Everybody say (Cheddar) cheese
Devon’s lush, green grass results in cheese capable of sending taste buds into overdrive. Nick Hammond visits Quicke’s dairy to discover how the nation’s favourite is made
Nick Hammond visits Quicke’s Dairy to see how the nation’s favourite cheese is made
Mary Quicke’s farmhouse is in the middle of nowhere. after driving a mile along an increasingly erratic road, which becomes a track, which becomes… well, frankly, a little discouraging for the firsttime traveller, i’m considering abandoning this mission before i get stuck, lost or both.
i’d set off in sunshine, but now it’s dark— and dark in Devon is really dark. The only light comes from ice crystals winking back at my headlights and the clearly visible Milky Way overhead. Before i completely lose my bottle, a bobbing light appears and then a smiling face. i’ve made it to Cheddar country.
This farmhouse has been in the Quicke family for 14 generations. it’s stationed on the southern boundary of Home Farm, which itself runs to 1,500 acres of arable and pasture, 1,500 acres of mixed woodland and a dairy for artisanal cheesemaking near Crediton. Quicke’s world-renowned Cheddar is created here with a careful blending of milk from a herd of 600 hardy, docile, mixed-breed cows, luscious, fast-growing Devonshire grass and some seriously cheesy know-how.
‘Making cheese was my parents’ idea first,’ Mary admits cheerfully, with her trademark smile. she’s pottering around her warm, bright kitchen now, which is festooned with family photos and odds and sods collected from decades of escapades around the globe. as she adds the finishing touches to the venison casserole that we’ll soon be tucking into (wild venison shot on the farm, don’t you know), she explains how cheese has come to take over most of her waking hours.
‘it was the same old story—they were trying to make the most of milk prices. Dad always told us not to go into farming. “There’s no money in it,” he’d say.’ another smile. ‘But here i am.’ and here she still is, decades later; still learning every day about an ancient process and, together with her husband, Tom, trying to spread the word about a Cheddar that gets sybarites salivating.
it never ceases to amaze me what a painstakingly complicated procedure cheesemaking is. it’s simple enough on paper: milk, lacticacid bacteria starter, rennet (the naturally occurring enzyme found in the stomach of What would a cheeseboard be without a tangy hunk of fine British Cheddar?
‘One wonders why early cheesemakers didn’t just kick the sample bucket across the farmyard’
‘There’s a sweet, salty, spicy scent in the warehouse, with racks of Cheddars stretching up and away’
ruminants) and hey presto—you have cheese.
It’s really not that simple. There are a multitude of variants. Exacting conditions; the vats and paddles; the sorting and the sifting; the salting and the separating; the million-pound dairies; the measuring and testing. They’re all enough to make the layman wonder how on earth early cheesemakers didn’t just kick the sample bucket across the farmyard and stick to drinking milk instead.
At 5am, Malcolm Mitchell, Quicke’s head cheesemaker, dons his wellies and protective ‘smurf hat’ to enter the parlour. ‘Our starter cultures have been the same for decades,’ he says in the chill. ‘They will have been made up the day before, ready for morning milking.’
The four-legged girls have plodded from field to parlour to give up their precious, creamy, fat and protein-rich milk. The Home Farm herd is grazed in two groups separated by a narrow road and are on different calving schedules, to maximise milk production and best use of grass. The road does mean, however, additional cost and nuisance. A tanker comes down the narrow lane each day, collects milk from the top parlour and drives it the few yards to deliver it to the dairy. There’s no other way of doing it.
Sixty litres of yoghurt-like starter get tipped in to start the process and acidify the milk. After 15 minutes, 100g of rennet—the crucial enzymes ultimately inject just the right notes of flavour that Quicke’s is trying to achieve—are stirred into fresh milk for three minutes. Too much or too little stirring, even at this early stage, can quickly ruin the batch. The vats are gently heated to about 40˚C for an hour and the curd firms up.
After 50 minutes, the whey is drained off and the curd is cut into slabs and turned to help squeeze more whey out. The process, with this cheese, is called Cheddaring. Next, the cheese is milled and handfuls of Cornish sea salt are liberally spread and forked— salting arrests the acidity levels and is crucial to the final flavour. Lactic-acid content is constantly monitored and parameters set. Nothing can be left to chance.
The whey is turned into delicious whey butter, recognised by the Slow Food Movement as a ‘Forgotten Food’ of the UK, and the curd is wrapped in coarse Egyptian-cotton cheesecloth, packed into 27kg moulds and pressured heavily in a pneumatic press. Here the immature Cheddar sits for three days; on each day, a finer cheesecloth is applied. On the third day, melted lard is rubbed by hand onto each cheese to finally seal it.
‘There are three days’ worth of cheese on the go in the parlour at any one time,’ says Malcolm. ‘You can ruin a batch at any stage, so we must be constantly on the lookout for tell-tale signs.’ Each thick, heavy-set cheese is now ready for the ‘cathedral’—quicke’s answer to the caves of Cheddar in Somerset.
There’s a sweet, salty, spicy scent in the giant warehouse, with racks of carefully dated Cheddars stretching up and away into the half-light. They’re mottled with mould in an infinite, finger-print-unique set of rinds. The Mature Cheddar ages for 12–15 months, Extra Mature for 18 months and the Vintage for up to 24. It’s not all Cheddar, either: to join its truckles and goat’s-milk cheeses, Quicke’s recently launched a mixed goatand-cow-milk cheese, Lady Prue, available from Heritage Cheese in London’s Borough Market and named after Mary’s mother.
On extraction with a cheese iron, each Cheddar has a distinctive texture, taste, level of waxiness, creaminess and tang. The vintage sends the parotid salivary glands— the ones stationed between ear and jaw— into overdrive, with a deep, salty and almost fruity finish that lasts and lasts.
There are various definitions of Cheddar cheesemaking: West Country Farmhouse Cheddar secured its own Protected Designation of Origin in 2007, meaning that only Cheddar made with local milk from Somerset, Devon, Dorset or Cornwall by traditional methods can carry the label.
With longstanding local shepherd-turnedmarketing man Stuart Dowle still helping out around the farm—although he’s officially retired—and Cheddar being sent from here to all quarters of the globe, Quicke’s is both a family affair and an international business. Its heart, however, still resides in a secluded medieval farmhouse and the land around it. And, of course, in those hardy, healthy, happy cows, which turn Devon grass into champion Cheddar.
The key to the whole thing: no taste buds would be tingled without a herd of happy cows