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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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

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