Okay, I’ll ‘fess up. I chose this week’s cheese for no other reason than it has holes in it, which is always a very funny thing, even in the serious world of artisan cheese. Holey cheese is the sort of cheese that you get in cartoons; it’s Tom and Jerry cheese, cheese for mice to drag into a half-moon mouse-hole in the skirting board. As a child I remember being fascinated by the holes and how they got there. I had some wide-ranging theories ranging from mice nibbling them to someone making them with some sort of special cheese-hole tool. But, really, how did the holes get in there?
Here it is, Mayfield, the holiest of British cheese:
Mayfield is a pasteurised, semi-hard, cow’s milk cheese produced by Alsop and Walker in Sussex. Previously I’ve used another of their cheeses, Sussex Farmhouse, in a British Fondue. The venture was founded by neighbours Arthur Alsop and Nicholas Walker who, after carving out careers in farming and catering, decided to get together and indulge their passion for cheese. Their aim was to produce a complete cheeseboard and they’ve achieved it by making a whopping 19 different cheeses (although some are seasonal). From blues to soft whites, Swiss semi-hards to hard farmhouse cheeses, they’ve got it covered.
Mayfield is named after the village in which they live and work. They buy milk from local dairies. To make Mayfield, cultures are added to the pasteurised milk, followed by rennet and when a set is achieved, the curd is cut and stirred. It’s then pressed for three hours before being salted (it’s made in giant 10kg wheels). Finally it’s matured for five to seven months.
And the holes? Well, the holes are all down to a starter culture called Propionibacter shermanii, a bacteria which gobbles up lactic acid and releases bubbles of carbon dioxide. These bubbles are then trapped in the cheese and eventually, as it matures, they ‘pop’ and leave behind holes. Fascinatingly, cheesemakers can make the holes bigger or smaller by fiddling about with aspects of the make, such as the temperature or acidity of the milk or how long the cheese is matured for. It surely must be tempting to produce the biggest hole possible without actually exploding the cheese, rather like trying to blow a bubble without it bursting. Or perhaps that’s just me.
The starter culture also affects the taste of the cheese. When the carbon dioxide is released from the lactic acid, the lactic acid is converted to propionic acid (still with me, fellow literary types?) and it’s this which gives Swiss cheese its unique taste. And – even more fascinatingly than the previous paragraph, if that’s possible – the size of the holes and the flavour of the cheese are related. The bigger the hole, the more intense the flavour.
Being a Swiss cartoon cheese, I expected Mayfield to be meek and mild. Its smell is characteristically Swiss, so a bit stinky feet but it wouldn’t scare the horses. On first bite it was creamy and sweet but nothing special and then the flavour sort of grew in my mouth and was far more fruity and full-bodied, the sort of taste that makes your mouth water as you’re eating it. It’s great to eat on its own but I imagine would be fantastic in a burger too. And how did the holes taste? Ah, you’ll have to buy some yourself and see…