The Artisan Cheese Co.
The Best of British - Special Offer
We have brought together three of England's finest cheeses. Do not confuse these with products bearing similar names to be found in your local supermarket. These are traditional, hand made Artisan Cheese, cloth bound and left to mature for months to produce beautiful flavours. The ideal gift for any lover of cheese ... or perfect for your next dinner party ... or a simple bit of self indulgence.
We may be leaving Europe, but there is no need to panic (on the cheese front at least) because we Brit's now make some of the finest cheeses around. Try out this selection of three cheeses weighing in at around 1kg in total ...
KEEN'S MATURE CHEDDAR
It may be the most ubiquitous cheese in the world but even cheddar can boast its own terroir. What sets the real stuff apart from the rest?
The most famous, popular and widespread hard cheese in the world, cheddar is now produced as far afield as Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden and the USA.
Indeed, the latter of these countries churns out a staggering 1.5 million tonnes per year, much of which doesn’t even taste of cheese, never mind cheddar. Kraft Easy, for example, is so soft it is sold in pressurised spray cans and looks more like cheap, fluffy margarine than anything you’d serve on Welsh rarebit.
Meanwhile, such is the ubiquity of cheddar in Australia (accounting for 55 per cent of all cheese consumption in the country) that the name has been rendered entirely redundant, with cheesemakers simply using a number on their labels to denote strength.
Cheddar, it seems, is one of the last foods on earth you’d expect to find in a column celebrating foods that display a sense of place. But it is precisely because of cheddar’s global reputation—as well as its tendency for bastardisation—that it is so important we recognise the real deal.
Synonymous with the West Country
So what exactly is the ‘real deal’ when it comes to this famous cheese?
There is no doubt that cheddar is synonymous with the West Country, particularly Somerset, where there is evidence to suggest it was made as far back as the 15th century—some even suggest a similar cheese was brought to mainland Britain by the Romans via France (though this could well be a conspiracy by the Latins to claim cheddar as their own).
Specifically, production flourished around the Cheddar Gorge, where the cheese is believed to have been stored in the cool, damp caves that stretch beneath the Mendip Hills. Aged for longer than most cheeses, cheddar’s salty, ear-tingling bite garnered it a growing medieval fan base, prompting farmers in the surrounding counties of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall to try their hand at making it. Why did cheese thrive in these four counties? All four boast distinctive clay and loam soils, a temperate climate and relatively high rainfall—a recipe for lush, dairy-grazing grass.
It is due to these unique climatic conditions that West Country farmhouse cheddar now boasts Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. And any cheese baring this name must be made using milk from local herds reared and milked in Somerset, Dorset, Devon or Cornwall.
The cheese must also be made using traditional methods with no additional colourings, flavourings or preservatives, and be matured in the same place for a minimum of nine months, meaning the cheddar remains in the care of the farmer until it is released.
But perhaps most importantly, the PDO ensures that that the curd used to make the cheese undergoes a skilful—and time consuming—process known as ‘cheddaring’, which refers to the cutting, stacking and turning of the curds by hand to ensure all the whey is drained. Crucially, during this process the acidity in the curds rises, which ultimately helps the cheese to mature for longer.
If it wasn’t for a handful of West Country dairies insisting on making cheese in this time-honoured way, England’s real cheddars could well have been consigned to the doldrums long ago. But isn’t it now time we took things one step further by banning the name ‘cheddar’ on any products made outside the UK? After all, you wouldn’t drink champagne that was made in Sweden and served from a spray can.
Montgomery’s Cheddar, Somerset
This unique cheddar has been made at Manor Farm in North Cadbury since the early 20th century. When Jamie Montgomery took over from his mother in the mid-nineties, the market was dominated by cheese with a bright, acid, sharp flavour set in a soft creamy paste, which was well suited to supermarket cutting lines. Determined to do things differently, he set out to make a cheese with a drier texture and more complexity.
Keen’s Cheddar, Somerset
In operation since 1899, this tiny Somerset dairy has just one herd of 250 friesian cows and two employees, besides the family. The dairy’s clothbound cheese matures for over 12 months in the farm store, where it is hand-turned, cleaned and sampled to ensure it develops its characteristic subtle, nutty flavour.
Westcombe Cheddar, Somerset
Cheese has been made at Westcombe since the 1890s, using milk sourced from its own three herds, which graze on lush Somerset pastures within a mile of the dairy. Cheesemaker Bob Bramley produces about 100 rounds each week, aging them for up to 20 months.
MRS KIRKHAM'S LANCASHIRE
My grandmother, Ruth Townley, made cheese all her life. When she retired, she moved to Beesley Farm and passed her equipment and knowledge on to my mother, Mrs Kirkham, and that's how it all started. I took the reins about five years ago.
Making cheese is bloody hard work, but it isn't just a job, it's a way of life. Back in the day, my mum was making five or six cheeses a day on her own. Nowadays, Mrs Kirkham's has a team of five full-timers and one part-timer, and we make about 20 10kg cheeses a day. Big dairies churn out thousands of kilos a day, so in the cheese world, we're minute.
The quality of your cheese is dependent upon what you start off with: start with something great and you'll end up with something great. The welfare and comfort of our herd of 125 Holstein Friesian cows is crucial. Through the winter, they are kept inside in roomy cubicle housing with slatted floors, so the ground is always clean. They also have massive spongy cow mattresses to lie on, which they love! In the summer they're outside during the day and back inside at night, so we can monitor what they're eating. A diet of grass silage, whole-crop (wheat or barley) silage and a compound feed of oats, wheat, barley and maize, along with some treacle, is what gives us the best milk.
For cheese to be called real Lancashire cheese it has to be made in Lancashire, with Beacon Fell in view from the cheesemaking premises. Traditional Lancashire is made by hand, cloth-bound and finished with full-cream clarified butter, which gives it a moist, creamy finish. The cheese carries a lot of moisture and matures quickly, so it is usually sold at about 3-6 months, although Neal's Yard Dairy in London is currently experimenting with cheeses that are about 12 months old. It's early days yet, but they say it tastes amazing.
I feel we're really fortunate. Our artisanal approach means our cheese is sold in all the right places. And there's always someone interesting coming to visit us, or an interesting event to attend. We were recently invited on a US road trip with the Neal's Yard Diary team. And then we get to come back to this beautiful area at the bottom of Beacon Fell.
Clothbound Cheshire cheese, made from unpasteurised milk, used to be a glory of the British cheeseboard. Cheshire cheese is one of the big five 'territorial' cheeses of Britain, along with Cheddar, Lancashire, Caerphilly and Stilton. All of them, when made to timehonoured recipes, formed a part of a justifiably proud tradition.
Nowadays, however, few are made in the old way. Their quality has been diluted by market pressures to go for quick turnover and fast profits - they are in the shops before they have had a chance to mature. But it is not simply a question of maturity; most of these cheeses are dead to start with, because the milk they are made with has been pasteurised; that is, raised to a temperature of 85C and held there for one minute, to kill off unwanted bugs. But pasteurisation also kills off the friendly bacteria which mature the cheese, developing richness and flavour.
Real Cheshire cheese is rare almost to vanishing point. Only one producer in Britain still makes it in the traditional way, Appleby's of Hawkstone Farm in Shropshire. Poised on the brink of extinction, however, the real thing is suddenly being rediscovered and hailed by gourmets overseas. Neal's Yard Dairy, in London's Covent Garden, which exports it to America, says it is in tremendous demand. Appleby's Cheshire has been featured in the New York Times, and is also celebrated in the August issue of American Gourmet magazine.
'We used to be able to sell our weirder and wackier cheeses to America,' says Jason Hinds of Neal's Yard. 'Especially if they had names like Cashel Blue and Beenleigh Blue. But now they are turned on to the real thing, unpasteurised Lancashire, Caerphilly and Cheshire.'
An Appleby cheese is a meal in itself, rich, sharp and intensely savoury. It is also deliciously dry and crumbly. The difference between it and a supermarket Cheshire cheese is extreme: the latter is an immature, moist slab of pressed curds, sold when two or three weeks old. Disguised with chutney or pickled onions, it passes muster in a ploughman's lunch.
The Appleby family make their cheese at Weston-under-Redcastle in Shropshire, a few miles from the Cheshire border. The dairy parlour at Hawkstone Abbey Farm is hung with gleaming horse-brasses, the farmhouse floor is red-polished tile. The farm has enjoyed splendid bucolic isolation for most of this century.
Edward Appleby and his wife, Christine, run the family farm, with younger brother Robert and his wife, Elizabeth; his father, Lance, 85, first milked a cow on the farm 80 years ago, and his mother's family have made Cheshire cheese for a century. The farm embraces the most ancient and most modern technology. The milking carousel that is being installed is the most modern in the country (a vast concrete structure floated on water which can accommodate 32 cows at a time). One man at the computer console can milk the Applebys' dairy herd of 450 cows without help.
Surrounding the new complex are 16th-century, timber-framed brick buildings, now used as byres for the animals. Supermarket buyers who come to look at the cheeses can't cope with the collision of medieval and modern. 'They don't understand us,' says Edward Appleby, guiding me delicately through the puddles. 'They are obsessed with health and hygiene, rules and regulations. I tell them: a farm is not a hospital.'
Edward's mother, Lucy, taught the present cheesemaker, David Collins. They use traditional methods, though some things have changed since the 19th century. 'My mother used to test for the acidity of the cheese with a red-hot poker,' Lucy says. 'After the rennet is added to the milk, the curds should be ready in three and three-quarter hours. Any sooner and the cheese will be spoiled, too acid.' Her mother would dip the red-hot poker into the curds and pull it out with stringy bits clinging to the end, where the curds had cooked. 'The strings hadn't to be longer than one-and-a-half inches or the curd was too acid. If it was right, that's when we added the salt.'
David Collins uses an acid meter, but not much else has changed, although the Applebys have consigned most of their traditional wooden tools to museum status, replacing them with safe, unlovely, washable plastic ones.
The subject of hygiene is one which rouses Appleby senior's ire: 'Those puppets who are sent to tell us how to make cheese. What do they know?' In truth, the good cheesemaker doesn't need to be told about cleanliness. 'We live in terror of the phage,' David Collins says. Phage (pronounced farge) are yeast-like bacteria which lurk in the atmosphere. 'If a single phage gets into your milk it will multiply to a million within half an hour. It creates false acidity, and the cheese is ruined.'
The cheese curds are pressed in Victorian wrought-iron screw presses, stamped with their makers' names, evidence of a once-thriving regional industry; Burgess Brothers of Northwich, Clay and Son of Ellesmere, W H Smith (any relation?) of Whitchurch.
The Appleby cheeses are wrapped in calico, the traditional porous cheesecloth, now no longer used by the other Cheshire cheesemakers. The cheeses are then removed to storage sheds to mature. Here they gently perspire, and every two days their sweaty flanks are rubbed down with a cloth.
The cheeses are also regularly turned to prevent moisture settling at the bottom. The colour gradually changes from beige to a stony, spotty grey and then, at 10 weeks, they are ready to be sold, though they go on improving. They are best eaten between six and 12 months.
The Applebys make four cheeses in all. Traditional and smoked (by Ashdown smokery in Cumbria); a creamy Double Gloucester, and a melting, succulent Cheshire Blue they call Green Fade - they sell it at six months, though, again, it continues to improve.
'A cheese factor who comes to buy the Cheshire can look at it and say: 'That'll make a good Fade,' ' Edward Appleby says. 'Usually because it's developed cracks and the mould can get in. Once a cheese is going blue, we encourage it.'
The Double Gloucester has a higher cream content than the Cheshire, and is matured differently. In the store room they mimic the atmosphere of a dank, damp cave, spraying it with a jet of steam for an hour every day. 'You must never allow a Gloucester to dry out.'
Making cheese the traditional way has not been an easy option for Edward Appleby. Life became tough 20 years ago when supermarkets said there was no demand for clothbound cheeses. The other local Cheshire cheese producers chose to switch to a wax coating which conserves moisture. Moisture loss means weight loss, which in turn means profit loss.
The Applebys couldn't countenance the change and had an extremely hard time for seven years. Finally it dawned on Edward and Catherine that they'd have to get on their bikes and sell it themselves. 'We took it down to Paxton and Whitfield, the cheese shop in Jermyn Street in London, and said: 'Would you pay a little bit more for this?' ' Eventually they built up a niche in the market. The listeria scare six years ago came as a mule-kick - for a while no one would buy any cheese made with unpasteurised milk, despite the fact that listeria cases were caused by soft, not hard cheeses. But when the dust settled and others stopped using unpasteurised milk, they found themselves alone; market leaders in a market of one. The irony is that the listeria case in Switzerland which triggered the scare involved a cheese made with pasteurised milk.
Edward Appleby admits that he sometimes feels a bit nervous. 'But I wouldn't make the cheese with unpasteurised milk from any but my own cows. My bank manager doesn't think it's exciting to live dangerously. He thinks I'm playing Russian roulette.'
He arranges the four cheeses on a plate with pride. 'My wife and I used to buy a bit of Cheddar and a French soft cheese, but now we don't bother. We've got every taste here you could ever want.'