I’ve already written about two previous tastings which I attended at one of my local cheeseries, Cannon and Cannon, hosted by cheese-meister Ned Palmer. For a self-educating cheese geek like myself, they’ve proved a great way to try several great British cheeses in one go, as well as learn a little about their history and production. You can read about the previous two here and here.
The theme this month was Winter Warmers and the tasting reflected both the changing nature of cheese throughout the seasons, as well as the fact that as humans we tend to crave different foodstuffs according to whether it’s hot or cold. With regards to taste, the colder weather tends to makes us crave something with a bit more oomph; substantial rather than salady, comforting rather than cooling.
So the first shock of the afternoon was NO GOAT’S CHEESE! Although we can now buy goat’s cheese all year round, the natural lactation cycle of the wee hairy gobblers means that they tend to dry up in the winter, as they wouldn’t choose to kid during this time. Farmers can fool their goats into a bit of, ahem, action with the use of hormones and lighting (candles, maybe; perhaps a little Heart FM in the background) but this tasting stayed faithful to the idea that Mrs Goat should get a bit of Me-Time .
What animals feed on can also influence the taste of the cheese (anyone who has ever read a book about what to do with babies may well remember the breast-feeding advice about not eating spicy food or broccoli for fear of offending their refined little palates). Milk from cows grazing on lush summer pastures will taste different to that from cows nibbling sizzled savannah-like plains or from cows snoozing in sheds being fed silage or hay. (The French are apparently appalled, from a fromage standpoint, about our flagrant use of winter silage…) When I wrote about Tunworth, I read that they don’t like to feed the cows maize silage anymore as it taints the milk in an unpleasant way.
Anyway, here are the cheeses, pre-scoff. As ever, we start at midnight:
The first one off the block was Coolea which is made in County Cork in Ireland and named after the beautiful mountains that surround the farm (I have so far severely neglected Irish cheeses but luckily this tasting was to feature several; in future I promise to Try Harder.) It’s made by the Willems family who left the Netherlands for Ireland in the 1970s; as such, the cheese is influenced by Dutch Goudas. It’s a washed curd cheese meaning that after the curd has coagulated much of the whey is removed and then hot water is added to the vat. The cheese is scalded twice. It’s also known as ‘delactosing’ as the process removes lactose (milk sugars), keeping the acidity of the cheese low which results in a sweet and nutty taste. Gouda cheeses are also not allowed to attract mould and so Coolea is covered in a breathable plastic coating which serves as its rind (I coated my precious cheddar in this and was reminded of the school glue that we used to paint all up our arms just so we could peel it off later).
Funnily enough, I’d written about Sparkenhoe Red Leicester the week before so I had to sit on my hands and not be a big school swot (‘Sir! Sir! Is it annatto what colours it, sir?) No-one likes a smartarse. Sparkenhoe is one of the British zombie farmhouse cheeses, raised from the dead only recently to prove that not all Red Leicester cheese is sweaty and foul. Its vivid orange colour isn’t derived from the seventies boom in food colourings but dates way back to when cheesemakers wanted to differentiate it from other regional cheeses and also because consumers associated richer-coloured cheeses with better quality, creamy milk, full of beta carotene from the cows grazing summer pastures (remember beta-carotene…it won’t be the last time you hear it today). Leicester Cheese was often made by Stilton-makers, from the leftover, less creamy milk and so tended to be pale. The cheese is now coloured with annatto seeds, from a Mexican shrub. If you’ve only ever tasted supermarket block Red Leicester then this is a far cry from that; tangy, earthy, and if you’re lucky you’ll get the crunch of amino acid crystals that only a properly-mature cheese can give you.
Spend any time talking about ewe’s milk cheeses in Britain and within seconds someone will invoke the name of Berkswell. Produced by Julie Hay in the West Midlands, it’s a hard cheese, reminiscent of a Pecorino or Manchego. The paste inside is much paler than a cow’s milk cheese, as are most cheeses from sheep and goats; this is because sheep and goats convert the beta-carotene from grass into Vitamin A, whilst cows are unable to do this and so it ends up in the milk and gives it its yellow colour. Ewe’s milk cheese is seen as a Johnny-come-lately to British cheese-making but in actual fact, go back far enough and all of our cheese would have come from sheep. Up until the medieval period, cows were all bred to be draught animals, working for a living, not lazing about in fields chewing the cud. Berkswell came into being in the late 1980s. It tastes quite like a Pecorino, slightly nutty – although the spring and summer cheeses also have a note of pineapple about them (which I did manage to identify after being given the rather large clue of ‘tropical fruit’). The rind is beautiful; it looks ancient, as if it might have been unearthed in a Roman dig but is actually the result of the use of plastic colanders as moulds.
Every cheeseboard needs a stinker and Durrus was that washed rind. Previous post readers may remember that washed rind cheeses get their orange rind and ‘distinctive’ smell due to the young cheeses being washed or brushed with liquids such as brine or alcohol so that they attract Brevibacterium linens cultures (which are also present on the human skin and make your feet smelly). Made by Jeffa Gill, who left the glamorous world of fashion design to spend all day making cheese smell of feet, Durrus is proof-positive that artisan cheese-making is a vocation. It’s another cheese from County Cork and the climate of the area – damp and briny from the sea – provides the ideal conditions for washed rind cheeses. (Ned tells the story of how Veronica Steele, one of the pioneers of Irish cheese-making set out to make a cheddar but they kept growing a sticky orange rind and eventually she had to concede defeat to the local environment and made Milleens, a now-famous washed rind.) Durrus is influenced by Swiss techniques, using a Swiss copper vat and a Swiss harp (a harp is the tool used to cut the curds; if anyone is old enough to remember boiled egg slicers, the principal is similar…) The curds are drained in their moulds to retain some moisture and then brined and turned and (much like a small and demanding baby) washed up to five times a day. The smell is as pungent as you would expect but, regarding taste, washed rinds’ barks are always worse than their bites. As usual, with any washed rind, it didn’t prove popular with everyone and I spied several chunks barely nibbled (Pah! Cheese lightweights!)
We were still over on the Emerald Isle for the next cheese, St Gall, a Swiss-style mountain cheese, produced by Frank and Gudrun Shinnick, again in good old County Cork. It is at first glance named after St Gallen, a monastery which is near Appenzell (almost-eponymous home of Appenzeller cheese) but it turns out that the original St Gall was an Irish monk who took both Christianity and cheese-making skills to Switzerland. So it could be argued (if you’re Swiss) that the Irish have nicked your techniques or, on the other hand (if you’re Irish), you’re taking back what is rightfully yours. Confused? Onto the cheese. St Gall is made using both evening and morning cow’s milk, all unpasteurised. The evening milk is left overnight warming which allows some ‘good’ bacteria to develop and the morning milk is then added before the making process begins. The milk is also skimmed which results in a harder cheese. Because it’s a Swiss cheese it also tends to have some holes (or ‘eyes’) in it. These are caused by the presence of propionic bacteria which, as the cheese matures, produce carbon dioxide bubbles which ‘pop’ and leave holes. Tastewise, it’s creamy and nutty and seemed to be more of a winner with the washed rind-haters.
Tasting the next cheese, Crozier Blue, was a moment that pleased me. I took one nibble and immediately thought ‘Roquefort’ so was most chuffed when Ned went on to say that it was based on a Roquefort recipe – yay, I can tell a Roquefort from a Stilton! Seven months of pretty much continuous cheese-guzzling has not been in vain! Like Roquefort, Crozier Blue is a ewe’s milk cheese and, like its French counterpart, it’s said to get its distinctive salty blue punch from the limestone which lies under the grazing pastures. But this is another Irish cheese, this time from County Tipperary. It also has those tiny little air pockets full of flavour which come from the fact that the curds are packed loosely to allow the oxygen to circulate and feed the cultures responsible for the blueing. A true seasonal cheese, it’s not available during the winter when the sheep aren’t lactating. Also, fascinatingly – and rather unusually for artisan cheese-world – they have a cheese-turning machine that can turn 400 cheeses at once with little rotating rods (although in my scribbled notes I wrote ‘cheese-tasting machine’ which would be a ridiculous idea on many, many levels, not least because I am available and very cheap).
There’s nothing like a hunk of good cheddar when it gets chilly and so Keen’s Cheddar was next on the cheeseboard. I’d tried Keen’s before and was not disappointed (but the family have been making cheddar since 1899, so you would hope they’d got it right by now). It’s produced traditionally in Somerset, where their own herd of cows graze green, lush pastures and the milk is transported only yards to the cheese-making rooms. Cheddar, unlike Stilton, does not have Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status; anyone in the world can make cheddar – and they do, with varying degrees of quality. Keen’s, however, along with two other Somerset producers, created a UK Slow Food Presidia for ‘Artisan Somerset Cheddar’. All members make only a limited number of cheeses per day, only use milk produced on their own farms and use it, unpasteurised, within a day of milking. They also only use pint starters to culture the milk; extra points to any readers who remember from last week’s Stichelton post that a pint starter is essentially a pint of pasteurised milk containing strains of ‘good’ bacteria that come originally from the place where the cheese is made. Like any good cheddar, Keen’s is full of flavour and has quite a kick to it.
The last cheese was also technically a cheddar, this time Isle of Mull Cheddar, and being from a very different place to sunny(ish) Somerset, it served as a great embodiment of the French notion of terroir – that cheeses are influenced by elements beyond the basic ‘recipe’ of a cheese; by the land, seasons, animals and cheese-makers themselves. The Isle of Mull is wet and cold and these high levels of moisture attract more natural bacteria, which alter the taste of the cheese. Also, the nasty northern weather means that the cows bunker up in their shed (which has a carpet) for seven months of the year and are fed on hay and mashed barley residue from the whisky distillery in Tobermory; having visited the distillery and tasted the whisky, I can confirm that the cows do not have a bad life. The cheese is paler at these times of year due to the lack of grass – and hence good old beta-carotene. It definitely had a different flavour to the Keen’s, more fruity and yeasty, though still very tasty.