Head down to Norwich Market on any weekday lunchtime, and you will find the heart of the city. Stalls are steaming with hot food, and all sorts of people have migrated here in their free hour to pick up something to have now, or take home for later.
Amongst it all, on row C, you'll find The Cheeseman. A veteran stall on Norwich Market, current owner Paula Turner worked for the previous cheese man - Alan - before buying the stall 18 years ago. She has been at the helm ever since, and with the help of Gemma, runs the stall selling over 100 varieties of cheese. Visiting on a cold Thursday morning (the stall opens at 8am for the early risers/commuting/organised amongst you), the counter had just opened, and in a stark contrast to the sleepy grey cobbles on Gentleman's Walk, The Cheeseman's fridge was a glowing beacon, illuminating cheese of all shapes and sizes.
Now - as someone who likes breakfast, even I was a little concerned about how enthused I could be about cheese so early in the morning. My worries, however, were unfounded for two reasons:
1. The selection of cheese is wonderful. There are so many varieties - including ones you've never even heard of - all different heights, colours and textures. It's very pleasing to look at, and even more pleasing when you get a really gentle smell of something smoked and delicious as you're stood looking into the counter.
2. Paula's love for what she does is completely infectious. By her own admission she just loves cheese, and is - as I discovered - a wealth of information on her products: where they came from, which ones to buy, and how best to eat them.
The stall stocks cheeses from all over, but since Paula came to own the stall she's put a real emphasis on introducing more Norfolk varieties, as well as more made from goats' and sheep's milk. Asking about her favourite cheese, two varieties she named were blue cheeses produced locally: Binham Blue and Deopham Blewe. Binham Blue is apparently one of the most popular cheeses on the stall, and Deopham Blewe is a creamy blue cheese made with sheep's milk. What Paula did say is that her favourite variety changes depending on the seasons, and so the cold weather brings to mind comfort foods like creamy blue cheese melted over mushrooms, or simply made into a smooth blue cheese sauce.
Gemma, who works on the stall too, was working in a bakery when she was "headhunted" by Paula. After "stalking her for weeks", Paula was eventually joined by Gemma 2 years ago, and the two have worked together ever since. Gemma bakes the cakes; Paula doesn't.
Controversially, Gemma's favourite cheese was different to Paula's; she opted for the also-Norfolk-made Walsingham - a crumbly cheese, with a cheddar like flavour.
There are plenty of other Norfolk cheeses to choose from on the stall, too. Wensum White is a soft goats' cheese made in Honingham - just a few miles from Norwich - which is lovely toasted and served with balsamic vinegar and a rocket salad. Norfolk Dapple is a harder smoked cheese made in North Norfolk, and Wissington is a Ewe's milk cheese, so named after the sugar factory by the river that can be seen from the sheep field.
Also in The Cheeseman's repertoire are cheeses from further afield, as well as a selection of chutneys, jams, crackers and olives. You'll find usual suspects Parmesan, halloumi and mozzarella, as well as a horseradish and parsley cheese from Wales, a Gouda with Cumin and a Wensleydale with gingerbread. According to Paula the horseradish cheese is particularly good melted over a steak (and probably with a glass of wine at the side...).
The selection of chutney is also vast - choose from a fruity 'snapdragon', earthy 'hottish beets', or simply everyone's favourite, the versatile red onion marmalade. The Cheeseman stock a range of crackers and oatcakes, but if you're after something you can't see there then just ask them and Paula and Gemma will be able to point you in the right direction - probably somewhere else on the market!
The large selection of cheese on offer here makes the construction of pre-packed hampers tricky. "People always have their favourite cheeses" says Paula. Instead, you can get on facebook and pre-order your cheese through The Cheeseman's facebook page, and send across your preferred cheese, weight, and pick up date. This function came in particularly handy in December, when - even as the shutters came down on Christmas eve - there was a queue stretching past the stall.
So if you're looking for cheese, I guarantee you won't find a friendlier place to get it from. I had so much fun at my hour at The Cheeseman, and as it happens I came back 3 hours later to buy a Norfolk Dapple, Binham Blue and the Horseradish and Parsley variety (and can now personally testify to the quality of all three). And don't just take my word for it either - The Cheeseman was recently featured in The Times, and named as one of the UK's 'Top 15 Cheese Shops'. "We didn't even know (the journalist) was here" says Paula - "which is good in a way - we were just doing what we do every day".
The stall is easy to find - just remember row 'C' for 'cheese'. Even if you're not sure what you're after, ask the girls' advice, and let them expand your cheese horizons!
COMING TO VISIT?
Greater Anglia has Advance fares from £10 one way between London Liverpool Street and Norwich. Trains run every 30 minutes. Greater Anglia also serves Colchester, Ipswich and Diss on the Norwich line. Direct trains also run from Cambridge.
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