Where do you go for the perfect cheese toastie?
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
“Cheese toasties are a magnificent thing,” says Rose Grimond, owner of Nettlebed Creamery near Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. “Underestimate them at your peril.” It was only recently that Grimond came to appreciate the extent of their capabilities herself. Faced with a problem of wastage at Nettlebed – an award-winning farmhouse producer of artisan cheese, milk, kefir and ice cream – Grimond had the idea of using their offcuts of cheese between slices of bread and selling them as toasties.
A shipping container was installed in one of the barns and christened “The Cheese Shed”, while head cheesemaker Patrick Heathcoat-Amory got to work on his prehistoric Rima maker, perfecting the Nettlebed formula. Using a combination of their sliced washed-rind highmore and grated hay-aged witheridge, he played around with ratios until the toastie exhibited “the right amount of ooze and umami”, says Grimond. “One of the nice things about cheese, which you often see at tastings, is when everyone stops and instinctively goes for one variety. All of your body says ‘this is good’. The same happens when you bite into the perfect toastie.”
The day before The Cheese Shed opened in March 2021, Grimond posted about it on social media, not expecting much. “Maybe that shows my naivety,” she says. “We opened at nine on a Friday morning. By 12.30pm we had sold out.” The following day, after Grimond had driven to every supermarket within an eight-mile radius to buy up white sliced bread, they sold out again. “And to ram home exactly how much people love a toastie, Tom Hanks, who happened to be filming nearby, popped along for one too.”
While the initial success probably had something to do with opening during a lockdown, the demand for cheese toasties has never abated. “We’ve been bowled over,” says Grimond. “The Creamery took six years to reach a certain size in terms of turnover and employees. The Cheese Shed took six weeks to match it.” Among a fanbase that includes “pre-schoolers and octogenarians alike”, the Cheese Shed also has a celebrity following with endorsements from the likes of Jeremy Irons, Mary Berry and Helena Bonham Carter (who is admittedly Grimond’s cousin, but still).
Cheese toasties are a comfort food that stirs longings and satisfies cravings in a way that, dare I say, even pizza cannot match. Delicious, for sure. But is the appeal also nostalgic? That’s the view of Bill Oglethorpe of Kappacasein Dairy, whose toasties are a fixture at London’s Borough Market. Made using mixed grated cheese (primarily Montgomery’s cheddar with comté, ogleshield, London raclette and Bermondsey Hard Pressed) with red onion, white onion, spring onions and leeks in Poîlane sourdough, they’re often touted as the best in town.
Though there are plenty of rivals for that title. The elegant ham and cheese toastie at Cora Pearl, for instance, is filled with cheese ganache and jellied ham hock and served with a quenelle of pickle. The seasonal white truffle cheese toastie at 45 Jermyn St starts with raclette on sliced white bread, which is brushed with English butter (“better than French”) inside and out. As for the toastie at The Wigmore, it brings together a trinity of cheeses (Montgomery, ogleshield, raclette), lots of mustard, cornichons and red onion in caramelised onion sourdough and is gigantic. Billed as “XXL”, the torpedo-shaped colossus comes with the hefty iron press used to cook it on top. It’s conceived as a sharing dish, but I’m not surprised to hear customers are ordering it for one with a side salad and farmhouse ale. I mean, who wouldn’t relish that challenge?
Elsewhere, why not try the signature Mac N Cheese at the Cheesy Toast Shack in St Andrews, where the specials feature local produce such as Arbroath smoked haddock and lobster? There’s also the “Macbeth” haggis cheese (haggis, cheddar, caramelised onion, rocket and mustard on granary bread) at Deeney’s in Leyton, which now claims a branch in Tokyo. As haggis can’t be imported, the team in Japan make their own, which apparently goes down a storm.
The good thing about toasties, though, is they don’t need to be fancy to inspire devotion. The toasted sandwiches at Long Valley Bar in Cork may not look like much. But paired with a pint of Beamish, you can see why they’ve become part of city lore. “A spiritual experience” is how one writer describes them. That may sound like hyperbole. But never underestimate a toastie.