Chip off the old block

Traditional Cheddar-makers are going from strength to strength, rediscovering ancient methods and tapping into state-of-the-art technology. Hester Lacey reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Cheddar might sound like shorthand for any old hard cheese; it can come in bland yellow blocks from Irish, Dutch, American, Canadian, French and even Polish creameries. But the tastiest, sharpest, smoothest Cheddar is flourishing in its birthplace, the south-west of England. Here, small-scale and farmhouse producers using only their own and local milk are thriving – armed with an eclectic mix of traditional know-how and modern technology.

Cheddar might sound like shorthand for any old hard cheese; it can come in bland yellow blocks from Irish, Dutch, American, Canadian, French and even Polish creameries. But the tastiest, sharpest, smoothest Cheddar is flourishing in its birthplace, the south-west of England. Here, small-scale and farmhouse producers using only their own and local milk are thriving – armed with an eclectic mix of traditional know-how and modern technology.

At Maryland Farm, in the pretty village of Ditcheat, near Shepton Mallet in Somerset, fat Friesian dairy cows are grazing contentedly in an orchard full of blossoming fruit trees. The Barbers have been farming here since the 1830s. Their Cheddar cheese-making is still very much a family concern: Paul Barber runs the farm and looks after the herd, his brother Nicholas is the master cheesemaker, with their sons Charles and Giles following close behind.

The tranquil scene may not have changed for generations, but the Barbers have a modern secret weapon at their disposal. They believe they are the only farm in the country, and probably the world, to maintain and develop traditional starter cultures. The starter culture is the bacteria added to the milk to give the cheese its flavour and acidity. Many producers, large and small, use freeze-dried or frozen mass-made concentrates. Farmhouse cheese-makers are more likely to use live cultures, but the Barbers are the first to carry out experiments with home-grown varieties.

Their newest Cheddar, Haystack Tasty, owes its existence to the development of a new starter by their resident culture-vulture Ray Osborne. A bespectacled, blazer-clad boffin who has his own state-of-the-art laboratory at the farm, his desk is littered with scientific papers with titles like "Spatial and Temporal Distribution of Non-Starter Lactic Acid Bacteria in Cheddar Cheese", while his ampoules of bacteria are carefully preserved in canisters of eerily smoking liquid nitrogen.

The exact composition of many of the starters he uses have never been formally identified; they were simply gathered from a particularly successful batch of cheese, decades ago, and grown on to make more. "Empirically they are lactococcus bacteria. But I don't know exactly what's in them," he says. What counts is that they work.

Although it's not made with unpasteurised milk, as some cheese specialists insist the best should be, the results are admirable – better than any other supermarket Cheddar I've tried. Master cheesemaker Nicholas Barber likens cheese-tasting to wine-tasting: it's the aftertaste, he says, that matters as much as the initial hit. The Haystack Cheddar is assertive but not violent, sharp at first then deliciously rounded. It's available from good delicatessens and specialist cheese retailers, and also from Sainsbury's.

While Maryland Farm's innovations take place in a lab, their neighbours at Wyke Farm are carrying out an experiment underground. John and Jim Clothier and their four sons also produce Cheddar with milk from their own and neighbouring dairy herds. They have just lugged a batch down through the tortuous paths into the heart of nearby Wookey Hole caves, where it will mature over the next eight or nine months. Before refrigeration, caves had been used to mature cheese at a constant since Roman times, but it hasn't been done in Somerset for the best part of a century.

The Wookey Cheddar won't see the light of day again until around November this year – unless the cave conditions have an unexpected effect on the cheese, either slowing down or speeding up its development. How it will taste is also an unknown. It takes time to produce a good mature Cheddar; the quality of the milk, the method and the maturity all count. These two cheese-makers mature their cheeses for at least a year; that's why the best Cheddar cheeses made on a small scale in the south-west of England taste better and cost more.

While the generic term Cheddar has no protection under the law, West Country Farmhouse Cheddar was awarded Protected Designation of Origin status four years ago. Farmhouse Cheddar is made with local milk, on the farm in Dorset, Somerset, Devon, or Cornwall, and turned by hand. The WCFC cooperative's 13 members couldn't be more traditional in their methods – four make cheeses with unpasteurised milk – but even they use technology to keep in touch with customers. Key in the sell-by date of any pack of WCFC at the website www.handmadecheddar.com and you can find out about its makers. Traceable packs are currently available in Waitrose, and will be in other stores from July.

If farmhouse Cheddar is exclusive, even more so are wedges of the heart of the truckle, considered the best part of a whole cheese. A pilot scheme in Harvey Nichols last Christmas saw the truckle-heart cheese flying out of the store, despite the morsels costing the equivalent of £21 per kilo. WCFC member Brue Valley Farm is also working to re-introduce traditional potted cheese, a kind of buttery cheese pâté that can be used on toast or as a dip or in fondue. And where Cheddar leads, other regional British cheeses could follow. Fans of traditional cheeses everywhere should rejoice. E

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