Anyone who dims the lights to introduce cheeseboard to an audience is already a winner in my eyes.
We are sitting in the belly of the Inn Deep pub, by the river Kelvin in Glasgow's west end. The pun lovers - and I would hazard a guess that there may be one or two among you - will appreciate the name of these nights, run by cheese connoisseur Phoebe Weller. Connoisseur seems the wrong word somehow; obsessive is closer to it. She calls herself the Roving Fromagiere. Her life is cheese. She eats it, breathes it (inhales, at least) and most certainly feels it - more of that to come. And to her nights flock people of a similar ilk, from differing places on the cheese-obsessive spectrum.
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Phoebe's nights - or, 'chewtorials' - have a simple premise. They are designed to be informative but also enjoyable, allowing people to learn about and eat cheese. They work as a kind of brief introduction to eight or so cheeses picked by Phoebe and encourage interaction between guests.
I'm here with my friend Beth, a long-time chewtorial attendee and unofficial second in command to Phoebe on our table thanks to her constant running commentary on what the night will entail. To give some context, on Beth's last birthday I bought her a big stinking chunk of blue cheese from George Mewes on Byers Road which she proceeded to carry around with her proudly on her night out showing people. Between Phoebe and Beth, I'm in capable hands.
In front of each of the 15 or so participants is a sheet of tasting notes for the cheeses to come, in a mind-map style. It feels very New-Age; we are under instructions to "take our time, look at the cheese, feel the cheese, smell the cheese and then… taste the cheese". These instructions are all in capital letters, because cheese, lest you forget, is serious business.
And then, the lights are dimmed. Like in school assemblies, as soon as the room gets darker then are palpable gasps of excitement from the crowd and the odd ghost noise. Phoebe encourages a hands-on approach when it comes to the cheese - literally. She wants us to rub it between our fingers until it begins to melt. One of our group hasn't washed her hands and is worried about hygiene. She is instructed by the boss to 'wash' them on a piece of bread. That's right - Phoebe has got someone to wash their hands on a piece of bread and no one has batted an eyelid. I think I may love her.
Delice de St CYR is first up. It is creamy and melts in the mouth, disappearing quickly to leave a residual taste. The class is asked to guess the fat content percentage. Somebody guesses 40%. Phoebe is delighted - it is 42%. I now know what a cheese geek looks like.
Stawley is up next. It is the first batch of a new season of cheese, made from goat's milk. We are asked what we think it tastes like, and the cheese geek mantle is passed to our Beth who gets a metaphorical gold star for guessing nutty undertones. There is something maternal about the way Phoebe gives out the cheese. She walks round with it and cuts bits off and hands them to people who clamour like baby birds to receive the biggest bits. We are encouraged to constantly handle the cheese, allowing it to melt to our body temperature before consuming it. The repetitive motion of eating the cheese is like being rocked to sleep. Beside me, Beth has her eyes half shut, in a Stawley induced coma.
We whiz through the Osseu-Iraty (sweet and light with a close texture), on to the St Nectaire. It's made in waterlogged caves which give it a damp "stale cellar" smell. It's complex, which I won't hold against it - who isn't? - but it's also a little monosyllabic. There's not a lot to it. I don't want to have Shakespeare recited to me but I would like my cheese to engage me in at least a little dialogue.
Then, the Coulommiers. The experienced class members pull themselves up a little straighter in their chairs when it is handed out, wanting to look their best for it. It is the kind of cheese that makes you want to take a day off work to take it to a hotel room - big and bold with a cheekiness about it. It's the kind of cheese that makes you think of it in human qualities, put it that way.
Between 'courses', the crowd is sharing what can only be described as 'cheese gossip'. A proflic cheesemonger is being discussed in the breathless, excited terms usually reserved for boyband members and singing cat video clips. Phoebe's turn of phrase gives away her feelings for cheese - she describes the Reblochon as a 'horse that's been out running'. It is her job to pull out the differences of each cheese, but her idiosyncratic descriptions are what, I'm sure, keeps people returning to her nights.
Later, at the bar, after all eight varieties have been consumed, I ask her what her favourite cheese is. Having put the same question to whisky tutors, foragers, and head chefs previously, I find many professionals won't pick - some because they're worried about the perceived political implications of stating a brand preference, and others for whom it is more about circumstance than one overall winner. Phoebe's favourite cheeses are the ones that don't taste like very much at all - the mellow, mild, younger fromages. In these she finds the greatest pleasure of all, because their inherent nuances speak more loudly to her than the cheeses that shout.
In a Man Vs Food world where everything is bigger, brighter, spicier, and more hyperbolic than what has come before, it is heartening to learn from someone for whom quiet subtleties are more important than bombast. And also, to know that every month, a small group of cheese fanatics gather under dimmed lights to wash their hands on bread and swap stories from this most captivating world.
The Roving Fromagiere chewtorials cost £12.50 and are held at the Inn Deep, 445 Great Western Road, Glasgow. For more information on the next class visit www.rovfrom.com