Returning to What’s Real: Cheese in Britain | In Conversation with Mick James, ¡Queso!

Returning to What’s Real: Cheese in Britain | In Conversation with Mick James, ¡Queso!

What comes to mind when you think of the word ‘connoisseur’? A closed-off world of classical music and expensive spirits? Perhaps a hipster bar in a gentrified neighborhood. To me, after a conversation with Mick James, owner of the specialist cheesemonger ¡Queso!, the word equates to the passionate expertise at the heart of a practice. 

In working with BreadEx, and in sampling the independent food merchants of Warwick, I’ve had the pleasure of encountering people who feel strongly about the origins of their food. This is not simply the privilege of the gourmand or the wily salesperson pitching you a jar of $15 jam – it is a genuine ecosystem of seasonality, safe growing practices, generational knowledge, and interaction with a local community of avid cooks (and eaters).

In our long conversation this month, Mick lamented a widespread departure from fresh, short-lived, whole foods toward processed diets. “Having a connection to real food is important. Since rationing during the Second World War, there’s been a culture of cheap food prevalent here, further bolstered by the use of international corn products in the 1970s; it’s led to an alienation from what proper food is like,” he says. “There are huge price disparities as well. Did you know that the milk-makers in this country get 21p a liter for their milk? That’s the same price it was twenty years ago! We get so used to preservatives and things lasting longer, but when you eat it fresher, there’s more going on.”

Though I’d originally intended to flood this article with cheese puns – unbrielievable, I know – and keep it snappy, I felt the urge to share as much as possible of Mick’s obvious regard for his colleagues in the cheese space. While working up the nerve to request an interview (and in the aftermath of it), I bought from ¡Queso! a wedge of 48-month old Gouda, an audaciously aromatic truffle Taleggio, and a transformative, nutty Comte. I have been ruined for other cheese. Do join the club. 

Tell me about how you came to own ¡Queso!, and  what an average day looks like for a cheesemonger.

A friend of mine approached me about 12 years ago when he needed support for his cheese business. I was self-employed at the time; I worked with him about 6 months at weekend markets and at Christmas while studying about cheese. In 2013, I retrained and spent about 5 or 6 years teaching Modern Languages at a secondary school in Birmingham. In 2019, I started working with this gentleman full time in cheese, and our partnership lasted about 18 months. Eventually, I set up ¡Queso! with a strong ethos of honesty, integrity, and freshness. 

At the moment, life is busy! We have a storage unit where we keep all the cheese (¡Queso! offers about 75 cheeses across the year), and on the days that I’m at market – that’s Thursday in Kenilworth, Friday in Stratford-upon-Avon, Saturday in Warwick, all year round – I’m down at the unit at about half past six in the morning. The cheeses come from a variety of places; there’s a wholesaler, there’s artisanal cheese makers that I work directly with, and import companies that import specialist cheeses from France, Spain and Italy. I’m still learning and researching: I’m a member of the Academy of Cheese, so I have qualifications in cheese as well now. We fulfill online orders as well as providing a monthly subscription service. 

The effect of our values on the cheese we’re looking for and that we sell is that they’re predominantly small British producers that are selling no-nonsense cheese with as few additives as possible. Good, old-fashioned cheese. Most of my cheeses are unpasteurized as well. When I say artisan, what I mean by that is cheeses that are produced by or on small farms, by farmers, at the farmhouse. 

What role does cheese, and blue cheese specifically, play in British food culture?

There’s always been a tradition of cheese, but it used to be mainly a Christmas thing, especially in the case of blue cheese. We differ from the French on this – the idea was that if you hadn’t had enough to eat, you’d eat cheese afterwards, post dessert. In Victorian times, the ladies of the house would go off and speak while the men would eat Stilton and drink port and smoke cigars; so there’s those sorts of traditions. More generally, the practice has been that all the small farms with animals would make cheese, because they would have excess milk that couldn’t be sold or drunk. You didn’t have fridges in those days, either, so it would have been a great way of storing milk in an edible format for a long time, sometimes years.

In terms of blue cheese, in one way or another, the cheese has been infected – and someone’s tasted that and gone ‘Oh, that tastes alright, actually!’ It’s not killed anybody, so they just carry on. If you consider French Roquefort, they talk about this shepherd who went off, took his cheese into a cave, and was wooed by this young maiden. He spent a few days with her, and then remembered that he’d left his cheese in the cave. He went back and discovered that the cave had dropped liquid onto it and turned it blue; of course, he pretended to have done it on purpose. They have the same blue cheese story in Spain, about a goatherd in the Picos Mountains, and in England! 

The idea behind keeping it in caves is that they tend to maintain a steady temperature of about 6-8 degrees, the ideal temperature for slowly maturing blue cheeses. Leicestershire and Derbyshire had caves and rock formations suitable for this. The ‘blue’ helps to break down the proteins, so it softens the mouthfeel of the cheese. Hard cheeses can be a little bit acidic; when they begin to emulsify, you get those creamier notes and softer textures. The ‘blue-ing’ accelerates this process. 

Stilton is a Christmas thing, originally. It’s the summer milk that’s been inoculated and taken four to five months to mature. They put the ‘blue’ in around the five or six week mark, using metal rods to allow air into the cheese, and then adding the blue penicillin starter culture. Once exposed to oxygen, it reproduces and starts breaking down the cheese. By Christmastime, they’re quite optimal. They’re seasonal when the milk is seasonal – traditionally, you wouldn’t have been able to get a blue cheese in the summer, they wouldn’t have been ready in time. 

What is the most underrated cheese you would like our BreadEx family to try?

I’m going to struggle here, because most that I love are unpasteurized and might be difficult to get a hold of. But we have a cheese here called Gorwydd Caerphilly that is stunning. It’s traditional, crumbly cheese with a rind on it, and just under the rind, you get this emulsification where the cheese starts to break down. It’s beautifully balanced, it’s organic, and it’s made by two very passionate brothers, the Trethowans. There are loads, to be honest. Sparkenhoe is a small family farm that I like as well; they brought back Red Leicester. It was a supermarket cheese that mass production nearly killed in the 90s. The Clarke family found an old farmhouse recipe, and they revived it. They mature it for nine months, and it has this beautiful butteriness, because they really look after their animals. They’re a perfect example of an artisan cheese.  

There’s a book I’d recommend called A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles by Ned Palmer, and he goes to a number of different farms where people are really passionate about cheese. 

What cheeses or accompaniments would you recommend with this month’s bread: our pear, fennel and blue cheese focaccia? 

Pear goes well with goat’s cheeses, so I’d recommend something like a Driftwood, which is a complex, ash-rinded goat’s cheese that would pair with the sweetness of the fruit. Fennel is good with mature Gouda. Gouda also works with cumin or onion bases. Stilton and other blues would be obvious choices. A strong West Country cheddar would complement the focaccia’s flavors.   

White Lake Dairy’s Eve is a brilliant cheese for bread too: it’s a washed, nutty goat’s cheese with each portion individually wrapped in a vine leaf. 

Here’s to trying new things with old roots. For Week 2 of BreadEx’s month of breads inspired by the UK, we are featuring a fennel, pear and blue cheese focaccia. To learn more about the cultures that inspire our bakes, join our mailing list.

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