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Don’t say cheese: How port problems stole Christmas

Don’t say cheese: How port problems stole Christmas
Statistics released by UK supermarket chain Tesco in 2019 show that they sold 350 tons of the stuff (over 60% of total sales) in the weeks leading up to Christmas. (Photo: omisido on Pixabay)

Can the new year begin if traditional Christmas food was missing from the yuletide table?

Rationally I know that December 25 has come and gone but my heart and taste buds are not convinced. It wasn’t the Grinch who stole my Christmas 2021 but rather Transnet Port Operations, Cape Town. Some people associate mince pies or a pineapple-garnished gammon with end-of-year festive feasting but for me Stilton cheese is the seasonally specific treat of choice. And this year it was missing from my table.

For those unfamiliar with the delights of Stilton, think crumbly to cut yet succulently silken on the tongue, full-flavoured, blue-flecked cows’ milk English cheese. Every bite sets off a complex chain of savoury sensations. Sharp drifts towards salty and then on into slightly sweet, buttery, nutty notes which then unfold into earthy, mushroomy majesty.

Since at least the 17th century (and probably long before) this dairy delight has been part of English and later worldwide Anglophile Christmas culinary culture. Traditionally paired with Port (or served with a slice of Christmas cake) Stilton adds an elegant umami element to these otherwise overly sweet Xmas offerings.

Stilton’s six official producers – even post Brexit there is a European Union Protected Designation of Origin status restricting the use of the term – make most of their money in December. Statistics released by UK supermarket chain Tesco in 2019 show that they sold 350 tons of the stuff (over 60% of total sales) in the weeks leading up to Christmas. While it is a minority yuletide indulgence in Mzansi, a significant subset of South Africans still regard Stilton as central to their festive food. 

Many will argue that it is absurd for me and others like me to be lusting after an imported, über-rich blue cheese with booze-drenched fruit cake in the middle of a South African summer. Such stuff is not only climatically unsuitable but also has negative foreign exchange implications. And it is potentially insulting to the very many superb South African cheese makers. They are right of course. For the rest of the year I am a passionate advocate of local cheese and terroir appropriate eating but, at Christmas, silly spending and sentimental eating is dietarily de rigueur. Yuletide food is all about regression. Whatever your mum set out as Christmas dinner is what you want. And my mum served Stilton…

There is no shame for the South African blue cheese makers in acknowledging that their (very good) product is less good than Stilton. In this respect they are in distinguished company. I would argue that Stilton is the world’s best blue cheese – better than French Roquefort and Italian Gorgonzola and definitely better than the plethora of slimy, overly salty Danish blue offerings.

Stilton at Cheese Gourmet in Linden, Johannesburg. (Photo: Anna Trapido)

So why am I whining? The Stilton cheese Christmas consignment technically arrived from England in Cape Town in early December 2021. This should have given it lots of time to make it to my festive table but a combination of pre-existing inefficiency, overlaid with the Omicron variant Covid-19 wave meant that it spent most of that month queuing, waiting to unload in Table Bay harbour. It was only cleared by customs and released to the importer on January 2, 2022. From there it had to travel to Johannesburg where it arrived on January 13. Twelfth night, the date upon which decorated Christmas trees are traditionally supposed to be taken down, is January 5…

I am aware that griping about the lack of seasonal Stilton is not a good look amid South Africa’s poverty and hunger crisis but there are national monetary implications that stretch beyond Eurocentric, spoilt-girl greed. Economist Richard Goode observes that “port congestion has long been a bane of South African trade. It currently costs the country billions in lost export opportunities. It also increases the cost of imports. In the case of this cheese being stuck in the harbour there will be demurrage costs incurred and then a range of other negative knock on effects for the importers, the delis, those handling the transport consignment, the banks that financed and insured the goods and so on. While government regularly talks about improving the situation at the ports, very little has happened. This example of lost sales in perishable, seasonal stock is one casualty amongst many”. 

Stilton at Cheese Gourmet. (Photo: Anna Trapido)

All of which goes some way to explaining why I am currently gorging on the Stilton that missed Christmas but made it to the Cheese Gourmet in Linden, Johannesburg in time for my annual, mid-January new year’s resolution diet lapse. A Stilton produced to meet the late December Christmas market and stored in cool conditions has about six weeks-worth of life left in it which means that by Valentine’s Day the cheese and I will perforce part ways, but until then we are very happy together. As I write, its texture is slightly softer than usual and the flavours are less distinct (both of which indicate that it is older than the standard serving) but it is still a lovely, rich, redolent cheese. I do feel strange eating Stilton in January but that is a cultural not a gastronomic inhibition on my part.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When Transnet Port Operations create creamier, smoother textured, mellower tasting Stilton, the answer is to beat it together with unsalted butter and melt it over a steak… DM/TGIFood

Cheese Gourmet, Corner 3rd Avenue and 7th Street Linden, Johannesburg. 011 888 5384

Follow Anna on Instagram @trapidoterritory

The author supports The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children in Manenberg. Their 24-hour crisis response service provides holistic social work support which includes housing and feeding up to 120 survivors of domestic violence daily. Saartjie Baartman Centre

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