Grafton Street for a light lunch of a glass of Burgundy and a gorgonzola sandwich. As you do.

Back then, no Irish producer could match gorgonzola’s “feety savour of green cheese”. Today’s Irish food culture is a different place. We eat less inner organs, but far more home grown farmhouse cheese.

Creamy Crozier or Cashel Blue, delicate Wicklow, rustic Bellingham and clean-cut Beara: world class blues, each one. Indeed, Bord Bia’s inspired downloadable guide to Irish farmhouse cheeses contains at least nine Irish blue cheeses of world class standard. It also offers a well-known international comparative for each, as well as suggested wine pairings.

So for example, seek out Wicklow Blue (produced with cow’s milk from the cheesemaker’s own herd) if you’re fond of a creamy Cambozola, and consider serving it up with a drop of Côtes du Rhône. Similar in style is the creamy and mild Abbey Blue Brie which has, according to Bord Bia’s booklet, a “soft blue-speckled paste and delicate flavour” and is just the job with a light summery Beaujolais.

For the well-known Cashel Blue, a salty cow’s milk cheese reminiscent of a Fourme d’Ambert, things get a little more complicated. Generally, a sweet drop is called for, but the age of the cheese is important too. For a young cheese, say eight weeks old, you’ll need a wine capable of standing up to the youthful acidity and which won’t overpower the still-delicate blue flavours: for this, Bord Bia recommend a Gewurtraminer. The older the cheese gets, the creamier and more integrated: a middle-aged Cashel (12–14 weeks) would appreciate a drop of sticky wine such as Sauternes or New World Botrytis Semillon. It’s not until the cheese is very mature – as in 18 weeks or more, and with the granular-textured, angular-flavoured blueness to prove it – that it’s ready to progress to that classic pairing with a Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) port.

Cashel Blue’s sister cheese is a little simpler: think sweet wines again (Vin Santo, or Vins Doux Naturels from Muscat) for Crozier, a pasteurised sheep’s milk that is crumbly and acidic when young, sweeter and creamier when mature.

Also good with dessert wines and ports is the Stilton-style Kerry Blue, a hard cheese from raw cow’s milk with a firm pale orange paste and ample blue. Similar, but softer, is another raw milk cheese, the creamy, mild and clean Beara Blue which gets on well with characterful reds and gains attitude as it ages past its three-month release age.

And finally, one of my favourites, the rustic and gutsy, robust and buttery, creamy and  cow-ey Bellingham Blue. Not a million miles from a Bleu d’Auvergne, and washed down well with a snip of Sauternes or a dram of LBV port.

“Mr Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese. Sips of wine soothed his palate… Wine soaked and softened rolled pith of bread mustard a moment mawkish cheese. Nice wine it is. Taste it better because I’m not thirsty… Mild fire of wine kindled his veins. I wanted that badly. Felt so off colour.”

A man after my own heart. Appreciates his food and wine. He goes on:

“His eyes unhungrily saw shelves of tins, sardines, gaudy lobsters’ claws. All the odd things people pick up for food. Out of shells, periwinkles with a pin, off trees, snails out of the ground French eat, out of the sea with bait on a hook.”

And this is the man who ate, with relish, the inner organs of beasts and fowls? You can’t account for taste eh? But if you, like Leopold and me, have a taste for the funky flavour of green-blue mould, maybe it’s time to explore all that Irish farmhouse cheeses have to offer in the way of a light lunch on a June afternoon.


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