Goat cheese with balsamic shallots

Grilled goats' cheese with balsamic shallotsYou are smarter than I am, and therefore you’ll glance at this picture and think, “Silly woman. She should have bought a cheese with a rind.” You’d be absolutely right, and if you’re making this and want your cheese to hold a nice shape when grilled you’ll need something with a rind. My excuse: my cheese was in a little cardboard box and I made assumptions about the presence of a rind that wasn’t there.

I get through a lot of shallots, but I do make an effort to buy the longer kind (sometimes sold as “banana” shallots, sometimes as “echalion”), which grow here in East Anglia from September to May. They’re larger than the round variety you’ll be buying for the rest of the year, and easier to handle – the flavour is very similar. If you’re using round shallots here, be aware that they might need five minutes or so less cooking time.

Don’t use the wallet-assaultingly expensive, 20-year-old balsamic in a teensy-weensy vial that you bought on your romantic trip to Modena. That one’s for drizzling on Parmesan and perhaps dribbling on some very good bread with a little olive oil that’s been standing on some smashed garlic for an hour or so. For this recipe, you just need the supermarket stuff that comes in large bottles.

I’ve suggested two nut oils to use to dress the salad. I love a light nut oil to finish this sort of dish – buy a small bottle and keep it in the fridge, though, because nut oils go rancid quickly if kept in a cupboard. Experiment! You can buy all kinds of interesting nut oils, like macadamia, pistachio and pine nut, in delicatessens, and this salad is a good place to try them out.

To serve four as a light lunch or starter (all depending on how much crusty bread you intend to go through), you’ll need:

450g banana shallots, peeled and quartered
½ teaspoon salt
25g soft dark brown sugar
75ml balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
200g goats’ cheeses, in a log with a rind
2 tablespoons hazelnut or walnut oil
Salad leaves to serve

Preheat the oven to 220°C (430°F).

When you have peeled and quartered the shallots, use a fork to whisk the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and sugar together in a large bowl. Drop the shallots in and turn them carefully to coat them in the mixture. The shallots shouldn’t fall apart completely, but don’t worry if a few of them shed chunks.

Pour the whole contents of the bowl into a metal baking tray, spreading everything out so the dressed shallots are in one even layer. Roast for 15 minutes, turn, roast for another 15 minutes until dark brown and caramelised, and set aside to cool.

When you are ready to serve the salad, cut the cheese into four discs and grill them on one side until gold and bubbling. Lay out a large handful of salad leaves on each plate, put a cheese in the centre and scatter a quarter of the shallot pieces around the cheese. Grate a generous amount of pepper over the whole salad and drizzle with your choice of nut oil before serving.

Balsamic vinegar

Elizabeth David describes a Piedmont Pepper which I make quite frequently for a starter. It’s very easy – you halve a red pepper (sometimes you may find that cutting the pepper along the ribs which divide it naturally and dividing it into three or four instead works better for you, especially if you have a lot of people to feed), and place in it a slice of raw tomato, a slice of raw garlic, a piece of preserved anchovy as small as your little fingernail, a drizzle of olive oil and a little knob of butter. The whole lot is then baked in a medium oven until the peppers are soft and sweet (about 45 minutes).

My Mum suggests augmenting this recipe with a disk of goats’ cheese cut from one of those logs you can buy in the supermarket, some toasted pine nuts and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, which is what you can see in the picture. Lovely stuff – the salty, sharp cheese contrasts with the sweet peppers, and the texture of the pine nuts works beautifully with these soft ingredients.

For once, I didn’t have to reduce the balsamic vinegar to get the consistency I needed for drizzling in a sweet, treacly swirl. My brother has recently spent six months living in Modena, and when our parents last visited him, they spent an awful lot of money on a minuscule bottle of balsamic vinegar which, aged in a barrel for 40 years, was considerably older than I am. It’s amazing stuff.

Balsamic vinegar this old is a rare and precious thing. A true balsamic vinegar’s only ingredients are grapes – some cheaper varieties will add caramel for flavour, colour and texture, but a genuine bottle will only contain Trebbiano and Spergola grapes. The grapes are simmered over an open fire in copper cauldrons until they lose more than half their water content, and the resulting syrupy grape must is placed in wooden barrels with a starter of already-aged balsamic vinegar, which helps fermentation.

The barrels are subject to strict controls; only oak, cherry, chestnut, mulberry, acacia, ash and juniper woods are approved for the aging process. The vinegar takes on deep flavour from the wood it’s stored in. A young balsamic vinegar is aged for three to five years – the oldest can be up to 150 years old.

There is an ancient tradition of producing balsamic vinegar in Modena; the earliest reference to the vinegar was made in 1046AD, when a barrel was given as a precious gift to the King, later Emperor Enrico II of Franconia. Its gastronomic application hasn’t always been appreciated – balsamic vinegar pops up in historical texts as a panacea to be smeared on festering body-parts or drunk for sore throats and labour pains, and as an antiseptic.

If you are lucky enough to come into possession of a good bottle of old balsamic vinegar, try drizzling a tiny amount on some thin slices of parmesan cheese I’ve added some truffle-infused olive oil here too) and eating with a glass of something red and robust. Dip a strawberry into a drop. Lean back, smile, and consider how blessed Emperor Enrico was, with his whole barrel of the stuff.