Say cheese and raise your glass to a taste of heaven

CHEESEMAKERS in Scotland are still permitted to use unpasteurised milk in their cheesemaking, and most of the really excellent cheeses on the market are made from unpasteurised milk.

The oldest type of Scottish cheese is crowdie. A curd cheese, made from cows’ milk, crowdie has been made in the Highlands and Islands since before the Vikings. Crowdie has always been made domestically, but in 1962 Reggie and Susannah Stone began to make it commercially, from their herd of Shorthorns, near Tain.

Crowdie used to be made by putting the container of fresh milk beside the heat on the kitchen range or in the sun, until the milk soured. The natural souring of the fresh (unpasteurised) milk gave crowdie its citric, lemony taste. The Stones made the best-known form of a rich creamy cheese, rolled in oatmeal, called caboc - one of the earliest-made of the many excellent Scottish cheeses of the past four decades.

These days, crowdie is usually made from pasteurised milk. Pasteurised milk doesn’t sour naturally - it just goes bad. To start the crowdie-making process, lactic acid is added to the milk, but from then on crowdie is made as it has always been - when the milk has formed curds with the consistency of scrambled eggs, these are mashed, mixed with salt and double cream and then hung in a muslin to let the whey drip off.

The Curtis family, from near Bonchester Bridge in the Borders, made the original Bonchester brie type of cheese. John Curtis had a herd of Jersey cattle, and his brie was the best I ever tasted, made from the unpasteurised milk from his cows. The milk was tested regularly - when I interviewed him years ago, he had counted 400 testings in three years. Sadly for the Scottish cheese scene, the Curtis family retired from cheesemaking a couple of years ago. But there are so many others - Humphrey Errington, in South Lanarkshire is making superb cheeses, best known of which must be his Dunsyre Blue and Lanark Blue.

Mr Errington has endured such trials and tribulations from officials who, on one occasion took away one whole consignment of his cheeses. It is to his great credit - and shows his strength of purpose - that he has continued to contribute as he does to the quality of Scottish cheesemaking.

There are superb cheeses being made throughout Scotland from cows’, sheep’s and goats’ milk. Cheeses which are soft and creamy, blue-veined and hard, cheddar types. The Isle of Mull cheddar cheese was recognised for its excellence and won an award on a Radio 4 food programme at the end of 2002. This cheddar is the one we have bought for many years, to be a part of the cheese display on the sideboard in the dining-room here at Kinloch for our guests, and this, too, is the cheese we cook with.

Cheese is an integral part of cooking. So many savoury dishes rely on cheese as an ingredient - a simple cheese sauce, for example, can be made to serve spooned over vegetables ranging from broccoli to leeks, or as a sauce accompanying fish, or it can form the basis for a souffl which is not the difficult dish in its construction that people often suppose it to be. But where cheese is called for as an ingredient, it is important to use the best you can find. And to underline its flavour you can add, for instance, a couple of teaspoons of Dijon mustard to the sauce - it won’t taste of mustard, but the cheese is emphasised.

An excellent range of cheese can be found in specialist food shops throughout Scotland, but most notably in the Gourmet’s Lair, in Inverness, in the House of Bruar just north of Blair Atholl, and Valvona and Crolla in Edinburgh. Among the very many other shops which sell cheeses must be mentioned Mrs McDonald’s shop in Blairgowrie, which has been selling wonderful cheese for even longer than the others. Ian Mellis, the renowned cheese merchant, has excellent shops in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

But it isn’t only cheese which is being made so very well in Scotland. Near Plockton, about 20 minutes drive from the bridge to Skye, is the Achmore dairy, run by Mr and Mrs Biss, who not only make a range of cheese but also the best crme friche - thick and creamy textured, and a rich ivory colour, I think the Achmore crme friche must be the best in the world. We get through a considerable order each week. Their yoghurt - thick and delicious - is also hard to better.

Ice-cream is manufactured commercially throughout Scotland, and very, very well made - by which I mean it is utterly delicious. I should know - I love it. The best-known ice-cream in Scotland must be Mackie’s, from Aberdeenshire, but there are several others which are rivals for sheer delicious eating. Two stand out - the Cream of Galloway, and the Orkney ice-cream, both of which have unusual and interesting flavours, as well as classic vanilla. And there is an ice-cream made in Buckie which has won awards, justifiably; the strawberry ice-cream is the best I have ever tasted.

It used to be the case that ice-cream in Scotland was Italian - and the Musselburgh ice-cream making family of Luca is legendary - but these days there are just as many Scottish families making top-quality ice-cream as there are Italians.

As a nation we are becoming ever more aware of the dairy produce we buy - from yoghurt and crme friche to ice-cream and cheese. The last course of a meal is often made up of either bought-in, top-quality ice-cream or cheeses served with fresh fruit. And, fortunately, we are coming to realise that so much of the best of each category is made in Scotland.

Where to buy cheese

Dunlop Dairy Products West Clerkland Farm, Stewarton, Ayrshire, KA3 5LP. Tel: 01560 482494 Many products from the Dunlop Dairy are pasteurised and suitable for vegetarians. They produce Dunlop cheese, Dunlop smoked, Swinzie (Friesland sheep milk), Bonnet (Sannen goats’ milk) and Annick.

Gourmet’s Lair 8, Union St, Inverness, IV1 1PL. 01463 225151 The Gourmet’s Lair is a delicatessen and specialist cheesemonger. Its cheese counter stocks over 160 national and foreign cheeses.

IJ Mellis Cheesemongers Unit B1A, Albion Business Centre, 78 Albion Road, Edinburgh, EH7 5QZ. 0131 6619955 With shops in Edinburgh and Glasgow, IJ Mellis specialises in high-quality farmhouse cheeses from throughout Britain.

Isle of Mull Cheese Sgriob-rhuadh, Farm Dairy, Tobermory, Isle of Mull, PA75 6QD. 01688 302235 Sgriob-rhuadh Farm’s cheese is made using milk from grass-reared, predominantly Friesan cows. Milk is taken fresh from the milking process to the cheesemaking vats. No pasteurisation or colouring is used.

Loch Arthur Creamery Organic Dairy Products, Beeswing, Dumfries, DG2 8JQ. 01387 760296 The Loch Arthur Creamery produces cheese and yoghurts using milk from their bio-dynamically reared Ayrshire herd. Their varieties of cheese include Loch Arthur cheddar, Crannog, Criffel and Kebbuck Cream cheese.

Valvona & Crolla 19 Elm Row, Edinburgh, EH7 4AA. 0131-556 6077 A wide range of delicious, carefully chosen cheeses from Scotland, France and Italy. You can buy an artisan cheese box on line.

West Highland Dairy Achmore, By Kyle of Lochalsh. 01599 577 203 At Achmore, a small flock of sheep provides the dairy with milk, while cows’ milk is purchased locally. The cheeses include prize-winning blue and hard cheese, as well as a range of soft cheeses and a bloomy rind cheese. You can take a cheesemaking course here.

McDonald's Cheese Shop Westfields, Balmoral Rd, Rattray, Blairgowrie, PH10 7HY. 01250 872493 Selling a wide range of fine Scottish cheeses.