Thursday, September 25, 2008

Thursday, Montgomery's Cheddar

Cheddar was born in Somerset county, in south western England. Unlike Stilton, which protected its name, cheddar's name got loose in the world. It has been used to brand hundreds of copycats. But they're like shades of the original, haunting the edges of the earth. Today there are only three farms making traditional cheddar. That is to say, cheddar from a herd of cows located on same farm where it's made, unpasteurized milk, traditional animal rennet, hand-formed in 25 kilo forms, wrapped in cloth, larded, aged at least twelve months. They are Keen's, Westcombe, Montgomery's. I visited Keen's and Montgomery's, our regular cheddar.

Some jargon. Cheddar is the name of a cheese and the name of a particular process that makes cheddar what it is. After the rennet creates curds and before the curds are milled there is cheddaring. The mass of curds — a big, rubbery, gelatinous blob — is cut in the vat, stacked, flipped and stacked some more. The stacked weight, sloped against the vat, stretches the curd. It also squeezes out whey and increases acidity. When everything is right, an hour or two later, the texture of the curd is like cooked chicken breast. They're also very tasty, some of the best cheese curds I've eaten. It was hard to stop nibbling on them.

Some trivia. Montgomery cheddar cows graze on a hill that most scholars agree was the location of Camelot. I asked Jamie Montgomery, the owner, if that's true. With typical British dryness he replied, "Yes. We own Camelot."

Photos of a cheddar as it ages.

Next stop: London.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Wednesday, Linconshire Poacher

Brothers Simon and Tim Jones run their family farm in Lincoln- shire, on the eastern edge of England, near the sea. The ocean is so close you can see it from the last cow barn. Besides pheasants and crows, gulls occasionally fly overhead.

Like many of the cheeses Neal's Yard Dairy sells, Poacher is relatively new to the world. A "new traditional cheese," as some like to call them. It has a lot in common with traditional English cheddar. The size, shape, color, and texture are similar. But it's made 350 miles east of the cheddar counties and it's got just enough other quirks to make it completely its own thing. Here it's pictured after it was washed, ready for boxing up and shipping out.

Simon, the agricultural college major, first started making Poacher in the early 1990's, about the same time that ZMO was born. Tim, his brother, the marketing and numbers guy, came on board in 1998, about the same time we started Interesting symmetry there. We've been selling it at ZMO since 2006 or so, after our first visit to their farm. During that trip we tasted a great batch of thirty 45 lb cheeses -- a day's make -- and bought the whole lot.

We tasted about forty cheeses today, made on forty different days. There were a lot of good ones — it was hard to narrow it down! The finalists were all from 2007: March 21, April 27, May 30, July 20. Carlos, Grace and I settled on March 21, 2007. It's a savory-yet-sweet cheese with a full body that should last well into spring and summer of 2009. Look for it in late November.

Photos from Poacher.

Next top: Montgomery's Cheddar.

Tuesday, Stichelton.

When you arrive at the Stichelton cheese making operation at 7am, this is what you see. A twenty-five hundred liter tank of warm milk, just pumped a few hundred feet from the cow pen next door. The white stick on top is a paddle — for stirring by hand. Luckily there's not a lot of stirring to do. In fact, there's not a lot of anything to do. Stichelton is a cheese that takes a long time to make. Most of the time is spent waiting.

I keep saying Stichelton and you might be wondering "What is that?" Stichelton is the name cheese maker Joe Schneider and Randolph Hodgson of Neal's Yard Dairy (Joe's partner) have given to this cheese. In reality it's raw milk Stilton. They can't call it that in England since, there, proper Stilton can only be made from pasteurized milk (a rule that came into being a couple decades ago, though traditional Stilton had been made with raw milk for centuries).

This is Joe's third holiday season. (I say that because, like us, he thinks in terms of holidays. Stilton is the holiday cheese in Britain so he gets a big spike in orders then, too.) His cheeses are much better than they were in 2006, even better than 2007. He continually tests small changes to the recipe. The latest has been to use pre-ripened milk. He doesn't refrigerate the milk so its active cultures get a head start on making cheese. The results have been more interestingly flavored cheeses. Look for them in November.

Next stop: Licolnshire Poacher.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Monday, The Arches in London

I'm tasting and selecting cheese in England right now so I'll send some notes about what I'm learning.

Monday. Went to Neal's Yard Dairy's Arches, where they store their selected cheeses and pack them for shipping. They're named The Arches because they are actually Victorian brick arches under the London Bridge-to-Dover rail line. The train rumbles overhead every few minutes. We tasted dozens and dozens of cheeses over a few hours. The process, if you've been part of it is: Plug the cheese with an iron that removes a long pencil of cheese, take a bit with your fingers, chew, think, write down what you taste.

The left side of this board was in front of shelves of Doddington. That's a big maroon-rind cheese we've carried once before. Each date is a different "make" batch. There are different comments about the taste and texture. "Creamy." "Flat" "Dull" And my favorite: "Corky" I agreed with their taster about the one at the bottom made July, 20 2007. It haslots of flavor." Seven wheels available. Carlos reserved one. We might, too.

Next stop: Stichelton.