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Cheese: The Interview

Because no wheels-themed issue would be complete without cheese, we chatted to Hero Hirsh, Head of Retail at Paxton & Whitfield, the UK’s oldest cheesemongers

Essential Journal: Hi Hero, could you introduce Paxton & Whitfield to our readers?
Hero Hirsh: The first record of the P&W partnership was 1797, so there’s 220 years or so of cheese experience. The origins actually go a little bit further than that to 1742 with a stall in Aldwych market. The flagship store, which is the Jeremyn Street branch, has been in the same building since 1896, so just over 120 years now. We specialise in artisan cheese and have 150 different types of cheese on our counter. We refrigerate the whole shop, so in this weather it’s perfect. It’s 10 degrees, really cool and you’re entirely surrounded by cheese. Everything’s out. There’s a huge counter with hard cheese and open fridges with our soft and goat’s milk cheeses. Most of them are cheeses which we cut, so they’re open and ready for tasting.

What do people not know about cheese that they probably should?
If there’s one thing that I’m always surprised by, it’s when people get lots of different bits of cheese. They might get six or eight little bits and I feel like it’s a bit much. If you get bigger lumps of cheese, they last better because they don’t dry out as quickly. Also if you’re having a cheeseboard, any more than four is going to really confuse your palette. That’s the one misconception that we encounter a lot. A few decent-sized lumps is better.


What cheeses should people consider for upgrading from their cheeseboard experience?
The safe choice for a cheeseboard is a Brie, a Cheddar and a Stilton and there are so many different types of cheese which are a little bit different to those, but not totally alien. We have a huge range of fantastic soft cheeses, for example, instead of a Brie, maybe try an unpasteurised Brie – the ultimate Brie.

In terms of a blue, thinking beyond Stilton, we have around 25 amazing blues on our counter and some amazing soft ones from France. They look like Stilton, but the taste and texture is totally different. Cheddar, is a massive crowd pleaser, but there’s a lot of very average ones out there and a lot of amazing ones to discover. At P&W we normally have four or five Cheddars on the counter, with a few more tucked away in our cellars.We’d recommend taking the time to find a really good, unpasteurised, traditionally-made cloth-bound cheddar.


What are the must-have cheese accessories?
I like a wooden board myself, keeping the materials natural. I also think a wooden board is better for your knife, as opposed to marble. Finding a really good utilitarian but beautiful cheese knife is key.


What should our readers know about cheese etiquette?
I think there are a lot of people that might be hamstrung by the idea of cheese etiquette. If there’s one thing you need to know about cheese etiquette, it’s take an even portion of the rind. Be fair. There are people that say if you cut the nose off the Brie then you’ll never be invited back. I think maybe a little too much is made of that. Just be fair.

Wine and cheese are obviously an iconic duo, but what other refreshments should we be considering when pairing cheese?
I think there’s a huge interest in cheese and beer matching. Beer goes particularly well with British cheeses. We have a long history of beer and cider making as opposed to wine making and it seems like a natural idea that traditional British styles like Cheddars and Lancashires are better with beer and ciders in a lot of ways.

Beyond that, we’re always interested in what people are drinking with their cheese. We’ve done events here pairing cheese with sherry, port, gin and recently mocktails. People will drink anything with cheese, evidently, but beer and cider are certainly the most popular outside of wine.


Did any mocktails in particular stand out?
Absolutely. We paired up with The Stafford Hotel and they created a summer menu of mocktails and there was one particular one, The Scoop. I think it was named after the pelicans in St James’s Park and it was made with Seedlip’s non-alcoholic gin equivalent, aloe vera, coconut water, cucumber and some citrus. A very refreshing concoction. We paired that with Golden Cross which is a goat’s milk cheese from Sussex and it was amazing. A bit like a cucumber and cream cheese sandwich at afternoon tea. An instantly fascinating match that we weren’t expecting.


Finally, do you have a favourite cheese?
I adore Mimolette, a fascinating looking cheese from Northern France. From the outside it looks like a moon, really cratered surface and then the paste itself is coloured, so it’s the same colour as a Red Leicester. It’s hard as a Parmesan to cut, so in addition to being the hardest cheese to cut, it’s also spherical which means it rolls around on the board, so it’s one of the most dangerous cheeses on the board. It’s the cheese that got me interested in cheese. I tried it when I was at catering college many years ago. It made me realise cheese is fascinating and it’s got such a complex flavour profile, the flavour would develop and change as you ate it.


Would you perhaps describe it as a gateway cheese?
[laughs] I love that. A gateway cheese indeed.

Paxton & Whitfield; 93 Jermyn Street, St. James’s, London, SW1Y 6JE

Words by Davey Brett
Image Credits by Courtesy of Paxton & Whitfield