A Thoroughly Sideways Cheese-Tasting with IJ Mellis

In Sideways Paul Giamatti plays Miles, a struggling author, juggling his job teaching English to high school kids and the emotional void left when the love of his life left him with a broken heart two years previous, does what we would all do in his situation: he turns to the bottle. But what could be construed as borderline alcoholism is in fact a thoroughly middle-class penchant for wine-tasting. As Miles takes his friend and failed actor, Jack (Paul Haden Church), on a wine tasting trip to San Ynez wine country in the week leading up to his marriage the pair share laughs, memories, some of their successes, all of their failures and of course a glass of pinot or two.

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The witty dialogue produced in the eponymous novel by Rex Pickett is thrown up onscreen producing a poignant and droll panorama on the lives of people wearied by life but who rejoice in it all the same. When it was released to widespread acclaim in 2004 it picked up 107 awards including the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. 10 years later and like a vintage red, it has aged very well.

Sideways at the Grosvenor Cinema will be accompanied by a wine and cheese tasting, along with mouth-watering canapés in the Grosvenor Café on Wednesday 24 April, which altogether comprise ‘A Thoroughly Sideways Evening’.

The cheese for the evening will be provided by IJ Mellis, Glasgow, the West End’s best artisan cheesemongers. In its twentieth year, Mellis have a rich history of specialising in the maturing, retailing & wholesaling of farmhouse cheeses from Britain & the Continent. With  five cheese shops and one wholesale department with maturing rooms, they offer a wonderful blend of the traditional and modern delivering an unrivalled cheese experience.

Their current manager, James Stuart arrived at Mellis, Glasgow via sojourns in Naples and Sicily. This sturdy, modest man does not claim to be an authority on cheese, nor does he carry the air of a superior when he discusses his products with you. He offered to taste with me a selection of cheeses in the run up to ‘A Thoroughly Sideways Evening’ so that I, at least, will have a better understanding of the true place of cheese in a cheese and wine evening. Given my experience in film, and with wine, I yearned for the rounded completion a crash-course in cheese would bring. And I fancied a few free samples.

As I thought about the cheese tasting I toyed with the question: just how important is the cheese portion (pardon the unintentionally delivered but intentionally retained pun) of a cheese and wine tasting evening is. From my own perspective I often find the cheese-tasting the most interesting part, because the sheer variety of cheese out there means that there are not just taste differences but aesthetic differences, differences in texture, and of course differences in smell, which gives cheese-tasting a highly varied quality which wine doesn’t obviously yield, even it cashes out into an equal- or indeed greater – pleasure principle for those tasting it. But I found myself convinced that while wine tasting spoke for itself, the pleasures of cheese-tasting required a strong voice. So, to James, I turned.

Before we began, James offered a few helpful insights into my conundrum.  ‘Having hosted a few cheese tastings myself in the past I can say that there isn’t as much baggage when it comes to cheese-tasting when compared to wine tasting which I think helps’, he said. ‘and this means people are willing to talk to each other rather than listen to me, and I don’t claim to be an authority on what they’re tasting’. He did however offer some inside tips for cheese-tasting, including crushing the cheese between your finger and thumb. Although it may appear strange there is certainly method in the madness. Crushing the cheese allows the taster to involve as many of the senses as possible and can help to release the aromas of the cheese, to heighten the smelling sensation so crucial to cheese tasting. ‘You can really involve as many of the senses as you like when tasting cheese’, he suggested, ‘although I haven’t quite worked out how to listen to the cheese myself’. He also recommended tasting at room temperature to release the aromas and flavours, provided that the room is not stuffy and sweaty with the heating on full blast. With that I felt thoroughly versed in the dark arts of cheese-tasting and was ready to begin.

So what cheeses should we expect at the Grosvenor’s ‘Thoroughly Sideways Evening’?

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James’s provisional cheese board – which in showing me he seemed hesitant to call it the finished article – was comprised of a heterogeneous bunch of cheeses from places as far away and as different in character as Cashel in Co. Tipperary, the Isle of Mull and Sussex.

James started off with a goat’s cheese from Golden Cross, a small operation specialising in goats’ and sheep’s cheeses based in Sussex. It is interesting that James chose to start with a goat’s cheese. Often used in starters, whipped or in tarts, with balsamic vinegar or with walnuts, goat’s cheese seemed like a poetic, even natural place to start the Grosvenor’s ‘Thoroughly Sideways Evening’.

The Golden Cross has several distinctive characteristics alongside its choice cheese companions. Like a cross –section of a cylinder the rounded goat’s cheese has a bloomy, white rind which contains a dark layer underneath, which, explains James, can give you clues into how the cheese is made. The dark layer is the remnants of ash, traditionally used to help the cheese age in a particular way, but it is also multifunctional, helping to develop a certain type of rind which helps draw out extra moisture to create a slightly drier centre, and lastly it acts as a pesticide.

The texture of the Golden Cross is firmer than more common varieties of goat’s cheese, with a mellow taste holding citrusy, even zesty notes. In the mouth the Golden Cross had a texture akin to praline which James summed up to a tee, describing it as the inside of a Fererro Rocher.

Moving on to the second of the five cheeses, James produced a segment of cheese he revealed was a ‘Berkswell’ from the Ram Hall Farm in the Midlands. James used this cheese as exemplar of modern cheese-making as a craft and, increasingly as a science. The Berskwell is an original cheese which draws upon a range of influences including Caerphilly cheeses and Italian and Spanish pecorino cheeses. A cheese of an orange, dusty hue which made it distinct from a cow’s milk cheese, this sheep’s milk cheese had a dry, grainy and weather-beaten look to it, protected from the elements by its own natural rind, which is scrubbed off when the cheese has matured.

The Berkswell is a real taste explosion, something altogether surprising given its outward appearance. ‘I chose this cheese – a part from it being a personal favourite of mine – because it goes well with a few different types of wine, particularly sweet wines’, revealed James, ‘it has the right amount of fruitiness and tanginess to retain its taste without overpowering the wine it is accompanying – so it will go well on the evening’. His words however came with a warning: do not eat the rind.

Cheese

The third cheese in James’ provisional selection was a French Camembert. A popular cheese with a white, bloomy mould Camembert has found great success in cheese-making, people can come to this cheese with a relative pedigree of knowledge and experience James’ sample was  pale, yellowish, and sporadically golden colour characteristic of cows’ milk with a dry, somewhat chalky centre. So what does the Camembert cheese taste and smell like? James suggested that it smelt of raw mushroom, with a sweet taste that develops with age. He did point out that often it could have hints of cabbage. Personally speaking the Camembert was delicate and delicious and worthy of its popularity.

Next up was an Isle of Mull cheddar. Distinct in character and manufacture than a West Country or a Somerset cheddar and hailing from Mull, this cheddar comes from cows who graze on the lush grass of the Scottish Island and draff, which is the left over grain after fermentation in the whisky making process. This unique grazing process is evident in the distinctive taste of the Mull cheddar. It is deliciously smoky, peaty and musky. But it is known to change in taste, texture and colour over the year. The sample James sampled with me was made from summer milk, giving it a brighter colour given a more savoury experience. For a variety of reasons including hailing from Scotland and its versatility, explained James, the Mull cheddar proves the most popular in I.J. Mellis’s Glasgow store and continues to give Scotland an excellent and worthy reputation among cheeses from the most prestigious cheese-making regions of Europe.

The last cheese was well worth the wait, and was expertly left to finish. Cashel Blue cheese from Co. Tipperary. Cashel looks soft, creamy but with a paste-like consistency peppered by blue specks with veins of blue running down its centre. To taste Cashel is creamy and salty, ans much milder than other blue cheeses that IJ Mellis stock. Its aroma is sweet, suggesting aniseed and cardomom.  This milder flavour gives it a delicacy which makes it the ideal accompaniment for wine, even whisky, because it doesn’t overpower the taster. But in finishing with the Cashel James was keen to stress that all things in the world of cheese are provisional and the line-up for tasting could change as he looked to find interesting and provocative combinations with the wines that will also be used.

My ‘partially Sideways’ experience left me eager and keen to experience James’ cheese being tasted by a wide variety of people, all explaining their own personal thoughts on the cheeses they were tasting. One thing that can be said to the credit of  cheese-tasting is that is an anarchic endeavour, set apart from wine-tasting by its lack of social baggage, by its multifarious nature and by broad range of flavours, smells and textures it can produce. It is an experience to be replicated and relived, with wine surely, but with friends: certainly.

Alan Mahon

IJ Mellis will be providing cheese–tasting at the Grosvenor Café as part of ‘A Thoroughly Sideways Evening’. To book your tickets for the event click here.

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