Many myths abound about the origins of Cheddar and why the world-famous cheese took its name from a small village in Somerset. One is that a milkmaid left a pail of milk in the Cheddar Gorge caves for safety and when she returned found that it had turned into a delicious cheese. Another tale features some monks on a pilgrimage to nearby Glastonbury, a thunderstorm and some similarly transformative milk. Whilst anyone who has ever left milk in the fridge and gone on holiday for a fortnight will view such tales with scepticism, there’s no doubt that the cheese does take its name from the village of Cheddar which lies at the foot of the famous caverns. And, if you go down to the caves today, albeit the nearby Wookey Hole caverns, you’ll once more find some cheese.
The West Country was making cheese at least as far back as Norman times; in 1086, near Wincanton, 100 farm-made cheeses were sold for the princely sum of 3 shillings and 6d each, although Domesday records suggest that the cheese was more likely to be made of sheep or goat milk than cow’s. Whatever animal was responsible, its reputation began to grow and just a century later, Henry II purchased 80 hundredweights of cheese from Cheddar for £11. For the next five hundred years, Somerset cheese was feted as a mythological beast that was hunted but rarely seized. In 1601 Thomas Fuller wrote that cheeses made at Cheddar were ‘the best and biggest in England’ and were ‘so few and so dear, hardly to be met with, save at some great man’s table.’
Farmers all over the Mendips made cheese and legend has it that, in these pre-refrigeration days, they would mature it in the caves that can be found all over the hills. With their high levels of humidity and constant temperature of 11°C, caves are the perfect place to mature cheese without it becoming dry. In 2006, Ford Farm, based down in Dorset, revived the practice, taking their traditional Cheddar to the Wookey Hole caves. You can see it through some formidable metal gates if you take a tour of the Caverns but I was lucky enough to be taken via a secret entrance – skirting some dinosaurs and a hall of mirrors – right to where some ten tonnes of the cheese sits, 200 feet underground, glowing eerily under coloured lights.
Ford Farm’s Cheddar has PDO status as a West Country Farmhouse Cheddar (there is no PDO for Cheddar generally, hence why it’s produced all over the world). The truckles – each of which weigh in at a hefty 27kg – must therefore be matured for a minimum of nine months. Once the cheeses are turned out of their moulds, they’re bandaged and wrapped in lard, a traditional pre-vacuum-pack practice which prevents cheeses from drying out and losing too much weight. Cheddar made in this way is a dying art form; just 1,500 tonnes of it is produced a year by a handful of farms, representing a tiny percentage of overall cheddar production.
The cheeses are matured for around nine months at Ford Farm, where a cheese grader continually checks them for taste and texture. The best cheeses are then transported to the caves where they age for anything up to another six months. They’re cosseted beasts, checked daily to ensure they are developing properly and that cheese mites haven’t taken up residence (they’re blasted with a blow torch if they’re spotted). The cheeses develop a fantastic mottled mould on their cloths that makes them look as if they’re carved from granite and peppered with lichen.
The caves don’t just make the cheese look pretty though; the cheese takes on the flavour of its surroundings as it matures, in this case from a damp, cold rockiness. Mike Pullen, the Managing Director of Ford Farm, ironed various truckles for us to taste (and if this sounds like he flattened them, learn that a cheese iron is used to bore into the centre of a truckle to extract a cylinder of cheese for tasting). The different ages of the cheeses give subtle variations to their taste and intensity, with the older ones taking on an earthy complexity alongside the creaminess of the cheddar.
Cave-maturing is a strategy that’s paid off, as the cheese has proved to be a big success story, achieving Supreme Champion at the 2011 International Cheese Awards (the cheese equivalent of ‘Top Dog’ at Crufts). It’s exported as far afield as Hong Kong, Australia and Kenya and one Lincolnshire fan even gets his Christmas order in every January so as not to miss out. It’s thought that basic cheese-making began as early as Prehistoric times so who knows what’s next – perhaps some cheese-making in the shadow of nearby Stonehenge?
With thanks to Ford Farms for showing me around their cheese caves.