PJ Harvey’s wonderful return to form, Inside the Old Year Dying, springs from the epic Dorset dialect poem, Orlam, she published last year. It’s an album I have on constant repeat as it yields its surprises, aural and verbal. I’ve still to tackle the poem itself, product of eight years’ mastering the neglected linguistic heritage of her native county (it has an English translation on facing pages).
Yes, Thomas Hardy remains synonymous with Dorset but the parson poet of Blackmore Vale, William Barnes, is Polly’s literary inspiration A greater poet, Edward Thomas, described him as “the mouthpiece of the Dorset carters, cowmen, mowers and harvesters”. The rustic patois of the region that populates his verse is a wellspring for the raw, supernatural growing-up story of nine-year-old Ira-Abel, whose oracle is the all-seeing eye of a dead lamb, the Orlam of the book’s title.
The vision of Barnes (1801-1886) himself is altogether more grounded as I was reminded when researching another great Dorset survivor, Blue Vinny – a large newly-purchased chunk of which faces me as I write (Calder Cheese House, £2.95 per 100g.)
Vinny (or Vinney) was apparently Hardy’s favourite cheese, fancifully linked by some to Talbothayes Dairy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, where Tess and Angel Clare’s love ripened against a backdrop of its “lush, fertile land” in contrast to ‘starveacre’ Flintcomb-Ash where, in a memorable low point she’s forced to wrench swedes from the rugged terrain.
Yet I can find no reference to tangy, blue-veined cheeses across Hardy’s extensive oeuvre. Barnes, though, sings of its merits loud and clear in his poem, Praise O’ Do’set, just after a fulsome plug for frothy cider:
“Woont ye have brown bread a-put ye,
An’ some vinny cheese a-cut ye?”
In truth, it’s not one of Barnes’s best, omitted from my browning 1972 selection of his work, edited by Robert Nye. At that time true Dorset Blue Vinny was just a fading memory, even in its Vale of Blackmore heartland. The image of that perfect dairy country was sealed into the English DNA at that time by the ‘boy on the bike’ Hovis ads, filmed on Golden Hill, Shaftesbury. Alas, it was probably processed ‘Cheddar’ going on that processed brown bread.
The Second World War had been almost the final straw for a cheese already in decline when the government concentrated essential dairy production on a few key hard cheeses. By the Seventies with a revival of interest in traditional British foods, the cause was not yet lost, though. 1978’s groundbreaking In Search of Food by David and Richard Mabey desperately turns the search for any existing Blue Vinny farmhouse producers into a two-page ‘Detective Story’. They toured all the villages of the Vale, including Barnes birthplace Bagber, Glanvilles Wooton, Buckland Newton and beyond to Piddletrenthide and Cerne Abbas. Ultimately the quest was all frustrating dead ends but they set the bar.
From them I learned ‘“The Vinny of the name is a corruption of ‘vinnid’ or veiny, referring to the mass of blue veins that run through the cheese. The milk for the cheese would be hand-skimmed, since mechanical skimming takes away too much of the cream from the milk…”
It was all a bit hit and miss. In unhygienic cold, damp dairies cheeses were left for months while spores of penicillium roqueforti would grow. “In some dairies, farm hands would dip harness leathers in the milk churns when the day’s work was over, and they might leave mouldy bread or old boots in the cheese room. The final trick was to store the cheese at the bottom of a vat of cider; it might take months but eventually the cider would clear and the cheese would ripen. What a harmonious and practical partnership between two foods.” For a current similar symbiosis of booze and blue cheese check our my recent report on Oregon’s Rogue River Blue.
By the time the legendary Patrick Rance updated his The Great British Cheese Book in 1988 a Vinny saviour was at hand. The monocled Major had charted various small scale attempts at revival, plus the the passing off of second-grade Stilton off-cuts as the real thing, but finally he welcomed what has proved to be a successful champion for four decades now and the source of the creamy and crumbly, intricately-veined specimen in front of me. Bravo Mike Davies and his family at Woodbridge Farm, Sturminster Newton.
It all came about as a means of using up surplus milk on the family farm. Trained cheesemaker Mike unearthed a 300-year-old recipe. bought a second-hand vat and set to work in the pantry, where – learning curve – soon everything from the walls to marmalade jars turned blue. Production today is still based around their own pasteurised milk and the cheese, lower in fat than most, matures at the farm for 15 to18 weeks.
I can’t better Ned Palmer’s evaluation of it in his A Cheesemonger’s Compendium of British and Irish Cheese (Profile Books, £14.99): “With a rough, fawn-orange rind and a deep, well-distributed indigo blue, the cheese has an aroma of digestive biscuits, a satisfyingly chewy texture and a long, hot peppery finish.”
Their Blue Vinny has won numerous awards and has been recognised by the European Commission as one of a select group of foods worthy of carrying its “Protected Geographical Indication” (PGI) mark.
Like Lancashire crumbly It’s a great cooking cheese. A decade ago River Cottage, just across the border in Devon, created a ‘Leek and Dorset Blue Tart’ that is a stalwart of the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall rustic repertoire:
For the shortcrust pastry:
250g plain flour
125g unsalted butter
Pinch of sea salt
1 medium egg yolk
25-50ml cold milk
For the filling:
2 large or 3 medium leeks (about 500g), trimmed of tough green leaves, washed and sliced into 1cm rounds
Knob of unsalted butter
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
100g Dorset Blue Vinny grated
2 medium eggs
2 medium egg yolks
350ml double cream
First make the pastry. Put the flour, butter and salt in a food processor and pulse until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk, then pour in the milk in a gradual stream. Watch carefully and stop adding the milk as soon as the dough starts to come together. Turn out and knead lightly a couple of times, then wrap in cling film. Chill for half an hour.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the pastry out quite thinly and use to line a 25cm loose-based tart tin, letting the excess pastry hang over the edges. Line the pastry case with greaseproof paper, fill with baking beans and place in an oven preheated to 70C/Gas Mark 3. Bake blind for 20 minutes, then take the tart out of the oven, remove the paper and beans, lightly prick the base all over with a fork and return to the oven for five minutes, until the base is dry but not too coloured. Carefully trim off the excess pastry with a small, sharp knife. Turn the oven temperature up to 180C/Gas Mark 4.
To make the filling, put the leeks into a saucepan with 100ml water, the butter and some salt and pepper. Bring to a low simmer, then cover and cook gently, stirring once or twice, for about 10 minutes, until just tender. Drain well, reserving the cooking liquor. Spread the cooked leeks in the tart case and cover with the grated cheese.
Put the eggs and egg yolks, cream and leek liquor in a bowl and beat until smooth. Season to taste, then pour this custard over the cheese and leeks. Put the tart back into the oven and bake for about 30 minutes — the custard should be just set when you gently shake the tin. Serve warm or cold.