Contrary to what some of my friends think, I do not, alas, lie on a chaise longue all today quaffing free cheese. Partly because eating cheese lying down is a recipe for indigestion but also because mine is not the kind of blog that gets inundated with freebies. Which is fine by me, as a large part of the fun of it is deciding what cheese to try next.
Recently, however, I got invited to the Good Food Show by the cheddar chaps at Barber’s in Somerset and didn’t hesitate to accept; partly because it seemed free cheese might finally be in the offing, partly because it meant twelve hours on my own without having to attend to anyone’s toileting or answer questions about slugs, but mainly because I had recently found out that Barber’s are the sole guardians of Britain’s traditional starter cultures. For a cheese geek like me, it was an offer too good to turn down.
So it was that, after an unfeasibly early start and powered by tea, I found myself wandering among the slightly sweaty remnants of the World Cheese Awards, which had taken place at the Show four days earlier, with Giles and Charlie Barber. How about this for a whole lot of cheese:
And, on a table on the left about halfway down is a big chunk of Barber’s 1833 Vintage Reserve Cheddar, which had won a gold award in the Farmhouse Cheddar category. It may surprise some that it’s a block cheddar. When you eat a lot of nice cheese, it can be easy to develop a kneejerk reaction to any kind of block cheese, a bit like: ‘Oh no, I must only eat cheese made from the milk of cows that graze on dew-encrusted herbs on ancient ley lines and are hand-milked by virgins and aged in prehistoric burial mounds’. But just like some artisan cheese can turn out to be a bit ropey, so too can a block cheese turn out to be pretty darn tasty and Barber’s 1833 Cheddar has won both prizes and fans. The Barbers put it down to experience, quality of milk, using traditional practices such as still carrying out the cheddaring process (where the curds are stacked and turned) by hand and the use of traditional starter cultures.
The Barber family holds claim to being the oldest cheese-maker in the country, having traced their roots back to at least 1833 (hence the name of the Vintage Reserve). On being quizzed about how they can be sure of this, Giles is cheerily unfazed: ‘Well, that’s what our research indicates and we thought, “Let’s just put it out there, see if anyone disagrees”. So far, no-one has.’ This is a cheese dynasty that’s survived events that killed off many of their peers; the coming of the railways and cheese factories, two World Wars, milk quotas and supermarkets. And it’s still very much a family business, with a seemingly limitless supply of fathers, cousins and brothers to look after the farms and cheese-making (alas, in a very cruel turn of fate, Giles’s father proved to be allergic to cheese but is still part of the business).
Along with the passing of expertise through the generations has been the preservation of the starter cultures. Starter cultures are the ‘good’ bacteria that are added to the milk at the start of the cheese-making process, usually to give flavour and complexity to the cheese, as well as determine the appearance and aroma. They consist of bacteria naturally present in milk – from the animal itself, the fields on which it grazes and even from the air. Back in the mists of time, these starters would have been passed from one cheese-maker to another if there was a particularly good batch of cheese (and there used to be some five cheese-makers in the Barber’s village alone). However, as cheese-making became increasingly industrialised, the use of live cultures began to die out in favour of freeze-dried cultures. The advantage of freeze-drying cultures is that it enables you to produce a much more uniform flavour and they don’t die on you every few weeks. The disadvantage is that many strains of bacteria can’t survive the process and so you lose the variation and character that live cultures will produce.
In the 1980s, the last big dairy using live cultures decided to stop in favour of the freeze-dried type; they were literally hovering above a bin with them until the Barber’s offered to give them a home. Giles says they now have 16 different live cultures in a lab at the dairy (plus a set of spares off-premises, just in case) and they are the country’s only supplier, providing other cheddar-makers with the valuable resources (as well as other cultures that were saved such as the pre-pasteurisation Stilton cultures now used in Stichelton).
It’s these cultures, plus the rich Somerset milk – the Barber’s are in the heart of cheddar country – and a two-year maturation period that has seen the 1833 Vintage Reserve snap up prizes and plaudits. So it seemed only right to try it. I snaffled a fair amount at the show but when I got home, I decided to pit it against a supermarket-brand mature cheddar that we had lurking in the fridge.
The Barber’s certainly stood up well to the comparison. Texture-wise, the supermarket cheddar was quite rubbery, whilst the Barber’s had a slight crumble to it. Taste-wise, the Barber’s just, well, tasted much richer and full of flavour and the taste lingered in your mouth for longer. It was slightly sweet but not cloying and had a spicy edge to it. It also had lovely little crunchy calcium lactate crystals – Giles had set me straight that they weren’t tyrosine, as you only get tyrosine in cheeses like gouda, gruyere and parmesan, whereas in cheddar it is calcium lactate. (Please don’t ask me what the difference is as you are talking to the person who was given the answers to a chemistry exam at school with a nod and a wink and told to ‘work backwards to the question’; I still only managed to get 7%). Unfortunately when I went to get my camera to take a photo of my cheese test, a theft occurred:
Not only did the Barber brothers tell me all about their cheese, they also challenged me to cook a soufflé with it which is, quite frankly, cruel. They’d obviously not read my blog back to the part where I produced prize-winning roadkill soufflés in possibly the worst example of food photography ever published. But always up for a cheesy challenge, I tackled it head on…
Twice- Baked Cheddar Soufflés
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
6 black peppercorns
40g butter, plus extra for greasing
40g plain flour
125g Barber’s 1833 Vintage Reserve Cheddar, grated, plus 2 tbsp extra for sprinkling
3 large eggs, separated
1 tbsp chopped chives
Salt and freshly ground pepper
150ml double cream
Preheat your oven to 180˚C/160˚C fan-assisted/Gas Mark 4. Butter six ramekins
Place the milk, shallot, bay leaf and peppercorns in a saucepan and bring slowly to the boil. Strain into a jug. Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the flour and cook, stirring for 1-2 minutes. Remove from the heat and gradually stir in the milk. Simmer gently for 2-3 minutes. Add the cheese and stir until melted. Stir in the egg yolks, chives, salt and pepper. Remove from the heat.
Whisk the egg whites until holding soft peaks then fold into the cheese mixture.
Divide between the prepared ramekins. Stand the dishes in a roasting tin and pour in boiling water to come two thirds up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 15-20 minutes until well risen and firm. Leave to cool.
When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 200˚C/180˚C fan-assisted/Gas Mark 6. Run a knife round the sides of the ramekins and turn the soufflés out into an ovenproof dish. Pour over the cream, sprinkle with grated cheese and bake for 10-15 minutes until golden.
Hurray! Success! Not only did these soufflés actually look half-decent but they were also delicious, very rich and cheesy. I’ve got the soufflé bit between my teeth now and am already planning new combinations.
My freebie disclaimer: I received complimentary tickets to the Good Food Show and the ingredients to make the soufflés. I did not receive payment, and the views expressed are mine, all mine.