It’s not too soon to start thinking of your Christmas table. Giles takes a port and cheese tasting at Churchill’s favourite cheese shop.
Paxton and Whitfield has seen the rise and fall of the British Empire, two World Wars and the Great Depression. So perhaps comes as no surprise that Paxton & Whitfield is recognised for knowing a thing or two about cheese.
Today the shop is owned by Andrew Brownsword, who also owns Gidleigh Park Hotel and a greetings cards business. There are shops in Bath and Stratford upon Avon, but for the authentic cheese experience, a trip to the London outlet is essential. As Winston Churchill once put it Ã¢â‚¬Å“A gentleman buys his cheese at Paxton & Whitfield”.
The shop sells over 150 exquisite cheeses that range from chalky white Goats cheese to oozing wheels of Gorgonzola Dolce. Looking ahead to the festive season, I was invited to attend a port and cheese night at their shop on Jermyn Street and I simply couldn’t refuse.
The shop itself is reasonably small but this doesn’t stop it from being packed full of beautiful cheeses. Rows and rows of the stuff adorn the front counters and when you step inside you are hit by an immense cheesy aroma.
Greeted with a refreshing cocktail of White Port and tonic, I went to the back room where the evening was to take place. Taking care of the cheese side of things was host for the evening, Hero Hirsh, manager of the Jermyn street branch. Jane Parkinson, journalist, author and regular on Saturday Kitchen, was there to talk us through all the Ports.
Our first pairing was a Sinodun Hill Goats Cheese with a Taylors First Estate Reserve. The cheese was smooth and very dry to the point where it was difficult to swallow without large gulps of the young and fruity Port. I wasn’t complaining, but I would only recommend this cheese when paired with something moist, be it Port or chutney, it requires something to help it down.
The second paring was a Cows Milk Brillat Savarin with Taylors 2011 Late Bottled Vintage. The Brillat Savarin was an absolute delight, and at 60% full fat you can probably guess why. A rich gooey interior was encrusted in a nutty, mushroom skin. It matched well with the Port which was a fuller flavour than the first. Cassis and blackberry jam with hints of smoke and spice dominated and this worked well with the earthy crust of the Brillat Savarin.
Third in line was Paxtons Cave Aged Cheddar and a Paxton 10 Year Old Tawny Port. The Cheddar was a stunning addition to the night; unlike a crumbly farmhouse cheddar this was smooth and creamy and the closer you got to the rind the woodier the flavours.
It also included hints of butterscotch and maybe even toffee. The Tawny Port was smooth and silky on the palate and full of ripe figs, however I felt it was slightly too sweet and jammy for the cheddar which required something more rounded.
Getting on our merry way we came to our fourth pairing, a Gruyere Reserve and a Taylors 20 Year Old Tawny Port. This cheese was floral and had hints of apricot that lingered in the mouth long after eating.
The Port had a raisin, honeyed finish and worked well with the apricot flavours of the cheese. I wouldn’t normally choose a Gruyere, however with the Port I was a real convert.
The penultimate paring was a Taylors Quinta De Vargellas 2002 Vintage and a Mimolette, Frances answer to a Gouda. This cheese has a grey crust and an electric-orange flesh. The orange colour comes from the natural seasoning, annatto, which has a sweet and nutty flavour.
Of all the cheeses on the night this was my favourite. The flavour was a deep, rich caramel that yielded a smooth, fudgy finish, something I wasn’t expecting. The Port lent itself well to the cheese, exceptionally rich it carried flavours of raisins, spices and currents.
Last but not least we tried a Paxton Stilton, and this was paired with a Paxton Vintage 2000 Port. Stilton is, and always will be, a favourite cheese of mine so there wasn’t much that could have gone wrong in this final round of tasting.
Moreover, with six Ports now down there wasn’t going to be much difficulty in pleasing me Ã¢â‚¬â€œ looking back at my notes on this pairing, they are perhaps a little overzealous. Saying that, I will divulge it was blue, tangy and incredibly creamy, everything you’d want a Stilton to be. Paxton and Whitfield sell on average 6.5 tonnes of the stuff in December alone, so you know it’s good.
The Paxton Vintage 2000 was stronger than the others, and at this point of the evening I was perhaps in need of something lighter, so I didn’t enjoy it quite so much.
I will be very honest; I am a cheese fiend. You’d have to travel far and wide to find me a cheese I wouldn’t eat. So without discounting any of them, I would recommend you at least try the Mimolette, the Paxtons Cave Aged Cheddar and the Brillat Savarin (in that order).
I favoured a weaker, fruity port with a lower alcohol content, so my favourite tipple of the evening was the Taylors First Estate Reserve. For a pallet that requires bolder, sweeter flavours, then the 20 Year Old Tawny or Taylors Quinta De Vargellas 2002 Vintage would work best.