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A sense of place: West Country farmhouse cheddar

Categories: Product stories

It may be the most ubiquitous cheese in the world but even cheddar can boast its own terroir. What sets the real stuff apart from the rest?

Words: Daniel Tapper

The most famous, popular and widespread hard cheese in the world, cheddar is now produced as far afield as Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden and the USA.

Indeed, the latter of these countries churns out a staggering 1.5 million tonnes per year, much of which doesn’t even taste of cheese, never mind cheddar. Kraft Easy, for example, is so soft it is sold in pressurised spray cans and looks more like cheap, fluffy margarine than anything you’d serve on Welsh rarebit.

Meanwhile, such is the ubiquity of cheddar in Australia (accounting for 55 per cent of all cheese consumption in the country) that the name has been rendered entirely redundant, with cheesemakers simply using a number on their labels to denote strength.

Cheddar, it seems, is one of the last foods on earth you’d expect to find in a column celebrating foods that display a sense of place. But it is precisely because of cheddar’s global reputation—as well as its tendency for bastardisation—that it is so important we recognise the real deal.

Synonymous with the West Country
So what exactly is the ‘real deal’ when it comes to this famous cheese?

There is no doubt that cheddar is synonymous with the West Country, particularly Somerset, where there is evidence to suggest it was made as far back as the 15th century—some even suggest a similar cheese was brought to mainland Britain by the Romans via France (though this could well be a conspiracy by the Latins to claim cheddar as their own).

Specifically, production flourished around the Cheddar Gorge, where the cheese is believed to have been stored in the cool, damp caves that stretch beneath the Mendip Hills. Aged for longer than most cheeses, cheddar’s salty, ear-tingling bite garnered it a growing medieval fan base, prompting farmers in the surrounding counties of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall to try their hand at making it. Why did cheese thrive in these four counties? All four boast distinctive clay and loam soils, a temperate climate and relatively high rainfall—a recipe for lush, dairy-grazing grass.

Protected status
It is due to these unique climatic conditions that West Country farmhouse cheddar now boasts Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. And any cheese baring this name must be made using milk from local herds reared and milked in Somerset, Dorset, Devon or Cornwall.

The cheese must also be made using traditional methods with no additional colourings, flavourings or preservatives, and be matured in the same place for a minimum of nine months, meaning the cheddar remains in the care of the farmer until it is released.

But perhaps most importantly, the PDO ensures that that the curd used to make the cheese undergoes a skilful—and time consuming—process known as ‘cheddaring’, which refers to the cutting, stacking and turning of the curds by hand to ensure all the whey is drained. Crucially, during this process the acidity in the curds rises, which ultimately helps the cheese to mature for longer.

If it wasn’t for a handful of West Country dairies insisting on making cheese in this time-honoured way, England’s real cheddars could well have been consigned to the doldrums long ago. But isn’t it now time we took things one step further by banning the name ‘cheddar’ on any products made outside the UK? After all, you wouldn’t drink champagne that was made in Sweden and served from a spray can.

THREE OF THE BEST: ARTISAN CHEDDARS FROM NEAL’S YARD DAIRY

Montgomery’s Cheddar, Somerset
This unique cheddar has been made at Manor Farm in North Cadbury since the early 20th century. When Jamie Montgomery took over from his mother in the mid-nineties, the market was dominated by cheese with a bright, acid, sharp flavour set in a soft creamy paste, which was well suited to supermarket cutting lines. Determined to do things differently, he set out to make a cheese with a drier texture and more complexity.

Keen’s Cheddar, Somerset
In operation since 1899, this tiny Somerset dairy has just one herd of 250 friesian cows and two employees, besides the family. The dairy’s clothbound cheese matures for over 12 months in the farm store, where it is hand-turned, cleaned and sampled to ensure it develops its characteristic subtle, nutty flavour.

Westcombe Cheddar, Somerset
Cheese has been made at Westcombe since the 1890s, using milk sourced from its own three herds, which graze on lush Somerset pastures within a mile of the dairy. Cheesemaker Bob Bramley produces about 100 rounds each week, aging them for up to 20 months.