The festive season gives us all a great excuse to indulge in crafted produce

Undated Handout Photo of a selection of cheeses. See PA Feature FOOD Cheese. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/British Cheese Board. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature FOOD Cheese.
Undated Handout Photo of a selection of cheeses. See PA Feature FOOD Cheese. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/British Cheese Board. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature FOOD Cheese.

Last week’s Small Business Saturday initiative got me thinking about the independent traders we have in this country.

Take Arcadia Deli on Belfast’s Lisburn Road.

The same family have been trading since 1933, through recessions, a world war, good times and bad, and now a potentially economic crippling Brexit. The long, narrow shop is like an Aladdin’s cave packed with perfectly ripe cheese, oils from around the world, local charcuterie, chutneys, freshly baked breads and even a fresh fish counter. It exemplifies everything that a local shop should be – beyond the call of duty customer service and a spectacular array of products.

Their cheese counter is worth a 100 mile round trip alone. They stock a huge variety of cheeses from across Europe – including creamy cheddar from Northern Ireland, stunning English Stilton and brilliant French Brie. As someone who much prefers cheese to dessert this is a very dangerous place for my cholesterol! At this time of year they stock a seasonal variety called Vacherin Mont D’or from Switzerland. It’s a soft, rinded cow’s milk cheese traditionally made in the Winter months when the cows come down from the Alpine mountain pastures. The cheese comes, like a gift, in round boxes made from spruce wood. The box can double up as a cooking and serving dish. Remove any wrapping from the cheese, place in the box, wrap in foil and bake for 15 minutes in a 180oc oven. Serve in the box with apples, pears, crackers or celery to dip. Alternatively for something more ambitious you could try my first recipe and bake it in a brioche dough. Brioche is a buttery, egg rich dough that takes a bit of time to make and rest. But when you present a golden disc of soft bread encasing an oozing, delicious cheese it’s well worth the effort. I like to think of Vacherin as a present from Switzerland for the 95% of Lough Neagh Pollan they buy from us!

Mike Thomson, from Newtownards, is a cheesemaker extraordinaire who produces a blue, Stilton style cheese called Young Buck. It’s Northern Ireland’s only raw milk cheese and makes for a sublime addition to any cheeseboard. Mike, who started his career in cheese selling it in Arcadia Deli, has recently opened a cheese shop in Little Donegall Street in Belfast. You can buy his own cheese there as well as some from other raw milk dairies like Corleggy from Cavan and Bellingham Blue from Co Louth. A new business like this deserves and needs all our support. There are only a few cheesemongers in the whole of Ireland and it would be a shame to see them follow the demise of the fishmonger. Fine blue cheese needs only a few grapes and a toot of Port to bring out the best in it but it also makes an interesting ingredient. My other recipe this week is for a toasted barley salad with Mike’s cheese, pancetta, chestnuts and chestnut honey dressing. Chestnuts are available now and ripe for roasting. Chestnut honey is hard to find but Slemish Market Garden in Ballymena stock it or ask your local deli to source it. Alternatively use a good local honey. It would make a lovely side dish or starter.

The festive season gives us a great excuse to indulge in this crafted dairy product. With only a handful of fine cheesemongers in Northern Ireland, this is the perfect time to support them and think fondly of the wise man who said: “Blessed are the cheesemakers.”