Cheddar Tear For The Cheese of Yesteryear

Posted by on Sep 06, 2010 | Leave a Comment


Historian James Belich has referred to Pakeha New Zealanders as ‘a people without songs’.  This is not quite true, after humming our way quickly through one of the world’s more unsingable national anthems (it definitely sounds better sung in Te Reo) we arrive at the national cheese advert. If pushed for a waiata most of us of a certain age can manage a rendition of the old Chesdale jingle, ‘We are the boys from down on the farm…we really know our cheese.’  And what a cheese it was, soapy little foil wrapped wedges sweating away in our school lunch boxes.

New Zealand has been a cheese producer since the arrival of the first cows and our speciality until recently has been a bright yellow Cheddar, still the default setting for the Kiwi cheese palate. To start with, back in the 1800s we couldn’t quite get it right. Made by the farmer and his family our cheese was described as tasting ‘fishy’ or ‘odd’.  While many food items today either have a picture of a cottage on the packet or are plastered with slogans such as ‘farm style,’ the real farmers’ produce in the 19th century was at best edible, at worst  lethal.

The New Zealand achievement was to take this farm based product and industrialise it so that while our cheese may never have been earth shattering, it was satisfyingly mediocre without those fishy after tastes.  Dairy factories churned it out and ships laden with our version of cheddar headed for the Old Country, a place where we knew exactly what people wanted to eat, we should have, they were mostly our relatives.

While New Zealand now has large numbers of exceptional cheeses, cheddar is the variety we need to start with as we explore our cheesy tastes. I suspect more of it has originated in NZ than was ever made within 30 miles of Wells Cathedral, the traditional home of the product. And for the budding turophile our cheese exploration at this stage requires nothing more than a quick trip to New World.

Now, while I still really like sitting down with a good crumbly aged NZ cheddar, (it seems to roll around in the mouth with port at least as well as the traditional Stilton) what it is really good for is whipping up that late night treat…Welsh Rarebit.

Welsh Rarebit, (or ‘rabbit if we are not being too genteel) is a food that combines those old English traditions of the ‘savoury’ , the last-course-soaker-upper of overindulgence, and an urge to tease the other members of the kingdom. In England if you were poor you ate rabbit, the Welsh however were so poor that their rabbit was cheese.

My favourite rarebit/rabbit recipe comes from that long running guide to standard British food behaviour, Mrs Beeton.  Here then (with a few suggestions from me) is Mrs. B’s recipe from the 1963 edition of the culinary bible and a fitting use for decent local cheddar.

Welsh Rarebit

1 oz butter (The 1963 ‘Mrs Beeton’ suggested marge as an alternative…rationing behaviour, don’t even consider it)

1 level tablespoon of flour

3 tablespoons of milk

2 tablespoons of ale (a good Monteiths or similar is appropriate, the cook gets the rest)

1 teaspoon mixed mustard (mixed meaning you whip up the Coleman’s with some water, it’s up to you, hot English or sophisticated French…use a mixture)

A few drop s of Worcestershire sauce (a good slosh)

4-6 oz grated CHEDDAR cheese (tasty if you like a bit more grunt but beware, if too strong it can take on a sour taste when cooked)

Salt and Pepper

4 slices of buttered toast. (Be a nationalist…use Vogel’s)

Heat the fat (the butter… in 1963 we weren’t shy about the F word) in a pan and add the flour. Cook for several minutes, stirring well. (Do this otherwise the rarebit will taste of raw flour) Add the milk and stir well over the heat until a smooth thick mixture, then add the ale, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, cheese and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Do not overcook the mixture otherwise the cheese will become ‘oily’. Spread on slices of buttered toast and put under a hot grill until golden brown. Serve at once.

Tastes best after midnight.

Dave Veart 2010

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