There is a twirl of pink stripes, and the skip of white sandals as my daughter gracie dances in front of a wall of cheese like a pinwheel fluttering in the wind. We’re at Neal’s Yard Dairy in Borough Market, and my highly excited 20-month old toddler is attempting to climb upon the stacks of discs, some as big as her body, and many the color of her wispy blonde hair.
“Mama, cheese,” she points out to me, as she takes in the abundance of fromage in the flagship London shop, where cheesemonger Miranda Bubb-Humfryes is happily showing Gracie around. For my daughter, this is Disney-land with the added benefit of endless samples of the best British and Irish cheese to try.
It was during a moment of distraction in a south London shop that I discovered my daughter’s appreciation of cheese. As I chatted in Aga’s Little Deli in Forest Hill waiting for my order of Tomme de Savoie, the then 13-month old Gracie put her hand out towards the counter, and before I had finished my sentence, she was munching on a slice of the Tomme cut for her by the assistant. It quickly disappeared, rind and all.
Prior to that kind gesture from the deli assistant, I had not thought to offer any cheese other than standard cheddar to Gracie. Although I write about food, and my attitude towards feeding children is to give them the same vegetable laden meals that we eat, for some reason it had not occurred to me that my daughter would be ready for such strong flavors.
“Often when children come in they want to try different cheeses but it’s the parents that discourage it, not believing that their child might like the taste,” says Bubb-Humfryes.
Again I am nattering away in a shop as Gracie munches on cheese. It’s a soak-ing and miserable Wednesday morning, but the store, normally a tourist magnet, has a calm and wonderfully warm atmosphere despite the stone floor and cooled temperature required for its product.
I decide that’s because of the unavoidable aroma that swirls in the air. For a turophile it’s as pleasing as a squirt of Chanel No 5 was for Marilyn Monroe. It’s a smell that envelops and comforts, rather than overpowers, and it is so delicious that I almost want to lick the air.
However, I’m aware that’s not everyone’s reaction, as Bubb-Humfryes confirms when she says that some children come in with their fingers clasped to their noses complaining of the ‘pong,’ or unpleasant smell.
She adds: “Children are far more honest, especially when it comes to tasting cheese. They will say right away if they like it or not or even that it tastes like a Haribo sweet. The important thing is that parents let them try for themselves.”
We decide to take advantage of the window of quiet before the storm of the lunchtime shoppers to let Gracie explore the store. She is fascinated with the array of blocks and discs of cheese, and wants to handle them to feel their textures.
Bubb-Humfryes holds out examples of cheese for Gracie to touch, and she lightly traces the grooves or the smooth finish on different rinds, looking up now and then to check with me that it’s fine to be doing so. Gracie’s language is just developing, but she certainly knows her own mind, and is so content in the store that she sits patiently on a stool, lounging against the slate shelf behind her, reminiscent of John Wayne waiting for a beer to come flying down saloon bar style.
Bubb-Humfryes cuts and hands her a slice of Sparknhoe Red Leicester, from the Leicestershire Handmade Cheese Company. This she turns over in her hands before chewing solemnly, and when asked if she thinks it’s good, nods carefully but does not ask for more.
The Oliver moment comes with a taste of the Cornish Yarg, a nettle wrapped lemony cheese from Lynher Dairies. The first nibble is promptly followed by an excited cry of “cheese, more,” and tiny fingers eagerly grasping the next crumbling bite, which appears to be inhaled rather than eaten such is the speed with which it is dispensed.
As Gracie demolishes the Yarg, I recall a friend’s surprise that my daughter enjoys Parmesan on her risotto, and her own admission that her son had only ever eaten those plastic looking cheese straws.
“I’m just not sure what is safe,” she said.
And therein, I imagine, is one of the reasons why parents prevent their children from sampling a variety of cheeses. That, and their own prejudices, simply because they do not like a taste, they assume their child will not take to it either.
“We would never sell cheese that was not safe to eat,” continues Bubb-Humfryes. “It really comes down to whether a child likes the taste or not. In fact, child-ren are a lot more forgiving when it comes to cheese — a mark, or a parti-cular rind that an adult may not like the look of, a child will find interesting. They like the colors and textures of the rinds.”
I suspect another reason for stepping away from the cheese is the issue of fat. In America, and the UK, we are con-stantly being reminded of the size of our bodies — there’s just too much flesh on western bones. Child obesity is a particular problem, and in the confusion of health information that parents are bombarded with, the message is that full fat cheese is bad for their offspring.
Yet, according to the U.S. Office of Dietary Supplements, some 44 percent of American boys and 58 percent of girls aged between 6 and 11 years old do not consume enough calcium.
There are plenty of low fat, yet tasty, cheese varieties but I wonder if parents just simply avoid putting it on their child’s radar thinking that it’s one less food to potentially pile on the pounds.
Whatever the reasons, watching Gracie discover the delights of new cheeses, it is a shame that so many children are missing out on this type of food experience. When it comes to food, we follow the wise advice of eating in moderation, and we’d rather a little bit of full fat Stilton than a whole lot of processed low fat cheddar. At Neal’s Yard Dairies there is also another piece of advice we are certainly sticking to, and that’s to try before you buy.
“We encourage people to sample any cheese before they buy it, and that goes for children too. We want to get across to customers that it is ok to try out different cheeses, as sometimes people are not always that comfortable asking,” says Bubb-Humfryes.
I’m quite sure that as Gracie gets older, and more vocal, she will not be shy about asking for cheese samples. She readily accepts the little pieces and slices that Bubb-Humfryes hands to her, although not every bit hits the mark.
There is a distinct frown following the tasting of the Durrus Farmhouse Cheese, handmade in County Cork by Jeffa Gill. This semi-soft cheese has a creamy texture, which I assumed Gracie would like, but the mouthful is almost spat out. That’s the thing about toddlers; table manners are not their forte. Although I know plenty of adults who would have reacted the same way to food they didn’t like, and been more upset.
Instead, the wall of cheese opposite the counter distracts Gracie. We have to stop her from attempts to scale the shelves by wafting a portion of Gorwydd Caerphilly in her direction. She takes the bait, and the cheese, much to the amusement of the rest of the store’s assistants, who are full of praise for her willingness to chomp through the portions offered to her.
Bubb-Humfryes asks her colleagues for recommendations for cheese for Gracie, just as my child discovers the basket full of pre-packed Parmesan. Now if there is one thing my daughter never tires of, it is emptying boxes or baskets of their contents, and then putting the whole lot back in.
And so the cellophane-wrapped blocks of Parmesan are steadily handed over to Bubb-Humfryes for her inspec-tion before Gracie retrieves them, arrang-ing them in the basket.
“Would she like a job?” jokes Bubb-Humfryes.
I smile, but I think that if Gracie were to follow her tastebuds and become a cheesemonger, than I’d be more than happy with her choice of career. Not only is it a noble profession, just think of the future goodies that will be landing on our table. CC