I have long believed that, in order to be a gourmet, it is necessary to be passionate about cheese. This is because, in its variety and complexity, cheese is the food that most closely resembles wine. Cheeses, like wines, are categorised by region, and are subject to an intricate manufacturing and ageing process that profoundly affects their taste. It is possible to be a connoisseur of cheese in a way that it is impossible to be a connoisseur of, say, bread.
During the past decade or so, I have become increasingly aware of an unfortunate fact about myself, which is that I am not a genuine lover of cheese. Although perfectly happy to eat the stuff, I am not as enthusiastic about it as I believe I would need to be in order to be considered a gourmet. To a large extent, my problem has been a lack of opportunity. Most occasions on which I have been exposed to a really fine cheeseboard have been in the course of elaborate meals, and in my experience this invariably gives rise to a doubly uncomfortable realisation - not only is there a whole cheese course to get through, but one has to leave room for pudding as well.
For those who aspire to develop a connoisseur's knowledge of cheese, I would recommend going skiing in the Haute-Savoie region of France, as I recently did. Haute-Savoie is home to some of France's finest cheeses, including the incomparable Beaufort, the region's famous hard cheese that resembles the Swiss Gruyere. In Haute-Savoie, you are unlikely to encounter the problem of arriving at the cheese course already full, as virtually all the region's dishes feature cheese in some guise. A typical Savoyard dinner will start with tartiflette (a type of gratin made from cheese, potato and onion) and conclude with fromage blanc, between which there will probably be a main course of either fondue or Raclette.
On my return to London, I was pleased to discover that I am not alone in having had an interest in cheese kick-started by a skiing holiday. Patricia Michelson, owner of the north London cheese shop La Fromagerie, dates the formation of her love of cheese to a skiing holiday in Savoie, during which she encountered Beaufort. Although I wasn't tempted to go as far as Michelson, and arrange for a truckle to be shipped back to England, I do believe that my holiday has laid the foundation for a lifelong appreciation of cheese.
Even if you are not about to go skiing, I strongly recommend trying the following cheat's version of Raclette: bake a Vacherin Mont d'Or in a 180 oven for 20-30 minutes, until runny, and serve with waxy potatoes, prosciutto, and plenty of salt and pepper. So delicious is the result that it is liable to make a cheese lover out of anyone.