A room at the Stilton
We've all had trouble deciding where to go on holiday. Now Will Dunn thinks he's found the solution: visiting countries in his dreams, aided by a dose of the local cheese before bedtime. That sounds totally plausible, Will. Over to you... Illustrations by Tim McDonagh
Saying that my girlfriend Christina and I are a bit disorganised is like saying Pavarotti enjoyed his carbs. We’re about as well organised as a teenager’s sock drawer, and it gets worse when we plan a holiday. We can never decide where to go until it’s too late to plan anything properly, so we always end up doing everything in a mad rush.
However, this year in preparation for our low- cost Easter getaway I have a cunning plan: to visit everywhere on our “maybe” list in advance. Now while I don’t have the money or the spare time to go to these places for real, I do have some cheese. Let me explain: cheese is magic. Eaten just before bedtime, it brings on vivid dreams.
So my thinking went that if I really want to get a taste of a place before I go there, all I have to do is eat some cheese from the region and go straight to bed, and the cheese will magically transport me to my chosen destination through the medium of cheese dreams. Christina is bound to be impressed.
“I’m not impressed,” says Christina, as I show her the selection of cheeses from around Europe that I’ve bought at the farmer’s market. “For one thing, you’ve spent half our holiday money on cheese.”
Maybe, but once I’ve had my first cheese dream, I’m certain she will understand. The place I want to check out first is Paris, so I start with Camembert, one of the most powerful dream-inducing cheeses, originally from nearby Normandy. The great surrealist artist Salvador Dalí was inspired to paint the melting clocks in his masterpiece The Persistence of Memory when he ate some soft Camembert and took an afternoon nap, and I intend to follow in his footsteps. And I almost do: that night, after eating more Camembert than is strictly necessary, I dream of the French capital – the endless boulevards of shops, cafés and bars, the plinking of jazz guitars, the whiff of Gitanes and the clinking of wine glasses.
When I wake up, I can’t believe it – my efforts at cheese tourism have actually worked!
OK, so perhaps the fact that I’d fallen asleep reading Émile Zola’s novel about the city’s food markets, The Belly of Paris, had something to do with it. But the Camembert was definitely involved. Now I can’t wait to try again.
The following night, Milan is on the menu. Or rather Milan’s native cheese, Gorgonzola. A soft, buttery, white cheese veined with blue mould, Gorgonzola has been made in the area around Milan for over 1,000 years. Melted into risotto or flaked onto pizza, it is the rich taste of a land steeped in history; with ancient castles perched on hilltops, and vineyards that were planted by the ancient Romans. Would a night-time dose of this fabulous cheese transport me to the rolling hills of Lombardy, where Lake Garda and Lake Como nestle in the shadow of the Alps?
Well, not quite. But I do dream about Milan – for a moment I’m among the crowds at La Scala, perhaps the world’s finest opera house, and then in the front row at one of the fashion shows that give Milan its reputation as one of the most stylish cities in Europe. Then, for some reason, I am on the catwalk, everyone is looking at me, and – classic anxiety dream stuff – I’ve forgotten to wear anything on my lower half.
After two nights ‘out on the cheese’, I’m starting to crave a dairy-free sleep, but evening three has a real treat in store: oscypek, a salty smoked cheese from Poland. These spindle- shaped cheeses are sold at markets around Poland, and the stalls always have a barbecue going so that you can try a few slices, as it’s supposed to be eaten grilled and served with a dollop of sweet cranberry sauce. I first went to an oscypek stall one snowy night in Krakow, and I’ve always wanted to give Christina a taste of that incredible city. She loves our dinner of smoky barbecued cheese, but reports no visions at all. I, on the other hand, have a dream about mountains. Are the dramatic, snow-covered peaks a sign that the cheese had failed? A quick flick through the World Encyclopedia of Cheese reveals the truth: oscypek is made in the High Tatras, the highest peaks of central Europe’s Carpathian mountain range, not far from Krakow. Spooky. And well worth a visit for a walking tour or two.
Not every cheese on my list is as successful, however. I’ve always wanted to go to the island of Kos, where you can wander among the ruins of the ancient Greek civilisation before getting ruined yourself in the island’s famously brilliant bars and clubs. Would a bowl of black olives and feta, Greece’s favourite cheese, spirit me away to dreams of endless sunshine, whitewashed buildings and thumping nightlife? Sadly, no. I don’t have a single dream – not that I can remember, anyway. Perhaps it’s my cheese-addled brain demanding a normal night’s rest, but the ancient harbour remains out of reach.
The following evening, I resolve to try one last time to let cheese dictate where we are going on holiday. The south of France, and especially the region around Montpellier, was always a strong contender on our list. The weather, the people and the food are all quite special in their own inimitably French way.
And the area just so happens to produce some stunning cheese. Legend has it that, over 1,000 years ago, a young shepherd was eating his lunch of bread and cheese when a beautiful girl walked past. Being more interested in girls than cheese, the young man stashed his lunch in a nearby cave and went off to chat her up. He came back several months later – it obviously went well with the girl – to find that the mould on the walls of the cave had matured his lunch from a simple white cheese into rich, complex Roquefort. You can visit these caves today in the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, and see the cheese being matured in just the same way as that first shepherd’s lunch. I eat a hearty wedge of the creamy, salty, blue-veined cheese after dinner, and then a bit more for luck. And then, just to be sure, I eat the whole of the remaining block.
That night, I realise I’ve overdone it on the cheese. It starts well. I am strolling through the grand old city of Montpellier, which shares the same enviable climate as the bustling hub of Marseille and the chic environs of Nice. This being a dream, however, the streets are quickly overrun with sheep. A lot of sheep. They chase me through the city’s broad avenues and out to the nearby beach, where they stand bleating: “Get up! Get up, Will, you’ll be late for work!”
As I haul myself out of bed, Christina comes in with a cup of coffee. “Come on, you’ll be late for work,” she says. “Oh, and I’ve booked our flights for the Easter break.”
“What? But I thought... the cheese... where are we going?”
“Last night while you were sleeping off all that Roquefort I went out for tapas, and had some great Manchego cheese. And I thought, let’s go to Spain.”
“So you had a cheese-dream too!” “Nope. I just went online and found flights to Madrid. But when we’re there, you can buy all the Manchego you like.”
I pat my belly, which is somewhat bloated after a week of nightly cheese consumption.
“Maybe I’ll lay off the cheese for a while,” I say, with a grin.
Paris (Beauvais) airport is 80km from the centre. Bus to the centre: one hour; €13. Ryanair flies to Paris (Beauvais) from 41 destinations.
Milan (Bergamo) airport is 45km from central Milan. Bus to the centre: one hour; €6.70. Ryanair flies to Milan (Bergamo) from 69 destinations.
Krakow airport is 10km from the city. Train to the centre: 15 minutes; PLN3.80 (€1). Or bus: 35 minutes; PLN2.50 (€0.60). Ryanair flies to Krakow from 21 destinations.
Kos airport is 27km from the island’s centre. Ryanair flies to Kos from eight destinations.
Montpellier airport is 7km outside the city centre. Bus to the centre: 15 minutes; €4.80. Ryanair flies to Montpellier from four destinations.
Madrid airport is 15km outside the centre. Metro to the centre: 40 minutes; €1.10. Ryanair flies to Madrid from 43 destinations.
Hertz (www.hertz.com) is Ryanair’s car rental partner, with special rates for passengers when you book your flight.