Cheeses wept

Cheese is one of mine and Emma’s all-time favourite things. We love the stuff. But how to prove it?

  • Exhibit A: We hold an openly stated belief that a meal is not worthy of the title unless it contains one or more of the following: a shaving of parmesan, a wedge of cheddar, a dollop of brie, a melting of mozzarella or a crumbling of feta. A lack of the aforementioned would lead us to argue that it wasn’t a ‘meal’ at all; more a precursory snack before the real food arrives-  biscuits and cheese. We’ve refused to pay for meals that have not contained enough cheese.
  • Exhibit B: It’s so important that we have cheese in our diet/lives that if we’re counting the calories and can’t stretch to a bite, we will take a block of Wensleydale from the fridge and simply lick it for 15 minutes.
  • Exhibit C: When I’m feeling generous, or need to make up for something that I’ve done wrong  then my go-to act of penance would be call in at the supermarket and buy a couple of ‘danger cheeses’ to accompany some wine.

    ‘Hey Em. I’m sorry, I accidentally broke your favourite handbag. But to make up for it, I’ve got a present for you. I got you 100g of Blue Jersey, an ounce of Reeking Pontefract and a truckle of Bolivian Otter cheese’

  • Exhibit D: On our first Valentine’s day together, I told Emma I was going to get her a cheesy card. I bought the biggest card I could find, with the soppiest message on the front (it was a teddy bear saying ‘I wuv you’ or something); then inside the card I wrote down the name of every single cheese in the world, and stapled a few slices of plasticky American burger cheese in the middle. It took me around 4 hours. The burger cheese is still in perfectly edible condition, over 5 years later.
  • Exhibit E: If you cut us, we’d bleed runny Camembert and we call the withdrawal symptoms you get from a few days without cheese (bad temper, insomnia, heavy sweating) ‘Going Cold Tezacki’

Before I go on, I will admit that I made all of the above up, apart from one which is completely true. If you are reading this on a long car journey, why not crack open a wheel of Edam and see if you can guess which.

So, if like us you love to munch on a bit of manchego, how easy is it to get your cheese fix in China?

Cheese isn’t anywhere near to being a staple in China. Curiously, China is the 3rd largest milk producer in the world, but large numbers of the Chinese are allegedly lactose intolerant (no official figures exist but some studies show high numbers of Chinese adults suffer from lactose malabsorbtion), and locally-produced milk isn’t high on consumers’ preference lists (it’s perceived not to be as pure as imported milk ). Anecdotally, in a supermarket/store the milk you see is almost always imported from Japan, Korea, Australia or Wales (?!). Soy milk and yoghurt seem to be much more common than milk as a drink on its own – especially for breakfast.

Given the massive supply and the less than obvious demand, I have no idea where all that surplus milk goes (Thirsty cats?), but there’s little likelihood it’s going into cheese production.

Mostly, we keep our blood/cheese levels topped up by eating western foods like Pizza or boutique salads and sandwiches. That said, occasionally peoples’ lack of cheese-awareness shows through. I bought a Chicken & Parmesan sandwich from a normally capable local deli. The chef evidently had no idea that Parmesan (the firm salty Italian cheese) and Primula (a semi-liquid mild cheese packaged and designed to be squirted into the grooves of celery) were different.

You can buy cheese in it’s purest form in import stores and high-end supermarkets, but it can be eye-wateringly expensive. Feta is easily 5-6 GBP per 200g block – which makes it about the same price as copper; a good chunk of good cheddar can easily approach 8 GBP, while Buffalo Mozzarella is like white, creamy, melty, gold dust.

To summarise;

  • Cheese is available, but expensive
  • Chinese food doesn’t contain a lot of cheese
  • We like cheese

Without further ado, let’s look at some tasting notes….

Yunnanese Goats cheese

Yunnanese food is terrific, as mentioned in one of our earlier blogs. It’s where most of China’s fruit, veg and flowers come from and one of the only types of Chinese cuisine I’ve come across that has its own cheese. I found 2 types so far.

1: a slightly rubbery, salty cheese that is sliced up and shallow fried. It’s basically Halloumi, though very slightly fluffier than the Cypriot sheep cheese. A restaurant near us serves it with a Yunnanese jam made from roses. It’s essentially the cheese equivalent of one of those renowned juxtapositions of sweet and savoury, like sea salt & caramel, peanut butter & jam, Ivanka Trump.

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Components of the dish; Top left, Rose Jam from Yunnan; Right, shallow fried goats cheese from Yunnan; Bottom left, curly Parsley garnish from the 1980s.
If you’ve completely lost all sense of value and perspective, in the store next to my favourite Yunnanese restaurant you can actually buy Halloumi, imported from Australia for 6GBP a pack. 

2. The second kind is more unusual. I don’t know what animal milk it’s from – let’s assume Goat. While warm it’s flattened into some large plates and then fried. It looked a little bit like a dog chew, but tasted like an Emmenthal flavoured Chewit, beaten into a thin sheet.  Imagine you were eating the tongue of your dress shoe but it was made of was made of crispy-fried cheesy toffee. Not at all bad if you can deal with the texture.

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True, it doesn’t look appetizing- like a poppadom used in some botched clinical trials. But you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover. Unless the cover is bound in the above leathery cheese material, in which case you should judge it delicious.

Cheese and Red Bean Ice Cream

I can and will write a whole blog on ice cream. This blog is about cheese. This was a

cheese bean
Cheese and Bean ice cream.  Think of tutti fruiti, but where there is only one fruit; and it’s not a fruit but a bean.
cream cheese style ice cream, studded with little red beans. Until I came to China, i’d never had beans as a dessert food. Until now, i’d never tasted cheese and beans together without them being on a baked potato.

It’s very common to get beans in dessert, but it’s still an acquired taste. You normally get either red or green beans and they really can appear on anything, with the result ranging from ‘delicious’, to ‘violating interntional human rights convention’.

 

My Cheese and bean ice cream was definitely in the former camp. It was very well balanced, the bean gave it some intrigue and texture, and the bean flavour didn’t overpower the subtle creamy cheesiness. Categorically a winner.

Unlike….

Cheese Fish Sausage

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As soon as Em pointed this out to me in our local convenience store, it was inevitable I was going to buy a pack. I’ve missed the opportunity to have a local friend translate/explain the packaging, but my favourite part is the proclamation that it is ‘Cheese: 4.59%’. I have no idea what the remaining 95.41% was made from, but it seems a little misleading to lead with Cheese. Though, obviously they sold at least one pack (to me) so maybe that is the point.

This is one of the stranger foods I’ve had. I don’t really know why it exists, or what it’s meant to do. It was sausage shaped (about the size of a thin marker pen), and it was wrapped in celophane but with one of those little metal rings to seal it, like at the end of a Chorizo. You had to open it by snapping it in half, which squished the sausage a little as the texture was somewhere between a mild dutch cheese (like edam) and soft tofu. Firm enough not to disintegrate to the touch, but not hard enough to do some damage if it landed on your head after being dropped out of a plane.

It tasted ever so slightly of cheese, maybe 4.09% Dairylea, 0.5% mild Emmenthal. By far the strongest flavour was the fish (Mackerel? Sardine?). While uncommon, I know that you can mix cheese and fish (Tuna & Cheese Melt or Salmon & Cream-Cheese being two obvious examples) – but it’s not exactly a dead cert (though if a ‘cert’ was a kind of fish, this would taste like a dead cert). When I see a product like this, especially one that tastes like a by-product of cat food production, I like to imagine what kind of market research process they went through. What must the earlier versions have tasted like? What flavour combinations did they reject? Are the creators now in prison?

Cheese Tea

One day while exploring, I felt simultaneously adventurous, thirsty and peckish. At that precise moment, I passed a shop with this sign.

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Red Tea with Cheese Milk Foam. Topped with little bits of actual cheese.

By now, you know I love cheese, but let me assure you, I also love tea. I really love tea. Had this company found a way to combine two delicious things, perhaps succeeding where Mr Cheese-Fish-Sausage was sadly found wanting?

I was telling this story to someone (let’s say Emma), and they (she) said:

‘That’s stupid. It sounds foul. Why would you assume it would taste anything other than stagnant pond water, that someone had thrown some cheese in once?’

‘Ah but’, my logic went, ‘I’m pretty sure that if you went back to medieval France and told them that it would be possible to combine cheese with cake, they’d have skipped the water trial and burnt you immediately as a witch. Nowadays, its’ commonplace to have cheesecake. What if CheeseTea will be the 26th century’s hottest drink? Do you want to be a leader or a sheep?”

Besides, I also reasoned that if a company was so confident in their product that they made it the subject of their biggest sign, then the odds are it will be good.

Sweet cheeses; I owe my tongue an apology. And Emma.

I’d expected a kind of sweet creamy foam and a mild, fruity tea. I wasn’t totally wrong about the tea, it was a redbush style – no issue there. I was totally wrong about the cheese foam. It was the flavour of welsh cave aged cheddar; tangy, salty, savoury and foamy. It would have been delicious on some mushroom soup, but it totally ruined the tea and made me almost vomit.

guy F
Above; Guidov’Guy’ Fawkes’ normal autograph, 1605.  Below; Guy Fawkes’ signature after drinking a cup of cheese tea
If i’d have been given a cup of builders tea with a stick of cave aged welsh cheddar stuck in it, i’d have been able to have removed the cheese, and enjoyed it separately. In foam format it covers the surface of the tea like japanese knotweed and every sip you take to the very end is ruined.

It was so unpleasant that the mere memory of it means I can’t think of a satisfactory way to finish this blog.

– Matt

A Impression of Wartime Shanghai

 

If you had to choose a single image to encapsulate Shanghai, there’s a high probability you’d choose ‘that’ skyline; the cluster of attention-seeking Lujiazui skyscrapers on the Pudong side of the Huangpu river. You would choose it because it contains some of the most distinctive and iconic buildings in the city – and possibly in the world; those affectionately known as the ‘bottle-opener’ (Shanghai World Financial Centre), the ‘ice-breaker’ (Jin Mao Tower), the ‘screwdriver’ (Shanghai Tower) and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower (erm… that’s it’s real name).

 

 

 

beautiful shanghai skyline
tcmzone.com

There are a couple of points I’d like to note about ‘that’ skyline…

Firstly, many of the buildings in that infamous image are actually incredibly new. The Pearl Tower was completed in 1994 (the same year that my younger sister was born) and the two tallest – Shanghai Tower @2,073ft and SWFC @1,614ft – were both completed in the last 20 years. There will still be plenty  of people in Shanghai who will be able to say – ideally in a Lancashire accent – “When I were a lad, all that there were nowt but fields”. But seriously, Google ‘shanghai skyline 1990’ and compare it to the photo above –  it really is an shocking confirmation of Shanghai’s modernity.

Second point to note is that the picture above is taken from the Bund – a dignified row of European-style commercial waterfront buildings dating from the turn of the 20th Century – an emblem of an earlier era of prosperity for Shanghai when it was booming as a trade port.

The Bund is a tourist-magnet and I’d guess that it’s because, for a city of this size, there isn’t exactly an extensive array of historical sites of interest. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to occupy a history buff, but it’s largely ‘modern history’ set within the past 200 years. For example, the Old Town area around Yuyuan Gardens, the classical dwellings that make up places like Xintiandi, and the various buildings that housed early communist party luminaries. My point being, Shanghai today is decidedly modern, and you have to work a little bit to get your history fix.

This week however we didn’t have to, as an opportunity to attend an author’s evening fell into our laps…

At the event we met Betty Barr and her husband George Wang. They were there to tell us about a book which they have recently published – Ruth’s Record – which contains the full text of a diary which her mother, Ruth, kept between 1941 to 1945,  while she and her family were interned in ‘Lungwa’, the Japanese internment camp in Shanghai.

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Betty and George beginning their presentation

I had started to build a picture of 1940’s Shanghai during my recent city walk around the Hongkou district (i wrote about it here), which focused on the experience of Jewish immigrants during the Japanese occupation. Given this, it was particularly special to hear first-hand from Betty about life as a resident in pre-war Shanghai – for example how their lives revolved around the arrival and departures of great American cruise liners which brought letters, food, movies etc. for the local expat community. I honestly don’t know how I would have coped moving out to China if I wasn’t able to video-call my family, use translation apps and enjoy a relatively unbroken flow of imported Italian wine (!), which made Betty’s parents’ decision to live here all the more impressive. It was truly fascinating to hear about the transition from life as a normal resident in the Shanghai International Settlement to that of an ‘enemy alien’.

 

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Thanks to Henman Wealth, who organised the Author Talk event

Betty explained how her mother had written daily during their time at the camp and remarkably managed to keep her diary hidden from even her family; Betty only came to know about the diary upon her mother’s passing away in 1990.

The book is brought to life by photographs passed to Betty by a friend, and drawings by Deirdre Fee, an Irish friend of Ruth Barr’s who was also interned at Lungwa. Meanwhile, the event last week was brought to life by Bettys husband George Wang, who was brilliantly bright and funny!

Although the story is articulated during the Second World War – during which there was considerable damage done to China and Shanghai – their account was quite unique given that it wasn’t a violent wartime story, but one that described day to day experiences (such as how mealtimes were organised, how people kept busy, the daily work rotas etc.). It gave us an authentic and insightful window into a Shanghai that is both recent (literally in living memory) but also almost completely hidden behind the new shining city with its thousands upon thousands of glass-facade buildings and millions upon millions of residents.

It was lovely to hear some familiar references – they went to school near where we live in the Former French Concession – and they mentioned several local buildings that today are just one of many residential units.

Like true Shanghainese both Betty and George were game for a selfie with my friend Usha and I after the presentation, and they also signed a copy of my book (Matt pointed out the next day that it was funny that he wasn’t mentioned in the dedication given that he had paid for the book… oops!)

I’ve started reading the book and am enjoying it thoroughly already; thanks to Betty for sharing her mother’s story with us.

Emma