Words by David J Constable
Photos by Richard Haughton
Authentic cheddar, consumed with voracity around the world, is made by only a handful of artisan producers in the south-west of England, passionate cheese-makers who keep the ancient traditions alive, satisfying the cravings of ardent cheese connoisseurs.
It’s a beautiful spring morning in the south-west of England. The sun is shining (a rare thing to happen here), and the cows move across the plains in slow, purposeful movements. I can see a multitude of breeds, predominately robust and healthy British Friesian and Swedish Red-and-Whites. These thick-set, wide-hipped, large-breasted females appear perfectly in tune with the rhythm of the countryside; eating, sleeping and farting merrily.
Returning to the fields from their morning milking, the heavy-hanging udders wobble like a fat man’s chin, emptied of their milk they are now ready to swell-up all over again. These cows are the starting point for so many things we enjoy every day, from milk, butter and yoghurt to ice cream, eggnog (ewwww – blame the Americans) to, of course, cheese. So, let us move over to the cheese part of the story.
Yes, beautiful, wonderful, delicious, varietal cheese in all of its many forms. Cheese. Cheese. Cheese. It’s one of the great culinary evils, and I can’t stop eating it. Who eats a little piece of cheese, ey? Have a think, I’ll wait. No one, you see. I eat slice after slice after slice, before realising that I’ve eaten the whole fucking wheel. If I’m not cutting chunks and eating it directly, then I’m grating it on my morning eggs, melting it in soups, baking it in the oven. I dip my bread in it, dip my finger in it, I even stick my tongue in it, licking up all of the deliciously gooey, addictive drug that is the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, booty-shaking, earth-quaking, goddam fucking joy that is CHEESE. And it’s these beasts in the field, these fat, sleeping, farting, cows we have to thank for that.
This is the idea: I wanted to work in reverse. Beginning with a single wheel (or truckle) of cheese, I’d take the necessary steps backwards to discover its origin; back to the curd, the churning, the milk, the milking, the cows, the fields. I wanted to go behind-the-scenes of the cheese-making process. I wanted to meet the cows, the farmers, the cheese-makers, so I decided to travel to one of the oldest dairy and cheese-making regions in the UK, to Cheddar in Somerset. Here I’d visit the ancient caves where wheels of cheese are aged, and I’d visit those people responsible for making it, the people who keep the old traditions alive. If you’re going to explore and write about cheddar, there’s only one place to start.
A JOURNEY INTO THE HEART OF CHEDDAR
Richard (my travelling photographer companion) and I took a road trip to Somerset, a rural county of rolling hills, famous for the Glastonbury Festival, its cider and its cheese. Province is essential; in fact, it’s everything. Think balsamic vinegar of Modena, Chianti Classico of Siena and Florence, Sabina oil of Lazio. In terms of Italian cheeses, there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, all proudly bound by province and their DOP status, but the story of cheddar is different. Yes, there is a place and a cheese called Cheddar, but it is not about the province, but the process. Still, to learn the full story there is only one place to go, and so
There are many stories about how the now iconic cheese came into being. There’s the one about the milkmaid who left a bucket of milk accidentally in the caves, returning to find it had transformed into something more interesting. Another, that the Romans may have brought the recipe to Britain from the Cantal region of France. What is known about the area of Cheddar is that it has been at the centre of England’s dairy industry since at least the 12th Century, with the earliest references to cheese dating from 1170. With the absence of refrigeration or adequate transport, there was a problem with surplus milk. That problem was solved by turning milk into cheese. Cheese-makers discovered that if you pressed the fresh curd to squeeze out the moisture, the cheese lasted much longer. This method of cheese-making along with other refinements was perfected in the Cheddar area, and so the first authentic cheddar cheese was born.
Our first stop on this cheddar pilgrimage, was to the famous caves, a place of ancient myth and quite possibly the birthplace of cheddar itself. It was in these caves that the oldest complete human skeleton ever found in Britain was discovered; aged at around 9,000 years old. He was named, rather appropriately as “The Cheddar Man”.
The caves themselves are located in a vast gorge, a long, narrow valley between the mountains, which weaves its way like a flowing river through the Somerset countryside. The area is underlain by Black Rock slate and formed by meltwater floods during the cold periglacial periods. Of the many caves, the two most accessible and open to the public, are Gough’s Cave and the smaller Cox’s Cave – which are said to have inspired Helm’s Deep in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers (1954). Luckily for us, it’s after-hours, and the tourists and school buses have departed, leaving the caves open for discovery.
Along with our guide, John Spencer, Managing Director of The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company – a family-owned, independent small artisan producer, and the only company making cheddar in Cheddar – we enter through a wide passage, into the cold, dank, grotto-like cavity. Sharp, pointy stalagmites and stalactites hang from the ceiling, dangling above me like shark’s teeth. On the walls, dark splotches of mould help to create an environment John describes as “perfect for maturing cheese”.
The influence of the cave environment is remarkable in terms of texture and taste; creating the perfect temperature, with zero interference. The cave-ageing treatment has been used for hundreds of years, although, in more recent times, maturation and ageing rooms closer to the dairy have taken over. The use of the caves to aid in the maturation process was reintroduced by the company in 2006 and resulted in the cheese developing a deeper creaminess and a flavour profile that sets them apart.
We walked deeper into the cave and further into the darkness. It’s eerie, almost impossible to see except for a few small bulbs that pop on like stars in the milky way. A series of tall cages become visible towards the rear, each housing truckles of cheese, wheel upon wheel upon wheel, wrapped in muslin to protect any foreign bacteria coming into contact and messing up the perfectly balanced probiotic cycle. On closer inspection, I can smell the slightest tinge of ammonia mixed with a nutty scent, and it reminds me of winters in London and the men who roast chestnuts on Westminster Bridge. Up close the round truckles are blotchy with mould, splatters of green, grey, purple and orange. It’s a beautiful display of vivid colours, like ink splashed across a canvas or an art installation honouring Jackson Pollock.
The wheels are only a few months old, having been produced in the dairy by The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company, down the road. Upon leaving the dairy, they are taken to the maturation room where they’ll be stored for 12 weeks, before moving to the caves, where they are aged for six months (Mellow Cheddar); 12 months (Mature); and between 18 and 24 months (Vintage). By the time we depart the caves, stepping back out into the light, my nostrils have been consumed with the smell of old cheddar. We make our way down the gorge towards the process room, where the milk arrives each morning before being turned into curd and eventually, cheese. Around 70 tonnes is produced annually – a small figure compared to the bigger, corporate cheese producers – and last year won prizes in The British Cheese Awards, The Global Cheese Awards and The World Cheese Awards.
While the likes of Montgomery’s, Westcombe and Keen’s – who together, created one of the first UK Slow Food Presidia, for ‘Artisan Somerset Cheddar’ – are the only three producers in Somerset making farmhouse cheddar, The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company are the only people making and selling cheese in Cheddar itself. Producers the world over follow a similar recipe, but the differences between their cheeses are vast, and the style and quality labelled as cheddar vary greatly, with some processed cheeses being packaged as “cheddar” while bearing little resemblance.
Returning to province, we have established that there is a place called Cheddar, but that the cheese itself does not hold PDO status. Instead, I learn that “West Country Farmhouse Cheddar” can be applied to those cheeses that have been produced from local milk within Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall, and manufactured using traditional techniques. The techniques required include ‘cheddaring’, and it is this process which has become the most essential and defining process of producing cheddar.
Taking all of the above into consideration, none of it has stopped other countries making cheese and labelling it “cheddar”. In 2007, a French-owned cheese company based in Scotland called Lactalis McLelland was named as Supreme Champion by the British Cheese Awards for their “Seriously Strong Cheddar”, beating 867 kinds of cheese. Those in the aforementioned English counties using local, unpasteurised milk and applying the ‘cheddaring’ process are the only cheese-makers who can officially call their product authentic.
To witness the cheddaring process, Richard and I make our way over to Keen’s and their Moorhayes Farm. When we talk about cheddar today, the first name that springs to mind is Keen’s. Here you have a proper, bonafide cheese-making family, five generations of award-winning producers who have been making unpasteurised cheddar since 1899. In 2013, they won the UK Supreme Champion at the World Cheese Awards, although they were already popular and well known to cheese connoisseurs prior to this, the award thrust them onto the world stage.
We’re meet by George Keen, the man responsible for the day-to-day operations of the farm and who, along with his brother, Stephen, and his son, James, continues the traditions of the family who have made cheese on these premises for decades. Their mother, Dorothy, learnt cheese-making at the Somerset Farm Institute in Cannington, and it was their Great Aunt Jane who pressed her first truckle in 1899 and set the wheels in motion for the family business. The farm itself presents a careful process of bovine care, with large cattle shed set up like a day-spa with soft-hay sleeping partitions, bountiful troughs of food and designated massage areas where the cows can press their rumps against spinning brushes.
George and James work in a happy, symbiotic partnership. It’s a process and a routine they have done over and over. The farm and dairy give off a relaxing atmosphere – once you get past the smell of cow shit – and offer a happy-go-lucky environment nestled in quiet seclusion within the Somerset countryside. For instance, cows are not urged to leave their pasture, but instead, return to the dairy for milking whenever they feel. It’s a simple, mechanically run operation in which the cows approach a machine themselves for self-milking. Each cow is fitted with a 5G smart collar which controls the robotic milking system and records the time and volume of milk so that everything is monitored and recorded. I watch as they install themselves for self-milking – it takes 250 litres of milk to make one whole cheese – while others sit sprawled across hay, a farting choir of cows producing a loud morning chorus. The milk here is not stored or transported. It is not tampered with at all. Only unpasteurised milk will do. This can sometimes mean the milk is difficult to work with and unpredictable, which is why it is even more essential that the cheese-makers at Keen’s are experts at making excellent quality cheese.
James demonstrates the all-important cheddaring process, during which the curds are cut and pressed together into slabs. The slabs are stacked on top of each other, the weight of each pressing out any moisture. They are then cut, pressed into slabs again and re-stacked. The process continues until almost all of the whey is expelled. When the ‘cheddaring’ process is over (it takes about an hour), the curd is passed through a mill to cut it into smaller, even-sized pieces. Salt – another crucial ingredient – is added to stabilise the curd and to stop bacteria growing. Then, the cheese is put into moulds and left to drain before it is pressed for three days, bathed in hot water and then smeared with hot lard and wrapped in three layers of muslin, a permeable coating that allows air to get to the cheese and moisture to evaporate. As James testifies it’s a long, tiresome and laborious process, a gruelling workout, day-after-day-after-day, like lifting weights in the gym. The result is James having shoulders like a battering ram and biceps that pop like Popeye on steroids.
As the cheese ages, the surface becomes gradually colonised by those wonderful splotches of multicoloured mould. Looking at a well-aged cheddar cheese, you could be forgiven for thinking that its looks rather rank and is well past human consumption; however, some of the most prized cheddars are aged over 18 months, covered in mould and dark spores. The ideal maturation time, according to George, is between 10 and 12 months, though cheese here can mature for up to two years. Keen’s also produced a 29 month aged that has a nutty flavour and long finish – something I could quickly develop a severe habit for. “What we don’t want is a sharp, acid cheese,” George explains. “The cheese should promote the intricate range of flavours that exists in a raw milk cheese.”
THE GREAT CHEDDAR BOOM
Back at The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company, John takes me to the back of the processing room, where a small museum is dedicated to the history of this special cheese. Black and white photographs adorn the walls and show the old men with medieval farming tools alongside off-duty workers enjoying cheese sandwiches and drinking milk from sloshing jugs. I’m able to gain a better understanding here, not just of cheese-making, but the importance of farming in the region and how it contributed to the industry, both in Somerset and across wider Britain.
Central to the modernisation and standardisation of cheddar was the 19th century Somerset dairyman, Joseph Harding. For his technical innovations, promotion of dairy hygiene and volunteer dissemination of modern cheese-making techniques, he has been dubbed “The Father of Cheddar Cheese”. Harding stated that cheddar cheese is “not made in the field, nor in the byre, nor even in the cow, it is made in the dairy”.
It was Harding and his wife who were behind the introduction of the cheese into Scotland and North America. His sons, Henry and William Harding, were responsible for introducing cheese production to Australia and facilitating the establishment of the cheese industry in New Zealand, where today, it is still produced en masse. Cheddar had gone global, competing with big cheeses on the international scene. What better way to stick two fingers up to the French, than be rivalling them and their egotistical, nouvelle nonsense fromage.
In more recent times, Britain has moved to the very top of the international league table of cheese producers, overtaking France. As of 2018, the UK was producing 750 varieties of cheese, 100 more than France, despite the French eating twice as much. According to a United States Department of Agriculture researcher, and a 2014 article titled “The Biggest Cheese” in The Boston Globe, cheddar is the world’s most popular cheese and the most studied type in scientific publications.
Before the 19th Century, however, cheddar was already having an influence, notably in the courts of kings. Both King Henry II and Charles I publicly announced their adoration for the stuff with administrative records showing that both kings made purchasing the very first batches of its production a priority, wanting to ensure that it was only available through them. These kings were, it would seem, the supermarket buyers of their day, the upper-crust suppliers and go-to cheesemongers of Britain.
Even the great writer Daniel Defoe wrote of the cheese in his book A Tour of the Islands of Great Britain (1724), describing it as “the greatest [cheese], and best of its kind in England.” Defoe wrote, “It is called our English parmesan and brought to the table with the mites so thick around it that they bring a spoon for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese.”
And, the British explorer Captain Scott took 3,500lbs (nearly 1,600 kg) of cheddar with him on his famous expedition to the Antarctic in 1901. Enduring months of freezing temperatures, Scott and his men, along with English cheddar, also dined on seal meat, penguin blubber, turtle soup and drank pints of lime juice. Cheddar was becoming a necessity for many and was an identifier of England, becoming one of the essential products the English produced and consumed. Here was a cheese growing in status, building on reputation, collected and consumed by writers, poets, explores and even royalty. Not only was it growing in popularity, but it was symbolic, a defining slice of English and British culture. All cheeses are nationalistic when you think about it; they are nation-defining artefacts: English Cheddar, French Camembert, Swiss Gruyère, Italian Parmigiano.
ALL HAIL CHEDDAR
What was once all farmland and dairies in Somerset, is now only a few farmsteads, as land is sold to overseas investors and the profession of farming appears less than appealing to a new generation. Hundreds of cheese-makers dwindled to only a few, a few select people who work to preserve and keep ancient traditions alive. While cheddar continues to be produced and consumed across the world, only a small number can be found in Somerset. As for those cheese-makers producing cheddar actually in Cheddar, only one remains.
Cheddar is a hard cheese though, literally and metaphorically, one that will fight the fight and continue on its journey. It has already led a fascinating history, influencing the lives of writers, explorers and royals. Even now, it creates buzz and excitement, and has the cheese-world talking. Now, it’s moves forward, forging t a new future and a new story, one that began all those years ago, by accident, in the caves of Somerset, within the Gorges of Cheddar, to eventually ending up on kitchen tables and cheese boards around the world.
The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company Ltd.
Somerset BS27 3QA – Regno Unito
Tel: + 44 1934 742810
Keen’s Cheddar Ltd
Wincanton BA9 8JR – Regno Unito
Tel: + 44 1963 32286