It’s hard to choose one quintessential English cheese. For some it might be Stilton. Others may plump for their own regional territorial, a Lancashire or perhaps what’s thought of as our oldest cheese, Cheshire. But there is one cheese that has a habit of featuring on many an ‘England’s Best Cheeses’ list (as well as in Pong’s English Selection Box) and that cheese is Montgomery’s Cheddar.
Montgomery’s Cheddar is a hard, unpasteurised, cow’s milk cheese, produced by Jamie Montgomery on Manor Farm in North Cadbury, Somerset. Cheddar’s earliest incarnation was probably as a goat’s or ewe’s milk cheese but by the eighteenth century it was a cow’s milk cheese, famed for its gargantuan size. In the early nineteenth century it was variously described as ‘filled with a limpid and rich, but not rancid oil’ and ‘a strong cheese, somewhat resembling Parmesan.’ These days, supermarket Cheddars can range from sweet, due to the use of a Helveticus starter culture to crunchy, when calcium lactate crystals are encouraged. Cheddar can be a tricky one to pin down.
However, if there’s one cheese often cited as the epitome of what traditional farmhouse Cheddar should be, it’s Montgomery’s Cheddar. The Montgomery family have been making cheese for three generations, over more than a century. Milk comes from the family’s own herd of 200 Friesian cows and is used to make cheese seven days a week, so that it’s as fresh as possible. Wherever possible, they adhere to traditional methods, starting with the use of unpasteurised milk, animal rennet and the use of liquid starter cultures, rather than freeze-dried.
The starter cultures are used to sour a churn of milk which is added to a vat of fresh milk the following day. Calf’s rennet also helps to coagulate the milk, forming curds and whey. The curds are cut and scalded before being channelled into a second vat, where the whey is drained away. Next comes the ‘cheddaring’, the process where the curds are cut into blocks, stacked up on top of one another and occasionally turned, to release more whey and allow the acidity to rise. When they are judged to be ready, the slabs of curds are then shredded with a traditional peg mill and salt is mixed through.
For some cheeses, being pressed into moulds is nearly the end of the process but the Montgomery’s Cheddars still have a long way to go from this point. They are pressed to remove any residual whey and then scalded, which helps them to form a rind, before being pressed again. Finally, they are bandaged in lard-soaked muslin which protects the interior of the cheese from unwelcome moulds whilst it forms a rind and sent to the storeroom to be aged for at least 12 months.
If you’re lucky (and you like it!) your slab of Montgomery may have some blueing, as in the photo above. The texture overall is slightly flaky but firm, with the occasional tiny crunch of calcium lactate crystals. The taste is the very definition of complex. One mouthful has a slightly beefy taste which then turns into something more herbal. It’s sweet but with a faint tang. Hit a patch of blue and there’s something else altogether, musty like antique shops. It’s full of flavour but not fierce or overpowering. And because of the milk and methods that they use, each batch of cheese can vary according to the seasons, what the cows are eating or even the weather. If you’re new to artisan or traditionally-produced cheese then Montgomery’s is a great cheese to start your adventures with.
Disclosure: I was sent an English Selection Box by Pong Cheese for review purposes. All opinions expressed are my own.