A Cheddar to gorge on

Wild, eccentric and unpredictable - Montgomery's is one of the best cheeses in the world. Photographs by Patrice de Villiers
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I have had many animated conversations with men of a certain age over the cheeseboard after dinner, on the subject of Cheddar and how they like it. Recently, I have settled on a bias towards Montgomery's. This isn't a lifetime prejudice (although it may turn out to be), it just happens to be superb at the moment, proved by the British Cheese Awards and the number of prizes it has scooped during the past couple of years. The Montgomery's farm office looks more like a horse trainer's, with rosettes and certificates lining the walls.

Montgomery's is better tasted than described, but if pushed, I would say it is uncommonly mellow and sweet without the sharpness of other Cheddars, and that this sweetness allows for all sorts of other flavours - from nuts and pepper to Opal Fruits and roast beef - to come through. Juliet Harbutt in the World Encyclopedia of Cheese (Lorenz Books, pounds 17.95), praises its "superb richness, spicy acidity and real depth to the fruity finish".

Jamie Montgomery produces Cheddar on Manor Farm in Somerset. His mother before him, and her father before that, made a near identical cheese. He runs the farm with his brother, Archie, who manages the arable side, while Jamie has taken over the dairy operation. In the background, his mother, Elizabeth, hovers as an eminence grise.

Elizabeth lives with her sister in the main house, an imposing Elizabethan pile built in 1580. John McKenna, author of the Irish food-themed Bridgestone Guides, says specialised cheesemakers have a proclivity to make cheeses in their own likeness - a dog-like-owner kind of thing. Manor Farm, despite its grandeur, is rather eccentric and slightly wild. "Last week we had a bouncy castle in that room," Elizabeth tells me, pointing to a panelled, baronial dining hall, "and we dance reels in that room," she added, leading me into the Georgian ballroom, shuttered and silent with stacks of plastic chairs and trays of crockery awaiting the next show of feet.

There is some comparison here. Part of the charm of Montgomery is its unpredictability and the wild flavours, though the mechanism of the process clearly eludes Jamie Montgomery. "I once flew over to the US, having been asked to answer the question `What makes your cheese so special?', and when I got there," he tells me with a mischievous laugh, "I told them: `I really haven't the foggiest' - and flew home again."

As it is, he keeps complex numerical charts when the cheese is being made, of times, acidity and temperatures, so that when he tastes it for the first time, after three months, he can see how it has developed.

The real experts, at least those with the hands-on experience at Manor Farm, are the cheesemakers Steve Bridges and Mike Chase, both from cheesemaking families. To watch them at work is like observing a baker kneading dough, fluidly, instinctively and clearly taking pleasure in the task.

The process begins around 5am, when the cows are milked. An hour or so later, this milk is combined with that of the night before in a huge steel trough that looks like a large ice-cream maker. First, it's heated, then a starter is added and the rennet. These two ingredients are vital. You probably don't want me to remind you what rennet is, but I will. It is a by-product of veal, an enzyme called chymosin found in a calf's stomach. This can be slightly contentious, but as far as Jamie Montgomery is concerned: "If someone chooses not to eat my cheese, that's their loss. I know animal rennet is good, so I'm not going to change." And, as he points out, how many vegetarians are aware the Vegetarian Society approves a genetically engineered copy?

The second crucial ingredient, the starter, is made by combining milk powder with water which is heated overnight and injected with a liquid culture the following morning. The alternative is a modern equivalent called DVI, or direct vat inoculation, a convenient powder added to the milk that bypasses one of the most essential aspects of cheesemaking.

A couple of years back, near-disaster struck when the manufacturer of the starter decided to stop producing it. "We were forced to use DVIs and this was hopeless. It was a real eye-opener. I used to think we got all our flavour from unpasteurised milk, but if the starters aren't right, there isn't enough flavour in the milk to make it happen." There was a happy ending when another cheesemaker, with the same problem, set up a lab and headhunted the specialist from the original manufacturer, who is now developing starters with more vitality than ever.

The cheese-making room at Manor Farm hasn't changed greatly since Jamie Montgomery's grandfather bought the farm in the 1920s. After the milk has set into junket, the curd is fragmented with mechanical knives. Once the curd is firm, it goes into the cooling tank, where the whey drains off. Now the cheddaring begins, as the curd forms into a thick mat, the mat is cut into blocks and these are stacked and turned. At this point, the acidity has to progress as the moisture is released. Here the judgement of the cheesemakers comes into play.

Next, the curd is fed through a peg mill and salted. This breaks it into a million uneven pieces, resulting in a more uneven and interesting texture. Finally, the cheese is packed into enormous 50lb tins lined with linen. It's pressed and turned, bandaged and larded and turned some more before being left to mature in the chilly, dark storage room, where the shelves are filled with cheeses in various stages of maturation. The cheese is ready for eating at about 12 months.

Jamie Montgomery is wholly passionate about cheese, in fact he is the only person I have heard refer to a cheese as being "drop-dead gorgeous". His single mission is to produce a classic Cheddar that tastes like that of old England: "Everything I do is devoted to doing it the same way it was done 60 years ago, and I refuse to change." Thank god for reactionaries

Montgomery's Cheddar is available from specialist cheese shops. For stockists and mail order, call 01963 440243.

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