Virtual cheese tasting

Jonathan Manning discovers a novel activity he can enjoy in his caravan despite the current restrictions by enrolling in a virtual cheese tasting session.

Andy Swinscoe of The Courtyard Dairy is a perfect host of the virtual cheese tasting experience

Dinners that stretch from sunset into the candle-lit blackness of night are surely one of the great pleasures of camping. Relaxing on a warm evening, awning sides rolled up, glasses liberally filled, we chat, read, gaze at the stars and, yes, sometimes even snooze.

And at the heart of this ‘extra time’, as a football commentator might call it, is often a cheese or two, purchased from the local deli, market or farm shop. We may only intend to eat a sliver to bring a savoury end to a meal, yet somehow, when we clear the table before bed, that round of Camembert or slab of Stilton is a mere fragment of its former self.

The heat of summer may still be several months away, but an evening centred around a celebration of cheese… well, that’s available right now thanks to a specialist North Yorkshire cheesemonger. Lockdown has hit The Courtyard Dairy hard, robbing the multi-award winning Settle cheese shop of the restaurant custom that accounted for 70% of its trade. So owner Andy Swinscoe pivoted the business to capitalise on one of the great success stories to emerge from the pandemic – Zoom – and launched regular ‘virtual’ cheese tasting evenings. Happily, it’s only his masterclass that’s virtual; the cheese is real, delivered by post a few days before the online session.

To recapture the heady days of summer and happy memories of touring while sites are closed, I fire up the heaters in our caravan, parked by the side of the house, check the Wi-Fi and invite my wife for an evening of cheese tasting. Having opted for the ‘soft and smelly’ cheeses, at 7pm we log on to receive a warm welcome from Andy and to see a familiar grid of faces, scattered around the UK in various kitchens and dining rooms and all salivating over the same cheese board.

Jonathan and his wife set up their cheese tasting experience in their caravan on the drive

In front of us, unwrapped and having infused the caravan with their aroma for the past hour, are six artisan cheeses, half of them derived from unpasteurised milk, produced by small UK farmhouse cheesemakers. There is at least 100g of each, far too much for one sitting (who am I trying to kid?), and each to be described by Andy, who kicks off proceedings in a delightfully down-to-earth way by reminding us of the humble origins of cheese as a “way to make milk last”.

Throughout, he’s the perfect guide, immensely knowledgeable and unpretentious. He’s a cheese apostle, spreading the word on behalf of makers whose hand-ladled love is stirred into every round and truckle. As the man in Monty Python’s Life of Brian declared, “blessed are the cheesemakers”.

While we chomp through the cheeses, microphones muted, we learn about the intricacies of the making process, the history of the dairies, the cattle they raise and even the grasses in their pastures.

We start with Finn from Neal’s Yard Creamery, a luxuriously rich cheese with the texture of ice cream. In quick succession Andy talks us through Rollright, Tunworth and Cote Hill Blue, while we feast on the cheeses, learning how wrinkles in a rind can identify a cheese in tip-top condition, discovering a delicacy named after a convict (‘Edmund Tew’ was exiled to Australia in 1829 for stealing cheese), and admiring Fen Farm Dairy in Suffolk for investing in a herd of Montbeliarde cattle to secure French-style milk for its Baron Bigod.

Throughout the tasting we’re encouraged to ask questions. What should you eat with cheese? Answer: try it on its own first, then decide on crusty bread, such as baguette, or crackers. Avoid chutney which can overpower these soft and smelly cheeses. Can you freeze cheese? Answer: yes, but defrosted soft cheeses don’t maintain quite the same texture.

My wife and I had intended to leave a small slice of each of the six cheeses for a final taste-off, but when we look at the board it’s clear the mice have tucked in when we weren’t paying attention! It’s been a fascinating tasting, a mix of storytelling, history and wholehearted appreciation of makers that have followed their dreams to create outstanding cheeses. The evening has also been a welcome taste of times to come – long evenings in balmy heat, a glass or two of wine and happy company.

Three more virtual experiences...

Wine tasting

Prepare for your next overseas tour by learning how to taste wine like a professional. Receive three 75cl bottles in the post and then log on to an hour-long Zoom session as an expert guides you through the tasting notes.

Info:  Price: from £49

Bread baking

Flood your caravan with the irresistible smell of freshly baked bread. Hen Corner offers virtual classes in how to bake bread, hot cross buns and sourdough.

Info:  Price: £30

Art class

Touring takes us to places with amazing scenery – why not learn how to capture those views in art? Etchr Studio Mini Workshops offer interactive classes in a variety of mediums, at bargain prices (just watch out for the US start times).

Info:  Price: from $5.50

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