Cheese: I guess I know as much about it as many regular wine drinkers know about wine. I can recite a list of names such as Emmenthal, Gouda, Epoisses, Stilton etc and roughly describe the way they taste. When it comes to producers, off the top of my head, I can name three: Président, Quicke’s and Montgomery. The first of these I know to be the French cheesy equivalent of Gallo or JP Chenet, while the other two are English farmhouse Cheddar producers, or at least I think so. I couldn’t tell you who makes good Roquefort or Parmesan, or any of the other cheeses I’ve listed.
In wine terms, this ignorance is sometimes made less critical when, in France for example, I take the trouble to go to a specialist cheese shop and trust them to give me something good. Much of the cheese in our house, however, like most consumers’ wine, is bought from supermarkets (sometimes from the counter; sometimes from the shelf),
All of this is background to my experience in a small supermarket near Malaga where I’m on holiday. Wanting some cheese, I went looking for Manchego, the only Spanish cheese that immediately sprang to mind (I’m really admitting to my lack of cheesy sophistication here), but with no success.
What was on offer in this small subsidiary of the giant El Corte Inglés was Manchego-ish looking cheese, boldly labeled as Viejo, Curado and Semicurado. After forensic examination, I was no clearer about even the most approximate origins of the contents of these packs, other than that they had all been produced in Spain.
In other words, the choice was between three different ages of anonymous Spanish cheese. Now maybe a cheese specialist would be more tolerant of this lack of precision than most wine people would be if offered the choice of Vin Vieux and Vin Jeune, but I doubt it.
In Britain, no retailer would dream of selling something simply called ‘cheese’; their most basic offering is Cheddar – much of which is rubbery stuff that not only bears no resemblance to the ‘real’ version produced by Quicke’s and Montgomery, but is also a lot poorer in quality than the - perfectly decent - ‘queso’ I bought in Spain.
What’s so wrong with simply labelling red wine as ‘soft’, or ‘fruity’ or, ‘full-bodied’ for example?
How different is that, now I come to think of it, to the way most chocolate is labelled: milk, dark or plain, possibly with the additional information nowadays about the cocoa content? Obviously, people who really care about chocolate can always seek out the growing number of specialist merchants whose wares reveal precisely where the beans were grown, but the ones who do that are a tiny minority of the chocolate-consuming public. Most are happy with the brand - Suchard, Hershey’s, Lindt or whatever - and the style.
In the US and Australia - of course - some of the bigger producers have already learned the same lesson as El Corte Inglés and the chocolate makers. After all, conceptually, what’s the difference between Barefoot Sweet Red Blend or Hardy’s Legacy Rich & Spicy Red, and a Lindt Excellence 90% Cocoa chocolate bar or my Queso Viejo?