An udder success

A surplus of Jersey milk plus two pairs of extra hands led to the birth of a superior new British cheese.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The milk for Montgomery's Cheddar, one of the country's finest unpasteurised farmhouse cheeses, comes entirely from the family's herd of 150 pedigree Friesians. But for some years Jamie Montgomery has had more milk - from a Jersey herd - that he hasn't known what to do with. He inherited the role of cheese master of the house from his mother, Elizabeth, 15 years ago, and with it "mother's pets" - 100 doe-eyed, suede-brown Jerseys. In farming terms they are an indulgence; during the last four years the price fetched by a pint of Jersey or Friesian milk has sunk by 30 per cent.

The milk for Montgomery's Cheddar, one of the country's finest unpasteurised farmhouse cheeses, comes entirely from the family's herd of 150 pedigree Friesians. But for some years Jamie Montgomery has had more milk - from a Jersey herd - that he hasn't known what to do with. He inherited the role of cheese master of the house from his mother, Elizabeth, 15 years ago, and with it "mother's pets" - 100 doe-eyed, suede-brown Jerseys. In farming terms they are an indulgence; during the last four years the price fetched by a pint of Jersey or Friesian milk has sunk by 30 per cent.

Jersey milk, a close friend of single cream, is an indulgence some of us enjoy on cornflakes, too. Richer in carotein (hence the golden hue), and with larger fat globules, its make-up is different from Friesian milk and it is little-used in cheese-making. The qualities that make it delightful to drink also render a Cheddar buttery.

"I knew I should really take several months off, go all around Europe looking at every cheesemaking process, then decide what kind of cheese we should make with it," Montgomery says. But before he went anywhere, into this scene of plummeting milk prices, untameably rich milk and family politics, two Americans made an appearance on a tandem.

Peter Kindel and Caroline Smialek were the recipients of an annual travel bursary, set up in memory of the late pioneering new-world wine importer, Geoffrey Roberts, by a group of friends, in particular Jancis Robinson and her husband Nicholas Lander. As would-be artisan cheesemakers, the Americans chose to end their lap of Europe with a stint at Manor Farm under the tutelage of Montgomery, one of our most eminent cheesemakers.

"They wanted to come for two weeks, when I knew I could teach them everything in two days," he says. As a conscientious host looking for ways to entertain them, he had the brainwave of setting his guests loose on a 10-gallon tank of Jersey milk to see what they came up with. Everything needed to make the cheese - the starter, the rennet and the means for maturing it - was already there. The result was a Tomme de Savoie, an ancient semi-soft cow's milk cheese with a furry rind. They called it Jersey Shield after an iron-age relic unearthed nearby.

Not that it was a cast-iron success straight away. True Tommes are brine-washed, dipped into a strong salt solution that pervades the cheese and brings out its flavour. However, with each successive batch of Jersey Shield the relationship between the strength of the brine and the saltiness of the cheese became increasingly blurred. By the beginning of this year Montgomery had been driven to despair.

Abandoning the traditional brining process, the cheesemaker tried introducing a measured amount of salt into the curd, then subsequently dipped the cheese into hot water. This proved a turning point. From there it was simply a battle to develop the particular creaminess of texture that characterises a Tomme.

Now Montgomery is sufficiently confident of Jersey Shield to put it into the shops. He acknowledges that there's more work to do; a new British cheese isn't born overnight. But there's no doubt it's getting creamier with each batch. It's a young, gentle cheese, with subtle hints of meadow flowers and a pleasingly supple paste laced with tiny eyes. And if Jersey Shield ends up even half as good as Montgomery's Cheddar, we'll have another fine unpasteurised British farmhouse cheese to celebrate.

For information on stockists call 01963 440243. Available from Neal's Yard Dairy, also mail order as part of a selection of British cheeses (020-7645 3555) www.provender.net

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