What makes handmade cheddar cheese better?

I love this feature from the BBC online about Somerset artisan Cheddar. The text below is a wonderful explanation, and once you read it, you understand where the word cheddar came from (hint: it’s part of the cheese making process). The video (click and then page down to the window that looks like Tom Calver, son of the Somerset cheese maker) makes me yearn to smell the warm cows’ milk…yum! And the end product featured shows the cloth-bound “truckle” (or wheel), covered in gray mold. That’s the only way to get that luscious flavor!

Why handmade cheddar is the better cheddar, by Brendan Lancaster

Cheddar hardly feels like an endangered species. But Slow Food UK think so, and they’ve put handmade cheddar into their Ark of Taste, a project that aims to protect traditional food from being forgotten. To find out what makes handmade cheddar so special I visited Westcombe Dairy, which along with Montgomery and Keen, is one of the three members of Slow Food UK’s Presidium for Somerset Artisan Cheddar.

As I’m shown around by Tom Calver he explains the process of making cheddar by hand.  I soon come to understand that apart from the knowledge and skill of the cheesemakers, it’s the quality of the milk that’s key.

Westcombe grow the grass that feeds the cows that give the milk that makes the cheese, and hence they can monitor the quality of their cheddar all the way from start to finish.

Tom tasting cheese in the cheddar store
Tom tasting cheese in the cheddar store

One advantage of using their own fresh, locally produced milk is that it arrives at the dairy each morning in the best condition. Milk contains delicate fat globules that are damaged by travelling too long in tankers, or being pumped around in storage. More careful milk handling gives a mellower, smoother taste. The milk is drained (by gravity, not pump) from the tanker into the big metal vat in the dairy room, where it’s used immediately without being pasteurised – another difference to large scale cheddar production.

The transformation from milk to cheese starts when traditional varieties of bacteria are added. Next animal rennet goes in, which contains enzymes that go to work on the milk proteins. By this stage the vat is being heated and stirred by mechanical arms, mixing and cutting the solid curds that separate out from the vast bulk of liquid whey. Acidity and temperature are carefully monitored, and after a couple of hours the curds are moved into a new vat where they will be turned into cheddar. (The liquid whey is kept for other uses, like making ricotta). I taste a piece of curd. It’s small and knobbly, but smooth, like chewing a pencil rubber. I quite like it.

Curds and whey

Curds and whey 

These tiny lumps of curd are then put through a process of called cheddaring. This involves several hours of skilled blocking, cutting, turning and stacking, all done by hand, allowing the cheese makers to adjust to the particular condition of the milk each day. The cheddaring sticks the curd lumps together into bricks, which eventually flatten into what look like melted hot water bottles.

Curds after cheddaring

Curds after cheddaring

The curds now have layered protein structures, similar in texture to chicken breast, and these give the cheddar its distinctive quality. These beautiful rubbery mats are shredded, then salted. Now we have short ragged lengths of squeaky cheese, similar to halloumi, but very mild.

The shredded curds are pressed into cylindrical moulds to create the rounded forms of whole cheddars, about 13 inches in diameter and 11 inches tall. Then they’re wrapped in muslin, covered with lard and transferred to the store room, where they stay for at least eleven months to mature. Occasionally the skin of the cheddar will crack and create blue veins of mould inside the cheese. Although technically considered rejects they are in fact highly sought after by customers. Even more rare are black-veined cheddars, and I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for one of those.

So far then I’ve only seen two machines used – the one to stir the vat and the one to shred the hot water bottles. If they could have a third machine I expect it would be to turn the cheeses on the shelves in the store room. Each cheddar needs to be flipped once a week, and that’s 72 hours work per week.

whole cheddars maturing in the storeroom.

In the store Tom brings out the cheese iron (or cheese corer) to do some tasting. We try one made last May, the best time of year when the new grass is at its fresh, juicy prime. This gives the cheese a distinctive taste with a longer finish. I’m still tasting it ten minutes later when we’re walking back into the dairy. Once again I’m aware that this level of attention to detail is only possible for a dairy that controls its own milk production.

Although, when I ask Tom how he controls the flavour his response surprises me. He laughs, and  says the interesting thing about cheese making is that he has no control over flavour whatsoever. I  probably looked confused, so he explains that all he can do is create the best conditions for flavour to happen. The character and flavour come from the grass, the environment, and the particular bacteria in the milk. The skill in cheese making is allowing the really beautiful flavours in the milk to develop in the cheese.

The acidic, tangy smell of the storeroom soaks into my jacket, and lasts a whole day after my brief visit,  but I could grow to love it. It’s not unpleasant, after all. Quite sophisticated maybe, if a little organic. Or ‘mouldy’ as they called it when I got home.

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