Look no further for the best Christmas puddings and cheeses. There are some things I draw the line at doing in my own kitchen – simultaneously steaming 11 puds for a tasting is one of them. So we’re grateful to Leiths School of Food and Wine which nobly hosted us in one of its capacious teaching kitchens, not only cooking the puds but laying out the cheeses in two battle lines as well. This was a conflict cleverly conceived by cheese expert Jane Hastings, where six English artisan cheeses are paired off with six comparable French fromages in a head-to-head tasting.
Four of our regulars were assembled for the task, each to be given a one-off nom de guerre from A Christmas Carol. No one wanted to be Scrooge, to whom Dickens attributed this generous sentiment: “Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” So the Discerning Litigator picked Mrs Cratchit (MC) – she likes the scene where Dickens has her proudly carrying in a pudding looking like “a speckled cannon ball”. The Iberian Exile opted for the Ghost of Christmas Present (GCP), the Gourmet Celeb was Bob Cratchit (BC) and the Gluttonous Pig, without a hint of irony, insisted on being Tiny Tim (TT).
First to the cheese board battleground, where those “sweet enemies”, France and England, were lined up. We tasted blind so that any misplaced patriotism could be neutralised. Many of our judgments were difficult and extremely marginal – this was a fabulous array of cheeses. We started with two made of goat’s milk: Dorstone from the Neal’s Yard Creamery in Herefordshire versus Bi-caillou from Limousin. Here we preferred the Dorstone because of its gorgeous moistness – even if you think you don’t like chèvre, you’ll like this. The Bi-caillou was dryer and a touch more ascetic. England 1, France 0.
Round two pitted a couple of sheep’s milk soft cheeses against each other. St James is made at the Holker Estate near Morecambe Bay; Pérail is from the Midi-Pyrénées and uses the same milk as Roquefort. This was devilishly close but the St James edged it with its slightly creamier note and controlled ripeness on the day. England 2, France 0.
Now for soft cow’s milk cheeses: Tunworth from Herriad in Hampshire and Réaux Camembert from Normandy. The Tunworth romped home here with its fantastic, sharp ripeness. The Camembert, I read later, claims flavours of mushroom, garlic, sprouts and oyster. We found it a trifle more monotone. So at the halfway stage a slightly unexpected score: England 3, France 0.
Next was the hard stuff – Kirkham’s Lancashire from Goosnargh against Salers de Buron from the Auvergne. These cow’s milk cheeses were, perhaps, the only mismatch. The pale Lancashire was wonderfully crumbly with a gentle but distinctive bite. The mottled brown Salers was six-plus months old and disgustingly strong. Perhaps for aficionados but not for us. Ahem … England 4, France 0.
The penultimate bout was Montgomery’s Cheddar from Somerset and Beaufort Chalet d’Alpage from Savoie – both hard, cow’s milk cheeses aged for a year. The Beaufort is a delicious, nutty, tangy Comté-style cheese but it came up against the product that got our single highest mark on the day: a totally magnificent cheddar at the top of its game. Montgomery is simply one of Britain’s most precious assets. England 5, France 0.
Could we smell a whitewash? Up stepped Stichelton from Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. This Stilton-style cheese with the magical Penicillium roqueforti came second in our Stilton tasting last Christmas and is a gem. And yet … Gabriel Coulet’s Roquefort from Aveyron in southern France, made traditionally from sheep’s milk, was strong and creamy but sharp and wholly seductive. Final score: England 5, France 1. If you do one thing this Christmas buy one of these great cheeses, all unpasteurised, from our two suppliers – Neal’s Yard Dairy for the English and Mons Cheesemongers for the French.
Now for the puddings, by this time steaming urgently. Some treat the Christmas pudding like an elderly relative in residence – settling it in a comfortable, secure place and regularly feeding it alcohol. We took our puds as they came, some being virgin and others mildly soused. We had products from supermarkets, premium stores and independent manufacturers. Two puddings were acceptable but a bit disappointing. The first, from The Carved Angel in Dartmouth, is a matter of opinion. It contains vegetarian suet and is therefore heavier and stodgier but arguably closer to a truly Victorian “cannon ball”. It also overdid one particular spice: “under-fruited, over-stodged” (TT); “bit too much stem ginger” (MC). The other was from Harvey Nichols where we were underwhelmed by the spice mix. It seemed to make the flavour slightly stale and over-ripe: “strong taste of an overriding spice” (GCP); “cheesy aftertaste” (BC); “Old Spice at Xmas – no surprise there” (TT).
The flamboyant idea of a whole candied orange at the centre of a pud was introduced to great effect by Saint Heston last year, on behalf of Waitrose. This year it is offering two varieties and Tesco has also entered the fray. We liked them. Second equal came Tesco’s Finest Clementine Christmas Pudding with Courvoisier VS Cognac. Tesco used vegetarian suet but in more modest quantities than The Carved Angel: “perfect, moist, melty crumb” (TT); “rich, orangey luxury” (MC). Our thanks to FT reader Ian Williams who recommended this. Neck and neck with Tesco was the original Heston’s Hidden Orange Christmas Pudding from Waitrose: “tutti frutti – electrifyingly strong currants” (TT); “wonderful citric tang” (BC). One piece of advice: we found Heston’s Hidden Clementine Christmas Pudding, also from Waitrose, less impressive, even though it had almost identical ingredients.
And our pudding of puddings? Also from Waitrose – Duchy Originals Organic Christmas Pudding: “luxurious, comforting, achingly indulgent” (TT); “satisfaction guaranteed” (GCP); “just like dear old mum’s” (MC); “a pud with the ultimate raison d’être” (BC).
Having feasted diligently on the puds and cheeses the Gluttonous Pig happily exclaimed, “God bless us, everyone!” He was obviously still in part, but looking less tiny than ever.
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The cheese suppliers
Borough Market, Fridays and Saturdays
Venn Street Market, Saturdays
Maltby Street, Saturdays
For information on UK stockists call 020 7064 6912; www.mons-cheese.co.uk
Neal’s Yard Dairy
17 Shorts Garden, Covent Garden, London WC2H
6 Park Street, Borough Market, London SE1
Maltby Street, Saturdays
Venn Street Market, Saturdays
For information on UK stockists call 020 7500 7520; www. nealsyarddairy.co.uk
Duchy Originals Organic Christmas Pudding, £7.99 (454g) from Waitrose, www.waitrose.com