Anyone who’s been getting their cheesy fix from this blog for a while now will know that in the bowels of my house, amongst the old abs toners and rusting tins of paint, lives a home-made cheddar which goes by the name of Tooting Gold (or more affectionately E-Colin, or Colin for short). Colin was made in June 2013. I’d been learning about cheese for about six weeks when I thought it would be interesting to see for myself how it’s made and so, with zero knowledge about milk, cultures, rennet, temperatures, acidity, timings, hygiene, maturation or indeed pretty much any aspect of cheese-making, I plunged right in there and tried to make a cheddar. Not an easy ricotta or even a little chèvre. Oh no. A cheddar, which requires rennet and cultures and cheddaring and moulding and maturing and all manner of what-not.
But I had high hopes for Colin. He looked so perfect when he came out of his press:
And quite quickly he started to form a nice rind:
Colin survived a number of potential disasters. First, we had mice in the cellar but luckily Colin was on a high shelf and covered by the highly-technical protection device of an old sieve sellotaped to a plate. Fortunately the mice were soon seen off when the mains drain for our entire street backed up into our garden and subsequently into our cellar. Again, Colin was saved by his high vantage point; we mere mortals on the other hand found it quite difficult to get anyone to accept our barbeque invitations for several weeks. It was a humid summer and Colin got a bit sweaty and broke out in a
foul-looking grey-black mould slight rash:
A solution of brine water and some scrubbing soon had Colin back on his feet again, only for me to find him covered in mites one day (don’t worry, no photos available). I got quite excited for a while, thinking that perhaps they were cheese mites and I could produce the UK’s first version of Mimolette, but then I realised that they weren’t microscopic and so were probably just common or garden mites. Euch. Again with the salt water and all was well. Fortunately Colin’s rind was such that it was going to take a mite with a claw hammer to get through to the good stuff.
I never meant to let Colin mature for six months. I was so excited to have made a cheese-resembling object that I was dying to try a nibble. But then I visited a proper cheese-maker and was gob-smacked by the attention that has to be paid to hygiene. I started reading about the fact that young cheeses can harbour all kind of nasties and started to get a bit paranoid that I might kill someone. Plus, of course, all the best cheddars are aged for a loooong time, much longer than six months in fact. And so it was that six months passed, Colin acquired his own little house and started to look like he’d quite got his cheesy little feet under the table:
But, as Christmas and a trip to my cheese-judging mother-in-law approached, Colin’s days were numbered. It was time for the big reveal.
My mother-in-law worked in the dairy industry right up until her retirement, her job being to ensure that cheese was in tip-top condition and not likely to polish anyone off. She now judges at many of the big UK shows like Frome and Nantwich and in her time has awarded all manner of baubles and bangles, including Supreme Champion. I am preserving her anonymity here as imagine how dreadful it would be if our family were to be deluged with cheese bribes if I revealed her identity. However, in case anyone doubts the truth of my story, here is proof in the form of various cheese-judging paraphernalia:
So it was that Colin took his place on the festive cheeseboard in front of Mrs Cheese Judge, who was at this point unaware of any family involvement in the cheese’s genesis. It was a strangely emotional moment when I started cutting, as if one my children was finally flying the nest, but tears of pathos soon turned to sweat beads of frustration as I tried and failed to get through the rind. It cannot be denied that Colin was a little on the hard side; and I’m not talking about a firm rind that gives way beneath the knife to reveal the soft and supple paste within. I am talking brain-a-burglar hard. Here I am, attempting entry:
Finally I was through and Colin’s interior was revealed. It looked a little on the dry and flaky side compared to cheddar but at this point I hoped that perhaps it had aged so well that it would have the crystalline, crunchy inside of a vintage gouda or gruyère (even though I know full well that this takes a lot longer than six months…):
Mrs Cheese Judge inspected a piece between her fingers. ‘It’s a six month old cheddar,’ I explained. Mrs Cheese Judge shook her head slowly. ‘No.’ She took a nibble. ‘Oh dear.’ Things weren’t looking good and she had a point; Colin, I’m sad to say, tasted like that dried up old bit of cheap cheese that you find at the back of the fridge when you’re a student. Mrs Cheese Judge’s verdict continued: ‘I’m not quite sure what the concept is. As a cheddar, it’s too thin. There’s a certain soapiness to it…the balance of salt is okay…there are no off-flavours but no, just no. It’s a grating cheese, not an eating cheese.’ My burgeoning career as a cheese-maker in tatters, I looked for consolation with the question: ‘Have you ever judged a worse cheese?’ The news was better. ‘Oh God, yes. You get some awful cheeses, ones where you have to grab another judge and say “You just have to taste this!” I’ve tasted way worse than this.’ Phew.
At this point we revealed the producer of Tooting Gold/Colin and Mrs Cheese Judge, being a very nice mother-in-law, sought to find positives, my particular favourite being, ‘I mean, if you’d been in a foreign prison camp for several years then this would be just the ticket!’ Not quite the quote I was looking for to put on my marketing material, it has to be said. And her husband’s offer to ‘take it off your hands for mouse-traps in the shed’ wasn’t quite what I was looking for either. Feedback was constructive though: that such a thin cheddar was never going to age well, that it’s hard to make decent cheese on such a small scale and that using Jersey milk was a no-no for cheddar and similar hard cheeses because the fat globules are too large. A week later I received a letter with a p.s. that said, ‘Don’t let anyone denigrate your cheddar – it was a good effort!’ A kind judge indeed (or maybe just a kind mother-in-law; I’m not sure she sends a personalised missive to everyone whose cheese doesn’t make the grade).
It’s a shame that Colin wasn’t a delicious, fruity, tangy, farmhouse cheese but then, to be honest, given my complete idiocy and the trials and tribulations he underwent, it was a surprise he was edible and that we didn’t end up in A & E for New Year, vomiting through our nostrils. I’ve learned so much about cheese-making since when I made him but to be honest I’m not sure I could do much better a second time around. It takes not only technical expertise to make a decent cheese but also an element of craft and an absolute dedication to the cause. I also think I’m too impatient to wait it out for the requisite amount of time. Now Stilton, on the other hand, only needs to age for nine weeks…;)
Happy Fromage Friday! And if anyone’s making a record-breaking risotto this weekend and needs a kilo of ‘grating cheese’, make me an offer; I can’t bear to throw Colin’s remains away, so he’s still in the fridge.