Cheddar is one of the world’s most well known and loved cheeses. Its roots are in the English West Country, but it is now produced in a number of countries around the world.
Today, barely 5% of the 400 producers who made Cheddar in the cheese's home territory, the county of Somerset, a half-century ago remain in business. The reduction of farms making Cheddar after World War ll, and the absence of protection for the name Cheddar, contributed to this decline. The introduction of rind-less block cheeses and frequent use of pasteurised milk further reduced the unique characteristics of Cheddar made in South West England.
In order to recognise the huge difference between real Cheddar and its imitations, a campaign was launched to protect the name of Cheddar in the West Country.
This has resulted in the creation of an EU protected mark in the the form of a PDO (product of designated origin).
Cheese can only be called ‘West Country Farmhouse Cheddar’ if:
• It is made using milk from herds reared and milked in the counties of Somerset, Dorset, Devon or Cornwall. This ensures that the cheese has a particular texture and flavour.
• It contains no colouring, no flavouring and no preservatives.
• It is made to traditional methods. These methods include the cheese being made by hand, and the unique process known as ‘cheddaring’.
• It is made and matured on the farm, and aged for at least nine months.
• It doesn’t leave the farm from the moment the milk arrives from the parlour until it’s ready to cut and pack, which means the Cheddar remains in the care of the farmer, who can ensure that it is produced and stored to the highest standards required of a premium cheese.
‘Cheddaring', a unique process
‘Cheddaring’ involves the stacking of cut curd to form blocks. The blocks are in turn stacked, one on top of another, and the weight pressing down helps to force whey from the bottom block. During this process the blocks will be turned several times.
There are records of Cheddar being made dating back as far as the late twelfth century. King Henry II declared Cheddar cheese to be the best cheese in all the land. This was no idle statement: court records show he purchased 4.5 tons of the cheese in the year 1170 AD.
Cheddar-making centred around the Somerset village of Cheddar, not only due to the region’s many limestone caves that provided the cool stable temperature required to mature cheese, but also due to the lush pasture that is found where the Mendip Hills meet the Somerset Levels.
The village of Cheddar was at the time the largest market town in the area, and cheese would come from the farms of the surrounding countryside to be matured in the caves around the village, before it was sold.
The communal gathering of milk to produce larger, more matured cheeses during the 17th century was important in distinguishing Cheddar cheese from other varieties.
During the Second World War and well into the 1950s almost all the milk used for cheese making in the UK was used to make Government Cheddar. This is due to the fact that Cheddar has one of the best yields per litre of milk of any cheese. It also helps explain the reason why so many British cheeses disappeared during this time, leaving Cheddar to dominate until the 1980s.
Cheddar at The Fine Cheese Co.
Keen’s, Mongomery’s and Westcombe are the flag-bearers for artisan-made Somerset Cheddar. These families established a Slow Food Presidium to achieve recognition and protection for their unique raw milk Cheddars, made from the milk of their own herds within a day of milking.
The cheeses are made in the traditional way with animal rennet, and cloth-bound for a minimum of 12 months.
The Fine Cheese Co. Cave-aged Cheddars are produced in Somerset by Ford Farm, which has resurrected the tradition of using caves as a place to mature the cheese.
Upholding the spirit of the Cheddar tradition, Hafod is a raw milk Cheddar cheese from Wales, made from the rich, organic milk of Ayrshire cows.
Artisan Cheddar has a mouldy brown-gray rind and a hay-yellow curd. Its texture is firm yet buttery, and the curd has flavours of caramelised milk, hazelnut, and bitter herbs.
The Keen family has been making Artisan Somerset Cheddar at Moorhayes Farm since 1899. Today, James Keen is the fifth generation of cheese- makers. Maintaining traditional cheese making techniques is central to their philosophy, enabling the family to produce consistently high quality Cheddar for over a century. It would be fair to say that the cheese-makers at Keen’s put the art into artisan, as they make every decision by eye, and rely on their skill and experience to come up with the final product.
The Montgomery family has been farming in North and South Cadbury for three generations. Since the farm was bought in 1911 by Jamie’s grandfather, a commitment to producing the best quality Cheddar, made using unpasteurised milk, has been the key to their success.
Jamie knows that, to produce consistently high quality cheese, attention to detail is essential; and so every aspect of the process is closely observed. By closely monitoring the feed of his 200-strong herd of Friesian cows, and specifically the ratio of grass to solids in their diets, he controls the levels of fat and protein in their milk; and so he has greater control of the final product in the dairy.
After being bound in cloth, the cheeses are matured for at least a year, giving the distinct deep, rich and nutty taste associated with Montgomery’s Cheddar.
Westcombe Farm has had a tradition of Cheddar-making for over a century, with the cheese being made at the site since the early 1900s. It is with this respect to the traditions of the farm and the region they live in that Richard and Tom Calver produce their famous Somerset Cheddar.
Controlling every element of the cheese-making process, from the field to the dairy is essential to producing a high quality end product. In the 1980s, Richard Calver took over operations at Westcombe Dairy and decided that reviving the traditional artisan methods of producing unpasteurised Cheddar was the way forward. Richard’s son Tom then took over the family business in 2008. Tom has brought the dairy into the 21st Century while still maintaining the dairy’s commitment to using traditional techniques and recipes. Tom prefers to take an instinctive approach to cheese-making that seeks to express the milk’s true character.
Wine to partner Cheddar?
With Cheddar’s traditional Somerset roots, it may seem that strong ale and local cider should be the perfect accompaniment to Cheddar. Indeed both cider and a range of apple-based spirits from Julian Temperley make very happy marriages with a strong Cheddar. Somerset Pomona with its sweeter apple juice and apple brandy combination works particularly well. Similarly cider should not be too dry: Medium-dry is best. For a special experience, partner Cheddar with a 5 year old Cider Brandy.
If you insist on drinking wine, try a fruity cabernet sauvignon or, even better, a 10 year old Tawny Port.
Fruits to partner Cheddar
While quince may be more familiar as a partner for Manchego, it works equally well with strong Cheddar. Try our Quince Fruit for Cheese or slices of Santa Teresa Membrillo. Also our hot Pickled Figs in sweetened white wine vinegar have a kick that Cheddar likes.
Let’s not leave out vegetables, The Fine Cheese Co. hot and crunchy Pickled Onions and caramelized Onion Chutney have enough sweetness to contrast with Cheddar’s savoury nature.
Crackers to partner Cheddar
For a textural experience, it is hard to better a sweet Fine Cheese Co.Wheat (digestive) Finger. If you like crackers that bite back, our Chilli Crackers will ignite any Cheddar.