There’s cheddar… and then there’s Cheddar. The first is a factory commodity, good for melting on toast and putting in sandwiches with pickle. The second comes from a handful of producers who have kept alive its farmhouse origins to make a British classic that’s now celebrated again. Cheddar was originally made by communities in the Westcountry who pooled their milk to make cheeses that were considered the best in England, besides being the biggest. One 18th-century cheese mould was said to be “big enough to hold a girl of 13”, and Queen Victoria was given a celebratory wedding Cheddar that was nearly 9ft wide.
There are easier ways to make a living than producing cheese. When traditional cheese-makers were restricted dur-ing the Second World War, not many went back to the back-breaking alchemy of turning the white liquid into salty gold. Most cheddar is now made in factories around the world, a long way from the cheese’s heartland among the damp, grassy valleys of Somerset and Cheddar Gorge, where they were once matured in caves. Yet some farms continue to make real Cheddar in the time-honoured way using unpasteurised milk. These “trads” were uncherished by the supermarkets. In the Eighties, Montgomery’s, now the most renowned farmhouse Cheddar, was known by dealers simply as “Cheddar 447” and its future looked uncertain.
However, Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy visited the old-fashioned farmhouse cheese-makers and told them they had something truly special. Making cheese by hand using raw milk is much more difficult than using machines to deliver a pasteurised, standardised product. The flavours that come out of such individual, crafted cheese are unique, developing more and more as it matures. Sold at 18 months, a vintage Cheddar can taste extraordinary. Hodgson and other good cheesemongers encouraged the farmers to see themselves as continuing a long and important tradition.
SURVIVAL AND REVIVAL
I visited three farms in Somerset – Montgomery’s, Keen’s and Westcombe – all of which make Cheddar in its purest form: cloth-bound and handmade using raw milk.
Jamie Montgomery tells me the story of his cheese’s survival and revival as we sit in his scruffy farmhouse office in North Cadbury. On one wall is a map of fields, including an ancient hill fort where some of the cows graze. There is mud on his boots and as he talks I can hear both the farmer and the guardian of one of the best cheeses in the world.
The Montgomerys celebrate the farm’s centenary this year as the family bought it in 1911. Jamie recalls how the Eighties were a worrying time until Hodgson and others showed an interest; it was then that the makers became “Montgomery’s” rather than a number. The biggest boost to the farm’s trade came not from the food press but from publicity in the national press, garnered from a cheese heist.
Montgomery’s won “best Cheddar” and “best traditional cheese” in the British Cheese Awards in 1996 and 1997, and in 1998 – in the week before the prize-giving – six tonnes of it was stolen. “We’d done the double and the story went out, ‘What if a competitor was trying to stop us winning again?’ It went mad,” Jamie recalls. With newspaper headlines hitting every high street, the thieves knew their famous haul was worth £35,000 but couldn’t get rid of it. “The rumour was that it got grated. Someone got some good cooking cheese,” says Jamie. The value for name recognition was estimated by a PR company to be worth around £2 million. Farmhouse Cheddar was back on the map.
The best Montgomery’s is both heaven and earth, its flavours continuing to change in your mouth, bringing a mellow sweetness and the freshness of Somerset air. The smell of the cheese store has a cold spiciness, like stones after rain, and there can be a touch of that in the cheese as well.
Down the A303, along a Somerset valley alongside Wincanton Racecourse, Keen’s is very much a family business. It’s now in its fifth generation, run by two brothers, George and Stephen, and their sons, Nick and James. George meets me outside a spick-and-span 16th-century farmhouse, fronted by a mossy wall of upright flagstones. He shows me around with quiet pride in his voice. “We are growing a product – it’s like beer or bread,” he says. “You have to be sympathetic to the process.” He explains that cheese-making is a bit like pastry-making. The proteins in the milk become a cohesive material that can be stretched and cut. Time and temperature are the two variables, with the cheese-makers using their skill to work out how to handle each day’s different milk and its brew of healthy bacteria to give each cheese its character and the right acidity. I had some Keen’s Cheddar from the big fridge in the yard. The taste was distinct from Montgomery’s, more assertive and with bags of good and complex flavours.
A short drive north is the third artisanal Somerset Cheddar-maker, Westcombe’s in the Batcombe Valley. The farm epitomises the real Cheddar revival. It went from traditional cheese to making a commodity product using milk from 30 farms. Then in the Nineties, with milk prices going up and profits from standard cheese falling, the farmer, Richard Calver, turned back to the “trads”. The dairy is now run by his son Tom, who left London to be on the farm. Tom is developing a distinctive cheese, softer in texture than the other two, with its own subtly different flavours.
“It’s mainly about the milk,” he explains, summing up the heart of the matter in a sentence. April and May are Tom’s favourite months for his cheeses. High summer cheeses can be delicious but more variable, since the cows have more unstable butterfat in their milk. Winter cheeses are more consistent but some say they reach fewer heights than those from the milk of the first flush of spring grass.
Tom grabs a pitchfork to help mix salt into the broken up curds. I watch him, surrounded by the sweet scent of curds, and see just what a hard and worthwhile job it is creating a truly handmade product, a mixture of graft and judgment. It is inspiring to witness his energy and commitment to the task of making a top Cheddar.
TRADITION IS OUR FUTURE
These three Somerset cheese-makers have formed a Slow Food Presidium, a seal of quality that is internationally recognised and has set criteria: the cheese must be handmade in Somerset using raw milk from the farm’s own cows, animal rather than vegetarian rennet, and aged for
an absolute minimum of 11 months. “It’s given us the confidence not to change things,” says George Keen. “What was old-fashioned and traditional is the basis of our future.”
The cheesemongers also play an important part. They pick out the cheeses they like the most, some visiting the farms to do so. They then mature them for perhaps as long as two years, allowing them to reach their best flavour. A good cheesemonger can explain every cheese’s character, be it an Isle of Mull Cheddar with a touch of briny wind in the mix, or Hafod, an or-ganic Welsh Cheddar, or Quicke’s, another delicious “trad” from Devon.
One of the best places to find cheese is Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, with branches in Covent Garden
and Borough Market, where there are queues around the block for its famous melted cheese sandwich made with Montgomery’s. Or venture to Rippon Cheese Store in Pimlico, which sells a number of Cheddars, including those matured in wax rather than cloth and slightly wetter in texture.
Another superb cheesemonger in Cheddar’s Westcountry heartland is Country Cheeses, with branches in Tavistock, Topsham and Totnes. Here, Elise and Gary Jungheim have magnificent counters stacked full of cheese, more than 90% of it from the region. At any one time they will have 11 or 12 Cheddars and customers come in asking for them by name rather than the generic cheese. Gary Jungheim describes another Cheddar he likes called Six Spires: “Its got a very, smooth paste and amazing flavours like pastures – hay, grass, it’s all there and delightful,” he says.
Over his 20 years in the cheese business, Gary Jungheim is greatly encouraged to see how proper Cheddar is progressively recovering its pride of place on the cheese board. “With the traditionals, its like going back to the future,” he says. “They are going back in time, which is making them more desirable and relevant. Life constantly throws up this idea that things should be reinvented all the time, but why? Perhaps we need to reinvent the appreciation of the cheese rather than the cheese itself.”
More Food in The Field