Best of British – cheese and beer

Manish at work

I’ve rhapsodised before about the delights of a good ale. One of the pleasures of travelling Britain is getting to know the different brewers and the different styles of ale as you go – every bit as distinctive and subtle as French wine terroir. And just as France has its proud tradition of regional cheeses, so Britain can boast some fantastic cheese, even if any old plasticky supermarket curds can call themselves cheddar.

These two favourites came together beautifully in a new find, the delicatessen Good Taste, in Westow Hill, Crystal Palace. A friend tipped me off about this newish, friendly little shop. We visited; bought wonderful cheese and admired the unusual range of bottled beers on the shelves. Before we knew it, we were back with a bunch of discerning friends for an evening of beer and cheese tasting, with the shop’s knowledgeable and enthusiastic proprietor, Manish Utton-Mishra.

Manish really knows his stuff, whether rhapsodising about the cheese-making or brewing process (he’s visited many of the micro-breweries and farms producing the goods he sells), or speculating how the concept of beer developed in the first place (so much more complex than fermenting wine juice). Best of all, he’d put together an amazing 12 cheeses for us to taste, with proposed ‘matching’ beers. Well, readers, we did our best. But that may explain why my notes on the tasting session get a little hazy towards the end.

Of the cheeses, I’m surprised to find that the sheep’s cheese went down best. Flower Marie, from East Sussex, was ‘ripe and delicious, rich and grassy’. Innes Ash Log, a cows’ milk cheese, was ‘pungent and strong’, while Spenwood sheep’s milk cheese from Risely, Berkshire, described as close-textured and nutty cheese, got a heartfelt ‘Ooh that’s nice’. Doddington, a traditional cows’ milk hard cheese, was a lovely piece of cheese for those of us who like an alternative to a good cheddar. We were then into the blue cheeses, where Blue Monday, a deliciously creamy confection from the Highlands, got my top vote.

Of the beers, we began with a tasty, refreshing unfiltered lager from the London Fields brewery – one of several beers we tried from this excellent east London brewery. We also enjoyed London Fields’ malty Love Not War, first brewed a year ago, when rioters rather than Olympic athletes were roaming the streets of Stratford and Hackney.

But the first to really knock my socks off was the Scottish Fraoch heather ale, a startlingly-different, almost sweet beer with a taste of heather, honey and something ancient and wild about it. The story goes that this style of beer has been produced in Scotland for 4000 years, which may or may not be strictly true. But you can certainly imagine woad warriors knocking it back around the campfire, before setting off on a cattle raid across Hadrian’s wall.

Another favourite from north of the border was Avalanche, a lovely fresh beer from Fyne Ales, on the banks of Loch Fyne. I seem to remember topping up from that bottle a few times, which may be why my notes about the remaining beers are a bit sketchy. We tried a couple of ciders, too, although I’ve yet to find one that quite matches the appley taste of cider in my head, remembered from long-ago seaside holidays in the West Country.

The evening was tremendous fun. Thanks to Manish, and apologies for staying so late and getting so merry. Right, I’m off to the shop to stock up on some Scottish beers and sheep’s milk cheese. Cheers!

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