At Slate we are really keen on perfect companions for cheese and fruit cheeses have got to be one of our favourites. The sweetness of these firm-set, sliceable preserves makes them a wonderful accompaniment for the saltiness of cheese.
Traditionally made from quince, the Spanish call their fruit cheese "membrillo" and pair it with the hard ewe's milk cheese Manchego.
In addition to quince, we like to have a range of flavours on offer including redcurrant and pear, medlar, damson, and crab apple. These flavours match well with different cheeses, for example crab apple fruit cheese and Lincolnshire Poacher; damson fruit cheese with blues such as Stilton.
We source many of our fruit cheeses from The Fruit Magpie, based in Tottenham, North London. Founder Hazel Griffiths set up her award-winning business in 2015 after a couple of years experimenting with quince fruit from a tree in her own garden. In 2017 her fruit cheeses were included in the Observer Food Monthly's 5th annual list of "50 Favourite Things".
Recently we caught up with Hazel to find out more about how she makes the beautiful jewel-coloured loaves on offer at Slate.
How did you start making fruit cheeses?
Actually, it was quite accidental. I have a large quince tree in my back garden and a long interest in our use of environmental resources. To start with I sold some of the fruit and gave away a lot more but as the tree became increasingly productive I started looking for other ways to use the crop.
One year I tried my hand at quince cheese and, on a whim, took some to Wildes Cheese, a cheese maker based just up the road from me. Their enthusiastic response encouraged me to make more, which they started to sell on their market stalls. It then occurred to me that there must be a huge amount of other fruit going to waste. This was all the motivation I needed to look into making other fruit cheeses.
Tell us a little about the process of making fruit cheese and how you source your ingredients.
My aim has always been to make the business as sustainable as possible and I am proud to say that the great majority of the fruit I use comes from gardens and allotments within a five-mile radius of where I live and work. This produce is grown without chemicals, fully tree-ripened and processed very quickly after picking – I like to think that the flavour tells its own story about this method of working. Because of my background in horticulture and interest in foraging I already knew lots of people with surplus fruit which would have otherwise wasted and who were more than happy to barter their produce. Since then word has spread about what I am doing which has resulted in many more offers.
The process of making the fruit cheese is a slow one – unfortunately I’ve yet to find any short cuts! First I clean the fruit, cook it until soft and then sieve it to a puree. I add sugar, often lemon juice and sometimes other natural ingredients according to recipe. Then I cook it in a wide pan for up to an hour or more, stirring constantly to prevent the thick mixture from sticking, until I judge it has reached setting point. At this point I transfer into moulds or jars and leave in a cool place to set.
How do you develop your flavours? Do you have a favourite and have you had any that really didn't work?
When I first started I experimented with all sorts of different fruit taking my cue from whatever I could find locally. However it quickly became apparent that some sorts really weren’t suitable - by and large these gave a result which was too sweet. Now I just use cooking fruit, except for pear which I team with redcurrant to give it the necessary tang for pairing with savoury food.
My starting point for a new recipe is a fruit that is full of flavour and with good acidity. Good varieties of quince, damson, crab apple, small (closer to wild-type) plums and sour cherries all fit the bill.
I have eight flavours at the moment but it is really hard to pick a favourite! That said I’m rather proud of the two cherry plum flavours – one a deep red and the other a clear gold – as they have a sharpness that I really like. I’m also very fond of the medlar as it has a wonderfully complex flavour and fudgy texture. Although commonly used in centuries past this fruit has been almost forgotten in the UK until recently.
What else do you like to cook at the moment?
I try to use locally sourced ingredients as a jumping off point when I can. Lately I’ve been playing with wintery, warming Moroccan flavours - quince works beautifully in a tagine!
What foodie trends do you see for the year ahead?
In the last couple of years I've seen growing interest in food provenance, ethics and sustainability, locally-made ‘artisan’ produce, plant-based diets and, of course, a move away from plastic packaging. I find all this very heartening as, to me, a more considered approach to where our food comes from and its impact on the environment is long overdue. I hope to see all of these trends continuing this coming year.