I am easily confused this week. Off the back of last week’s lurgy, we launched straight into the festivities for my Other Half’s ‘big birthday with a zero on the end’. Six days later my liver is a pulsating rugby ball and my head is filled with cotton wool. The only milk product I really need is milk thistle. So exactly the sort of day that some cheese could sneak up and get me all geographically confused again. First of all there was Shropshire Blue, which I discovered wasn’t made in Shropshire and then there was Appleby’s and their gold-standard Cheshire cheese, which is made in Shropshire, not Cheshire. Stilton, of course, can’t be made in Stilton. And now, here is Old Winchester – which isn’t made in Winchester (although it is sort of nearby, I’ll give them that…)
Old Winchester is a hard, pasteurised cow’s milk cheese made by Mike and Judy Smales on Lyburn Farm on the northern edge of the New Forest. The family have been farming in the area for more than half a century but the cheese-making started just 12 years ago, as a way to add value to their milk. They went on a short cheese-making course and then returned to the farm to start production. They didn’t want to make a Cheddar as they’re so close to Somerset and its multitude of Cheddars and so plumped for something a bit different, a Gouda-style cheese. But by following the techniques they had learned on the course with a Gouda recipe, a rather unique cheese emerged that was a sort of love-child of the two, which they called Lyburn Gold. The locals, though, weren’t convinced they liked this supple cheese and so Mike tried ageing it to 8 or 9 months; the new cheese was called Winchester. Old Winchester is an even older version of the cheese, aged to about 18 months (it’s also known as Old Smales).
The cows – a herd of 170 Holstein Friesians – are milked twice a day. After the morning milking, the milk is heated up to pasteurise it and then cooled. Starter culture is added and then vegetarian rennet. When the curds have set, they are cut into cubes and ‘washed’, in the traditional manner for Goudas. This means that after the curd has coagulated, much of the whey is removed and then hot water is added to the vat. 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. The curds are then put into 6kg moulds and pressed over night; the following day they are taken out of the moulds and put into a brine bath for 24 hours to absorb salt (Cheddars, in contrast are dry-salted when still at the curd stage). After a spell in the drying room they are then taken to the ripening rooms (the equivalent of a cave), where they’re turned regularly throughout the ageing process.
Old Winchester is a hard cheese in texture, a bit like a Parmesan or Old Amsterdam. It has the delicious little crunchy bits of crystal that you get in an aged Gouda (in cheeses like Gouda and Parmesan, the crystals are tyrosine but in mature Cheddars they are calcium lactate; considering that this cheese is a lovechild of the two, perhaps it’s tyro-cium lactate; I don’t know, you do your own science bit. I’m guessing tyrosine). It’s deliciously nutty and salty and could easily be used as a British alternative to Parmesan – or a veggie alternative, if calf rennet’s not your thing. But it’s not just a grating cheese, it’s also a great sneaking cheese, the sort that you nip into the fridge for, hack off a chunk and secretly eat. Come on, don’t tell me you don’t have a favourite sneaking cheese…
Additional research from The Courtyard Dairy.