There is a striking stone building in the centre of Christchurch where cheese lovers are welcomed with open arms. This building is host to the Canterbury Cheesemongers who encourage you to linger to taste and admire their incredibly vast range of local and imported cheeses.
Owners Martin and Sarah Aspinwall started selling cheese in Christchurch in 2000 from the back of a French Simca Van at the Christchurch Arts Centre and Riccarton markets, storing and maturing the cheese in a shipping container in their garden. It turns out the people of Christchurch liked their cheese so much that two years later the pair opened their first shop and bakery on Salisbury Street. The Canterbury Cheesemongers has been in its current home at the historic Arts Centre Registry building since 2011.
But their story begins much earlier, in London, and has so much cheese it rivals any rom-com. When Sarah was at a loose end she came across an ad placed by a local cheese business. This serendipitous encounter not only provided her with a career that had her travelling the country and beyond to sample cheese, but is also where she met Martin. As they say, the rest is history. Luckily for Cantabrians, they eventually made their way to Christchurch, which has been home ever since.
The couple are picky with what they stock, selecting only the best products from suppliers' ranges. They have strong ties to their former employer in London, Neal’s Yard Dairy, and have trusted advisors around the world to ensure only the best makes its way to their doorstep in Christchurch.
Canterbury Cheesemongers' selection includes a wide range of raw milk cheeses and lesser-known varieties, in addition to the familiar ones we all know and love (and can pronounce). In some cases they can even identify the particular cow.
For example the cheese made from Patsy’s milk is “light and crumbly, very like a young Cheshire…salty, sweet and yoghurty all at once”. The familiar names and varieties differ in taste from the pre-cut vac packed pieces you can buy off the shelf, as they have been matured to perfection using traditional methods.
If you think being a purveyor of fine cheese is simply a matter of cutting it up and dishing it out, think again. A good cheesemonger knows the science of storing and caring for the cheese, sometimes carefully maturing it for up to two years, so it ends up on your table at its absolute peak. Martin and Sarah have this down to a fine art - no one eats unripe cheese on their watch.
You won’t find anything pre-packaged in sight - except a few select accompaniments at the front counter - just piles of beautiful cheese with natural rinds which you can taste to your heart’s content (they assure us they aren't in the habit of ejecting anyone no matter how many you ‘need’ to sample to make up your mind). Every piece is cut to order and the staff are incredibly knowledgeable and full of useful recommendations. They have all the time in the world for anyone with a shared love of cheese, but if you want to give them a helping hand it’s useful to know what you don't like, or throw in some helpful keywords to narrow it down; strong, blue, anything but blue, soft, hard, goat, mild – all are helpful. There is no shortage of options and the biggest problem you are likely to face is narrowing it down.
Sarah’s tips for anyone putting together a cheese platter:
- If serving cheese before dinner, go for 50-80g per person and 30-50g if after.
- The general rule is buy what you want, but you can’t go wrong with the trinity of soft (brie, camembert, tallegio), hard (maasdam, vintage gouda) and blue (aged Windsor, Blue d’Auberge, gorgonzola) or if you have blue haters, a goat or sheep milk variety.
- While the cheese doesn't always have to stand alone, keep accompaniments simple. Chutneys and fruit pastes are good choices, bread is fine at lunchtime but not after dinner when you should go for plain or oat crackers - nothing salted or flavoured - it’s the cheeses’ time to shine;
- There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to pairing, you will learn most by getting it wrong so trial and error is good - any excuse to eat more cheese - but there are basic guidelines, such as matching like with like.
- If you have any guests who are ready to take their cheese experience to the next level, go for a washed rind cheese (don’t be put off by the smell)
- Finally and most importantly, taste before you buy.
And no, they never get sick of cheese. They eat it daily, there is a lot of quality control necessary, one of the many perks of the job.
Open: Tuesday - Friday 9am - 5pm. Saturday 10am - 4pm.
Address: Arts Centre Registry, 301 Montreal Street, Christchurch.