Melissa Blease meets food hero, Frenchman Stephane Gouzien who takes an unpartisan view when it comes to British and French cheese at his tasty stall, Nibbles in Bath Guildhall Market
For those of us who like to shop the old fashioned way, the Guildhall Market is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of delights. Baubles, beads and bows; pet food, mop buckets and second hand books; feather boas, handbags and humbugs. The oldest trading spot in the Heritage City offers the kind of “I didn’t know how much I needed one of those until I found it here” experiences that online, supermarket or even high street shopping can’t provide.
But despite the acquisition opportunities that line the route to stall 53, it’s worth leaving yourself plenty of browsing time in a corner of the market where all your cheese dreams can be turned into reality.
There’s been a market on the Guildhall site since around 1284. But while Nibbles Cheese may not have been an original trader all those centuries ago, the small but beautifully stocked stall claims the title of being the oldest cheesemonger in Bath, established more than 40 years ago.
The owner is Brittany-born Stephane Gouzien who says: “Nibbles originally sold only cheese, but now we have free range locally sourced bacon, sausages and eggs too – all the ingredients for a complete English breakfast in one place.” So, you can buy your English breakfast ingredients from a Frenchman. But once you’ve stocked up for your fry-up, it would be crazy not to take a more, erm, continental route to menu planning while you’re here.
There’s a neat little array of terrines and rillettes on the shelf too, alongside cans of confit, cassoulet and choucroute garnie, and a lovely little selection of French bistro-style serving platters to add the final flourish to an at-home French feast – this is a Marché Bastille experience on High Street, Bath.
Stephane bought Nibbles Cheese 11 years ago following stints working at top Bath hotels including the Royal Crescent and the Bath Priory and prestigious Parisian establishments including Elysée Palace and the American Embassy.
“Nibbles used to supply a restaurant that I worked in, and when I heard that the owner was selling up to retire, I took the opportunity to take it over,” says Stephane. “I wanted the business to remain small and personal so that I can focus on giving my customers an individual service providing locally sourced products. Some of my customers have been shopping at Nibbles for decades. It’s wonderful to see three generations of Nibbles fans still coming to the shop.
“We live in an ever-changing world where everything seems to be moving towards convenience and ready-packaged food,” says Stephane. “But I cater for a very wide range of tastes and demand, while offering a personal touch. I stock produce from local farmers, many of whom I know personally. When a customer comes to the shop or contacts me over the phone or by email, they can talk to me directly, and I can share my love of cheese with them.”
This is the personal approach that Stephane maintains to keep his business thriving. Nibbles cheese stall doesn’t have a high street shopfront to draw passers-by in, nor the funds for big ad campaigns. But the grapevine reputation that Stephane enjoys would represent gold dust to even the biggest cartels. When I first moved to Bath as a fledgling food writer 16 years ago, it was Nibbles Cheese that I was recommended to visit time and again. Today, Stephane’s reputation stands firm.
But what of his personal favourites? “One of my favourite cheeses has to be Gould’s cheddar which has been made in East Pennard, Somerset by the same family for the last 50 years using milk only from their Friesian herd. Fred Gould runs the farm and his sister Jean is the cheesemaker. Their 18-month-old Cheddar is considered to be one of the best handmade Cheddars in the country, renowned for its distinctive flavour, strong but smooth with a hint of woodiness which comes with age.
“Some of my customers have been shopping at Nibbles for decades. It’s wonderful to see three generations of Nibbles fans still coming to the shop…”
“Another local favourite is Fosse Way Fleece sheep’s milk cheese, which has a smooth texture and nutty flavour. But, being a Frenchman, I’ve got to mention my love of a well-aged Comté of around 20 months old, with its semi-hard texture and full, nutty, slightly sweet flavour.”
I could happily tuck in to all Stephane’s recommendations. But what if I was planning a cheeseboard to end an elegant supper – where would I begin?
He says: “It’s generally a good idea to select one hard, one blue, one soft and one goat or sheep’s milk cheese – it’s important to include a goat or sheep’s milk cheese as many people are intolerant to dairy these days. Bring the cheese to room temperature before serving. Aim for around 75g of cheese per person after a meal and 125g of cheese per person if it’s served as a meal in itself. Quince jelly is one of the nicest accompaniments for a cheese board along with charcoal crackers, Bath Oliver biscuits or a crispy sourdough baguette. Fresh grapes or figs and walnuts can accompany the cheeseboard very well too.
“I also think it’s better to serve the cheese after the main course and before dessert, as the pleasure of continuing with something savoury makes sense to the tastebuds. Any leftover cheeses can always be used for sauces and toasties.” Leftover cheese? That’s unlikely to happen in my house.
Stephane says that the most popular cheeses now are unpasteurised Brie de Meaux, Cropwell Bishop blue Stilton and his beloved Gould’s Cheddar. So do certain cheeses, like many other foodstuffs, have fashionable moments in the spotlight? “As burgers are so popular right now, I’ve noticed an upturn in customers asking for recommendations on what to put with them. I sell a cheese called Afterburn made in Wincanton which is a Somerset Cheddar with garlic, chillies and peppers, which works particularly well when melting on the top of a burger.”
Stephane’s favourite places to eat out in Bath includes Bistro la Barrique (“I love the concept of French tapas enjoyed in the back garden with a glass of chilled provençale rosé”) and he refers to Menu Gordon Jones as “an amazing experience.” When nibbling at home, he recommends pairing well-aged cheddar with a pint of Honey’s Midford Cider, full-flavoured blue cheese with organic Somerset Mead made by Hugh Tripp near Glastonbury, and goat and sheep’s milk cheeses with dry white wine.
“But for the best complimentary accompaniment to a full cheese board, it’s got to be a good vintage port.”
Nibbles Cheese, 53 Guildhall Market, High Street, Bath BA2 4AW. Tel: 01225 460213; web: nibblescheese.co.uk