Today’s cheese drew me to it like a fossil in a bed of pebbles. Lurking in a cheese shop, I was disappointed to find that they’d reduced their usual selection to less than a dozen. I was grumpy. I’d tried them all before and, although some of them were great cheeses, that wasn’t going to help me find a new one to write about. I was about to flounce from the shop when one cheese caught my eye. It wasn’t labelled and so I’d overlooked it but it had one of those beautiful rinds that made it look like a millstone or an ammonite. I asked the lady in the shop what it was and, sure enough, it was new to me and one that I’d been wanting to try. Praise be! So here it is, the cheesy siren on the rocks that is Old Ford:
Old Ford is a hard unpasteurised goat’s cheese made by Mary Holbrook at Sleight Farm in Somerset. To anyone who likes cheese, Mary is a veritable cheese wizard, also famed for such goaty wonders as Tymsboro and Sleightlett. When she started making goat’s cheese in the 1970s it was pioneering stuff and she taught herself by attending a course in Scotland and reading books. Mary has a mixed herds of goats which she rears seasonally, so that much of her fresh cheese becomes unavailable in the winter months when goats stop giving milk to prepare for kidding. They are also allowed to wander about at will on the hills around her farm, eating whatever they fancy. Their varied diet, coupled with Mary’s use of raw milk, means variation in her cheeses.
Old Ford is a difficult cheese to make as in hard goat’s cheeses it’s hard to strike the right balance between moisture and acidity. Mary uses interns to make some of her other cheeses but Old Ford is a case of ‘if you want something done right, do it yourself’ and so Mary is always in control. She breaks up the curds by hand so as to be gentle and also so that she can instinctively feel how the curd is behaving (apparently when it’s ready it starts to feel like rubbery scrambled egg and tastes sweet and delicate). She also washes the curds with hot water to reduce over-acidification.
When they’re ready, the curds are scooped into colanderesque moulds that Mary bought on a trip to Spain. The whey drains off and a few minutes later the cheeses are turned. After an afternoon of settling and turning in the moulds, they go into a brine bath, which helps to draw out further whey and also helps them to start forming the beautiful rind.
They are matured in an old stone shed. In the summer, when it’s warm, the cheeses are ready to eat in as little as three months but cheeses made in the autumn take longer to mature and become more dense and intense. The one I found in the cheese shop had a texture similar to Parmesan. ‘Is it always this hard?’ I asked the cheese lady (I later realised how accusatory this could sound and so I bought some sausages by way of apology, as British people do). She told me that it varied hugely.
My hunk of cheese is hard and flaky when you cut into it. It smells quite sweet, but not cloyingly so. Tastewise, bizarrely my first thought was of champagne and I think perhaps it’s slightly flowery like a dry white wine. It has a very clean taste, not goaty at all but quite sweet and salty. The tinterweb has mixed advice on whether to eat the rind, with some swearing it’s a delicacy and others declaring you ruin the taste of a great cheese. I quite like it, it’s chewy and earthy but I think it’s best to eat it after you’ve enjoyed the interior.