Smoke curled from the chimney tops and a flock of pigeons settled under the beamed eaves as I walked down into Haslemere. A poster for a Conan Doyle play fluttered on the Aga shop window. The Victorian writer knew the town as Little Switzerland, and, despite its present citizens’ preference for pizza over fondue, the simile for this cluster of life in the Surrey Hills still held.
The doorbell chimed above me and 4x4 fumes were replaced by cave smells as I entered a dimly lit corridor filled with aroma: both those appreciable from the display of cheeses to one side, and those promised, still captured under cork in the wine racks opposite. For years the bottled side of Haslemere’s cheese and wine shop had been the focus of my attention; sometimes for relationship-testing periods, Pam patiently waiting in the town car park having completed the shopping, endured a biblical post office queue, and outstayed an acceptable time to drink one chai latte in the coffee shop, while I selected a bottle.
‘Ah! Monsieur Francis!’
I jumped, having not noticed the figure cutting Comté behind the cheese chiller. The author of the voice was Stephane, a stout man with a face that read like a map of laughter and gastronomy in equal measure. I sometimes wondered whether the ends of his waxed moustache would have their upward trajectory were he in his native Loire Valley, or whether it was purely for the benefit of the English. ‘Richard is doing a wine delivery,’ he said. He then thrust a sharp knife across the counter at me, upon which was skewered a cube of cheese. ‘The Comté is on offer, try it!' I took the morsel and bit into it. Cut directly from the wheel, it had a fresher taste than supermarket versions, vibrantly nutty with a gentle gamey hint. ‘We’ll need to push it a bit,’ Stephane said, tapping the edge of a taster dish. ‘Richard has ordered a lot in for Christmas.’
When I had called Richard to ask him about how well different cheeses sold, his suggestion was to find out for myself. I was to be cheesemonger for a day. I had arrived early to be ready for what would be one of their busiest days of the year.
Stephane led me around the counter and behind a chiller cabinet designated for other foods; the smells of Serrano ham, jambon persille and terrine de poulet interwove, momentarily distracting me as I followed the Frenchman. A tingle of anticipation triggered my taste buds as we came to the rear of the next chiller. Until now I had only experienced the other side, barred from contact with the marbled chunks of Stilton, Fourme D’Ambert and Two Hoots cheese in the blue section; but now I’d be responsible for their dissemination, a conduit to pleasure. I scanned the hard cheeses as we passed their domain next. Hefty pieces of every shade from the ghost-white ewe’s milk, Ossau Itray, through the various nut hues of Manchegos, Tommes, and Cheddars, to the sunset of Double Gloucester. After the large formats we came to the final chiller, the one that held the answer to our question. How much of our chosen type was sold? Here, cornered by Camembert, Brie and goat cheese, sat the washed rinds, whose wrinkly orange skins radiated aroma well beyond their boundary.
Stephane eyed my hair. ‘You have not done military service, have you?’ he said with a grin. I thought of mentioning I’d nearly been billeted in Perpignan because of my dual nationality, but I accepted the white pork-pie hat without comment and tucked the curls out of sight. He handed me an apron. ‘If you can, try and keep it looking as clean as that.’ I tied it behind me. The chiller hummed as Stephane took me through the health and safety procedures, pointing out different sinks, food specific chopping boards and hygienic gloves. He then explained the various cuts of cheese, each one designed to save waste. I tried to keep up, all the while glancing at the silent ranks of old Bordeaux and Burgundies on the walls opposite. That was the world I had come from, somewhere comfortable where I had been the instructor, rather than the apprentice, for most of the last twenty-five years. What was I doing? Was this folly? What made me think we could cross the divide? Friends had said that it seemed a logical step; cheese went with wine, so it was a complement to our business. To me it was as natural as a potato farmer becoming a fisherman. The doorbell chimed and we looked up to see the silhouette of a man wheeling in an empty trolley.
‘Morning, morning! All going well?’ said Richard, as English in his brogues, tan corduroys and shooting shirt, as Stephane was French. Between them I felt like a hybrid.
‘Voilà, le fromager!’ Stephane declared, indicating me with a flick of his hand.
‘I’ll try not to cause too much carnage,’ I said.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Richard as he turned the shop sign to open. ‘There’s not much can go wrong.’ The look on Stephane’s face suggested otherwise.
We were joined by Ellie, a slight figure with Mediterranean features whose cheese knowledge gave lie to the fact that she was only helping out whilst at university. To our first customers little more than the top of her head would have been visible above the chillers, but she had a presence and self-confidence that contrasted sharply with that of the newcomer to her side. I trailed her from one end of the counter to the other as she served, trying to pick up tips. I watched as she mentally noted an order for multiple cheeses, unwrapped them sequentially, cut them to size, and then performed what to me was a feat of origami. She encased them so perfectly in greaseproof paper that all they were missing was a bow. I started to worry. I grabbed a pad and began to scribble some diagrams; and then Ellie performed another marvel, stopping me short. Each little parcel had its time on the scales and then disappeared into a bag. ‘That’ll be eighteen pounds and fifty pence,’ she said.
Where was the calculator? A chill traced my spine. Was I really expected to remember the amounts while adding them up? I had forgotten the day would involve arithmetic: a lesson at school I had once escaped by climbing out of a rear window and buying ice creams before returning unnoticed. It wasn’t that I had a phobia of maths itself, just a fear of being watched whilst making a cock-up of something, a regular occurrence in my youth and not unheard of in my adulthood. I was spared any embarrassment for the next two orders, Ellie taking charge, then came the moment I had been dreading. A senior military type, whose nose matched his scarlet trousers, seeing that Ellie was occupied, eyed me for a few seconds then approached.
‘Half pound of Colsten Bassett,’ he said, waggling a finger at the shop’s choice of Stilton. Everything was in kilos. I stared at him for a second, then thought to go to my phone to do the conversion, when Ellie saved me.
‘That’s about 220 grams,’ she whispered, passing behind me. I heaved a half cylinder out of the chiller and onto the cutting board. I drew the wire out above the cheese. Hell, what does 220 grams look like? An eyebrow rose on the other side of the counter. The wire hovered. I steeled myself and pulled down, the wire slicing through the cheese on its uncertain course. I admired the piece for a moment, only slightly skewed, and placed it on the scales. 780 grams. Shit! This seemed too wide a margin for me to ask breezily if it might be acceptable, so, trying to look as if I had intended the first cut, I eyed the piece and tried again. 290 grams.
‘A little over sir, will that be OK?’
‘I suppose so,’ he said. ‘And a pound of Cheddar.’
I moved on, hacking into more inventory with the precision of a one-eyed Mongol warrior. ‘Will that be all sir?’ I asked, more request than question, as I placed the hard-won piece alongside the first. I wasn’t in luck.
‘No, we’ve a little party tonight, need a few styles.’
‘Jolly good sir,’ I said using a phrase I felt appropriate, rather than the one that sprang to mind.
‘What’s your Brie like?’
As I hadn't tried it, I approached the answer from a sales perspective. ‘Very nice sir,’ I said. He stared at me. It seemed he needed more, so I thought back to my time as a wine salesman for inspiration. ‘It’s from one of the finest dairies in the Meaux region and has a supple texture that when given a little warmth almost caresses the palate, and the aromatics intrigue the senses like a kaleidoscope.’ He raised an eyebrow, and then his eyes flicked to the Camembert.
‘I’ll take two of those.’
Any disappointment on my part was assuaged by not having to cut into the gooey disk of Brie. I plucked two round boxes from the chiller and added them to his order. This was easy. I decided to try and guide his choices in a similar manner. ‘Would you like any goat cheese?’ I said. ‘The crottins are delicious, they have a lovely crumbly texture.’ I was in familiar territory, as I had used the downy little drums at an event the week before.
‘Why not? Two of those as well.’
We were developing a rapport. ‘And how about some Comté,’ I said, pointing to a piece of the special offer cheese. I proffered the dish of taster samples.
A smile warmed his face as he chewed. ‘Bloody good that,’ he enthused. ‘Certainly take that bit.’
‘Anything else?’ I asked.
‘Well, what else do you suggest?'
Buoyed with confidence, I decided to brave the cutter once more. ‘How about a slice of Livarot?’ I said. ‘Do you see the way it’s slightly bowing at the edges? It looks to be at perfect maturity.’
His face regained its former composure. ‘What, and have to face it's smell again in the morning? Not likely.’ He looked to his watch. 'That’ll be all.’ After wrapping the man’s cheeses with the skill of a toddler attempting his first Christmas presents, and a bit of mental arithmetic, the customer left. I approached Stephane. He was smiling.
‘Not bad Francis, but why did you not use a calculator?’
‘But… Ellie didn’t.’
‘Ah, that’s Ellie, the rest of us do.’ He reached up to a shelf and handed me one.
‘Do you sell much washed-rind cheese?’ I asked.
‘A bit, it depends on how strong it is.’
‘Say Livarot. How much, in comparison to Cheddar or Stilton, do you get through?’
‘In volume, well, a fraction.’
Although my eye with the cheese wire improved as the morning neared lunchtime, and my slack wrapping style didn’t draw comment, I became troubled by the amount of time I was spending with everything other than the washed rinds. Each sale of Livarot, Epoisses or Munster (double wrapped out of nasal politesse) was followed by what seemed an age away from that corner of the chiller. By the time Richard was plating up some charcuterie and sourdough bread, I had tallied a volume of washed-rind sales whose likely profit would barely cover the cost of lunch. I folded a slice of salami onto my tongue and looked again to the bottles opposite. Were we standing on the wrong side of reason?