The big cheese

Food - Bee Wilson reveals what gets her goat

March is the first month of the goat's cheese season, when goat's milk takes on its first grassy mellowness after the acrid scarcity of winter. "So what?" you might say, if you only ever eat supermarket goat's cheeses, whose industrially produced milk has no connection with the seasons. Chavroux, that soft cheese in a jolly pyramidical box, is available all year round, and very delicious it is, too. (My mother-in-law makes a wonderful light pancake filled snugly with a Chavroux mixture and served with a red pepper sauce; it is also good dropped in spoonfuls mixed with truffle oil into bright green broccoli or watercress soup.) But there is still something exciting about the first lemony flavours of a plate of fresh, bloomy goat's cheeses made from unpasteurised milk - something springlike.

I love French goat's cheeses for their shapes as much as anything. There is something architectural about them, these bricks and pillars of cheese - the long cylinder of Chabichou, the sturdy Grecian column of Buche Chevre, the straw-bolstered log of Ste-Maure, the truncated pyramid of Levroux - and, indeed, most of the forms of French cheeses date from the 19th century, when Paris, too, took on its modern shape. Pouligny St Pierre is supposed to look like a silhouette of the Eiffel Tower, though I don't think you'd ever guess this unless you had it pointed out to you. Then there are the smaller, squashier cheeses - the tiny Rigottes from the Rhone Valley, the walnut-sized Broccio from Corsica, each whole cheese a single satisfying mouthful. From Provence, you get squidgy discs of Banon treated with brandy and wrapped in aromatic chestnut leaves, each one like a neat parcel. But perhaps the best shape of all is the most basic, the small, round drum-shape of Crottin, whose name means simply "dropping".

The very best of these cheeses are often to be found only in the regions from which they come, made in small quantities by families with a single herd of goats. For example, according to the Loire food expert Jacqueline Friedrich, the greatest Pouligny St Pierre is made by a certain Mme Blondeau, "a neatly coiffed" sixtysomething who lives in a little stone house with a herd of 50 greedy goats who nibble at her climbing roses. Perhaps it's the residue of roses that makes Mme Blondeau's Pouligny so "unbearably delicious". According to Friedrich, "the cut of a Mme Blondeau Pouligny is porcelain; the flavour clean and milky, with hints of citrus and hazelnuts and, at times, a woodsy mushroom scent on the crust". Sadly, I am unable to confirm this romantic description. The only Poulignys I've tasted have been imports from Couturier, a big dairy whose cheeses are very likeable, white and moreish, but certainly not "unbearably delicious".

On the other hand, goat's cheeses made by the British equivalents of Mme Blondeau, though you feel you ought to like them, never seem as inspired as their French counterparts. Swaledale hard goat's cheese from Yorkshire is pleasant enough, but rather unassertive. There are various British imitations of the French log style of chevre - Ragstone is one - but, though wholesome and rustic, they tend to seem a bit chalkier, less well formed than their Continental equivalents. Ticklemore is an interesting hardish goat's cheese made in Devon, much more pungent and complex than Swaledale, but I'd always rather eat Crottin instead, if given a choice.

Goat's cheeses seem to fall into three main flavour categories: the milky (those fresh white creams often eaten with chives or fresh fruit), the nutty or mellow (the French word is moelleux) and the acidic. The cheese expert Patricia Michelson has a theory about this "sometimes aggressive" sharpness in goat's cheese, which she attributes to the way goats eat their food: "They are highly strung with a prickly temperament, searching out food high and low, and using up a lot of energy in the process." So whereas cow's milk (produced by lazy creatures who spend all day chewing) tastes buttery, and sheep's milk (produced by discerning sheep who "neatly graze the top of the fleshy grass") is "sweet and floral", goat's milk tastes biting, like the animals themselves.

Some goat's cheese is especially biting and goaty. If you like this style, I recommend trying the unfamiliar cheeses of Spain. I recently tasted seven goat's cheeses, French, British and Spanish, of which by far the most characterful was the Spanish Monte Enebro, a slice of soft, unpasteurised cheese with a blackened exterior, whose taste is so tangy and sharp that it reminded me not so much of lemon as of sherry vinegar. With a lot of sourdough and butter to temper it, it was extraordinary, less civilised or elegant than the pyramids of France, but unquestionably goatier.

What to do with any leftover morsels? Goat's cheese souffle and goat's cheese tart are well-known answers. But in The Cheese Room (Michael Joseph, £14.99), Patricia Michelson has a more surprising recipe, for Valencay-studded chocolate-walnut brownies. Alas, I have never had enough spare Valencay on my hands to try it.

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Lord Snooty and his party pals

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.