We’ve had a spell of unusually cold and snowy weather here on Orkney – the snow is usually kept away by the tempering effect of the salty sea. That said, soup is always a staple of winter fare and there’s nothing better with it than some good bread and farmhouse cheese.
Farmhouse cheese in these Northern Isles means one dairy, Wilsons of Westray, and the Westray Wife is the flagship cheese of farmers and cheesemakers Jason and Nina. A semi-hard, washed rind cheese produced from the milk of their Ayrshire cows, Westray Wife is the cheese that has most frequently been in our fridge since we arrived here.
Ayrshire milk is traditionally creamier than that produced from Friesian cattle – anyone, like me, who remembers Duchy Originals starting up might recall that their milk was originally from Ayrshires when it was solely from the Highgrove herd. When we lived in Sussex the local herd at nearby Goodwood was also Ayrshires: the breed has long been associated with great quality milk for both drinking and for cheese making. Having tasted Westray Wife I was not at all surprised to learn that the Wilson’s herd was not black and white but chestnut red and white.
Washed rind cheeses are most usually semi soft and the dipping – or washing – increases the flavour of the cheese as it ripens, a process which it hastens. It also makes the cheeses smell – think Epoisses or Stinking Bishop and you will know what to expect. Westray Wife, although ‘aromatic’ when ripe, does not need to be kept in the garage and can safely be allowed into the house! It is a harder cheese, more akin to a single Gloucester. The washing helps to develop the flavour in a relatively young cheese and might also help keeping qualities in the Orcadian climate. The brine wash reflects the maritime atmosphere of the islands – other communities use the alcohol to hand, e.g wines and spirits for French cheeses (especially those of monastic origins) and apple juice from the cider apple of the same name for Stinking Bishop. Just a thought – I wonder what a whisky washed cheese would taste like?!
I like to buy Westray Wife from Kirkness & Gorrie, the deli in a hidden courtyard opposite St Magnus Cathedral in the middle of Kirkwall. At the moment it is the only place that we have found that sells it ‘off the block’ and not pre-packed. I like to eat the rind of the cheese – of course you can – and have found that the tasty outer can get stuck to the wrapper on the pre-cut and wrapped portions.
I have yet to meet Jason and Nina. Having moved into our new home at the beginning of October there hasn’t yet been the opportunity to head to Westray, one of the most northerly of the Orkneys, to say hello and visit the farm, but we shall go, just as soon as we can. Westray was the first outer island that we visited on our initial holiday here about 15 years ago. We had some of the best fish and chips ever in the Pierowall Hotel: this blog serves notice that we very much hope that they are still as good! Roll on the better weather and to meeting the Wilsons and chatting all things cheese. Then to going for fish and chips afterwards!