Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Skinny on Cheddar

Sorry to break it to you. Cheddar isn't the magic food that will make you effortlessly skinny. But you probably already know that. It's common wisdom these days that cheese is a high-fat, high-calorie food that should be rigorously avoided, unless it's a pale cube of low-fat cheese. It's treated as if it were in the same forbidden food group as deep-fried Mars bars. Not that there's anything wrong with deep-fried Mars bars.... All around me, people (just women, in fact, from my carb-avoiding Mum to my food-loving and food-phobic girlfriends alike to my enviably skinny and toned customers at the cheese shop in N.J.) announce that are trying to eat less cheese.

Now, why would you want to do that? Yes, cheese won't make you skinny, but it won't make you fat either. You might glance at the picture above and point out my double chin to prove your point about the hazards of cheese consumption. In its defense, which I come to often, cheese alone didn't make me lose my chin (or my eyes). That was the result of living every day like it was Friday night when I was traveling for 10 months. (The eyes have to do with unfortunate genetics.) Now, to lose that weight, I'm living every day like it's Tuesday evening. But I haven't given up the cheese!

What you should be focusing on in the photo above, taken on a boat trip from the Isle of Mull in Scotland to a nearby uninhabited island where I got up close and personal with puffins, is my smile. Cheese makes you happy! As do wee puffins. It's my belief, probably unfounded by scientific, nutritional studies, that it is the satisfaction that comes from eating good cheese that prevents you from getting fat from it.

To illustrate my point, I'll share a conversation I had with one of my customers recently, a regular at the cheese counter who has a real love for cheese and who, I have to admit, has a more developed palate than I. She's probably around my age, maybe younger, and of a normal weight, and she doesn't voice any guilt about buying cheese for her and her family.

"Thanks for the cheese."

"No worries. I hope you enjoy them."

"You know, I just don't understand why we're all being told to avoid eating cheese because of the fat. I mean, look at us--you guys behind the cheese counter and me. We're not fat."

"Yeah, I know. I think that if you eat good cheese in moderation, you'll be fine."

"Well, that's it. If you eat good cheese, you're satisfied and you don't need to eat a whole lot of it. Also, I don't think that the fat in cheese is all that bad for you. See you next time."

She's onto something. Without a doubt, cheese is a nutritionally dense food, meaning that it's packed with nutrients, including fat and calories--which Americans abhor--but also protein, vitamins, and minerals--which Americans need more of (well, maybe not protein). Contrast this with nutrient-empty foods, like deep-fried Mars Bars, for which we seem to share the same level of pleasure and guilt as a schmear of a lush double-cream cheese.

So, go ahead; eat cheese! Just enjoy it, in moderation, and don't feel guilty about it. On top of that, pick something that you genuinely like. This means no virtuous, low-fat rubbery stuff. What joy is there in eating that lab concoction? This also means that you don't need to pass over the double- and triple-cream cheeses. Yes, they seem decadently rich, but ounce for ounce, they have less fat or about the same amount as sober hard cheeses. Depending on the cheese and your nutritional sources, brie has 6 grams of fat per ounce and Cheddar has 9 grams. Gasp!

How can that be? It has to do with water content. Younger cheeses, like St. Andre, have more water than the harder cheeses which lose liquid during cheese-making and aging. Think of the difference between a fresh apricot and a dried one. How many dried apricots does it take to equal the weight of a fresh one? Maybe two or three. If you eat the same amount of dried and fresh apricots in weight, you'd be getting twice or thrice the calories from the dried ones, just because you're eating more of them.

I can't help pointing this out to super-skinny customers when they moan about the amount of fat there must be in the buttery, double-cream Fromager d'Affinois, one of our best-selling cheeses. These real housewives of New Jersey are so fit and muscular that they look like world-class athletes. I refuse to fuel their masochistic guilt, and I won't be complicit in bad-mouthing cheese. On top of that, maybe these women are in need of a smile and a Friday night. Cheese can help with that!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What's Wrong with Cheddar?

(Photo taken from

I agree with Steve Inskeep. "What's wrong with Cheddar?"

This plaintive and totally apt question (in my mind) was how Inskeep, cohost of National Public Radio's Morning Edition, concluded a story by Ketzel Levine, back in August 2007. (It's taken me a wee while to write about this radio piece. In the intervening two years--well, just now--I've learned that there's more to like about Inskeep than just his views on Cheddar and his good humor in the morning. What a dapper radio personality!)

Ketzel's story, part of the ongoing series (at the time) "Climate Connections," with National Geographic, explored how global warming might affect the taste of Europe's traditional cheeses and America's new, farmstead ones. Well-crafted cheeses should taste of the grasses and flowers that the lactating animals were grazing upon at the time of milking. If the variety of flora changes, so will the final flavor. This happens naturally with seasons; a cheese made in May will taste different from one made in August because of what's growing at that time of year.

With global warming, this change in flora is happening geographically as well. An alpine cheesemaker interviewed for the story, Alex Pelletier, has noticed that plants native to the south of France are migrating into the mountains as the country's average temperature increases. One of the factors which make alpine cheeses (e.g., Beaufort, Gruyere, Emmental) distinct are the flavors that come from the plants that grow at high altitude. Dilute this mix with newcomers from the south and you might end up with a different cheese.

Of more immediate concern is the increase in water consumption by thirsty cows, unused to the higher temperatures. This dilutes the proteins and fats in the cows' milk, which means that the cheesemakers must use more milk to create the same amount of cheese, an unwanted extra cost.

So, how does this all relate to Cheddar?

Most of Ketzel's piece focused not on the traditional mountain cheeses of France and Switzerland, but on one from Vermont, Thistle Hill Farm's award-winning Tarentaise. Why an alpine-style cheese in a state that Ketzel calls "Cheddar country"? It has to do with climate, not history or culture. Recognizing that their local climate was more similar to the Alps than to damp England, John and Janine Putnam, owners of Thistle Hill, turned to Beaufort and Abondance, not Cheddar, for inspiration.

But I think it wasn't just the climate that steered the Putnams away from Cheddar. I detected a whiff of snobbery, as well as continued misunderstanding about this English cheese, which many folks, even cheesemakers, believe comes only from big factories. For the Putnams, it's only good enough to store in the freezer and serve as a snack for their kids. In addition, what they fear most about climatic change is that in the near future they might have to change their style of cheese and "succumb to Cheddar." But they hope that day of making Cheddar "never" comes. For them, it would mean the end of a nuanced cheese that tastes of grass and the seasons.

Global warming is a real concern, and until I listened to this evocative piece on the radio two years ago I never really thought how it might affect the future of traditional and artisanal cheeses. (Inskeep introduces Ketzel's story by reminding listeners that climate change can affect almost anything in our lives.) But is the worst thing about accelerated climatic change that some cheesemakers might have to switch to making Cheddar with the milk from their organic Jersey cows? There's plenty of room with this style of cheese to express your farm's sense of place and your cows' healthy and changing grass diet. Just taste a handmade Cheddar from Britain, like Hafod, Keen's, Montgomery's, or Isle of Mull. Or even from Modesto, California! These cheeses give any French or Swiss cheese a run for its money and should not be confused with factory-made Cheddar that works as hard as it can not to show seasonal variations.

So, if were not talking about a mass-produced Cheddar, what's wrong with it? And even if we were, I still ask, as does Inskeep, What's wrong with Cheddar? It's a bloody good cheese! Remember, the Putnams aren't keeping Gouda or Harvati in the freezer for their kids!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Pint for Cheddar

What comes to mind when I say, "pint and Cheddar"?

No doubt a pint of amber ale. It is, after all, an excellent, potable accompaniment to a hunk of farmhouse Cheddar.

But there's another kind of pint that a traditional, British cheesemaker might think of, a pint starter.

Typically--and hopefully--pints close, not start, a day in the dairy. A drink in the pub after a day of full-on, physical cheesemaking (or even cheesemongering) is just what you need.

For some cheesemakers, however, usually the farmstead ones in the U.K., pints also start the day. In this case, I'm talking about pints of starter cultures.

Starter cultures are one of the very few ingredients that go into making cheese. The others, besides milk, are salt and rennet. Each of these basic components play an integral role in turning perishable liquid milk into a solid food substance that can potentially keep for years and still taste like something would want to eat and pay good money for.

Starter cultures are harmless bacteria that are added to the milk to convert lactose, the sugar in milk, into lactic acid. Unpasteurized milk can do this on its own, without the addition of starter cultures, but results are unpredictable. By using specific lactic acid bacteria that have a proven track record of producing good-quality cheese and that behave in predictable ways (e.g., how quickly they will acidify the milk, how they will fare at particular temperatures, how they will tolerate salt, and how they will influence the final taste & texture of the cheese), cheesemakers can maintain more control of their craft.

Control, however, isn't always a good thing. Nuance, depth, and terroir can be lost when cheesemakers rely on freeze-dried packet starters, usually made in laboratories in the Netherlands or Denmark. As mentioned above, their use increases the chance of a well-made cheese, but these bacteria, isolated in a lab, have very little to do with the area in which the cheese originated.

To get a cheese to speak of place and tradition rather than of a modern, controlled factory, some daring folks in the cheese world continue to use pint starters. They look like old-fashioned, home-delivered pints of milk (see the photo above), but inside them, along with the pasteurized, semi-skim milk, are active strains of bacteria that are native to the place in which the cheese is made, or that have been used for generations in that area.

It takes skill, faith, and commitment to use pint starters. First, you have to hunt down a source for them. As far as I know, there's only one supplier in the U.K, Barber's. It's thanks to this cheese-making family in Somerset that pint starters continue to exist at all. Once the frozen pints have been ordered and safely shipped to your farm (not always a guarantee, especially if you live far away from Somerset, say on an island in Scotland) you must store them properly, i.e., frozen, until you are ready to use them. This takes planning. Whereas users of freeze-dried starter cultures can just tear open a foil packet at the moment they are ready to add the starter to a vat of warm milk, the folks who use pint starters have to thaw the pint the day before making a batch of cheese. When thawed, the contents are poured into a specific amount of pasteurized milk (to have a neutral environment for the bacteria to grow). Then the cheesemaker has to incubate the stew of bacteria overnight at a controlled temperature (see photo above for the space age-looking container in which Westcombe Dairy in Somerset incubate the starter). The next morning the right amount of the frothy starter has to be added to the vat of milk for cheesemaking to begin. The stuff that's added looks and tastes like yogurt. I've tried it before and have had it with my cereal for breakfast, as Mary Quicke does every morning. Yum!

But the resulting cheese tastes even better.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Taking Care of Cheddar

If the season for Cheddar is now upon us, then it's also time to take proper care of that hunk of semi-hard cheese you've just bought and brought home with you. (If you haven't done that yet, then go do it now, and buy some Honeycrisp apples, while you're at it!)

And how does one take care of Cheddar, you may wonder.

You're not alone in asking this question. I get it frequently--about cheese in general, not just Cheddar--when working behind the cheese counter.

My typical advice to customers, especially the ones at Neal's Yard Dairy, is to store their precious parcels of cheese in a cool, damp spot (not hard to come by in England!), e.g., in a garage, by a window, or in a wine cellar. These areas are preferable to the refrigerator because cheese prefers temperatures that range from 45 to 60 degrees F and a relative humidity of 80 percent or more. The fridge can't offer that. It's too cold and dry.

Keeping cheese in your basement or garage isn't always feasible or practical. In that case, the fridge will have to do. To my customers who shake their heads when asked if they've got a consistently cool or damp place at home, I tell them to keep their cheeses in the veggie drawer of their fridge, nicely wrapped in the special cheese paper I've given them. This is the most humid spot in the ice box.

I dispensed this advice numerous times throughout the working day at Neal's Yard Dairy, but I didn't know what happened to my customers' purchases once they got home at put them in the garage or fridge. Was one environment all that much better than the other?

I set up an experiment to find out. While at work late last November, I sliced three 250-gram (about half a pound) wedges of my favorite Cheddar, Montgomery's. I wrapped each one up in Neal's Yard Dairy's special cheese paper, a lightly waxed French paper, specifically designed for cheese, and then took them home with me. I put one wedge on the top shelf of the fridge, one in the veggie drawer, and one in a shoebox, which I placed atop a suitcase in the garage of the flat where I was staying, south of the Thames.

Once a week for four weeks, I examined the cheeses to see how they were faring in their respective spots. I did a visual inspection and then tasted them. I then dutifully took pictures of them together to document their progress (all of which were lost when my camera was stolen last December). After the first week, there wasn't much of a noticeable difference among them, but by the second week, the hunk in the veggie drawer had picked up off flavors. The veggie drawer next to it was storing some very ripe bananas, and the cheese absorbed the tropical odor. By the third week, the cheese in the garage had developed pin-dot circles of blue mold around the rind. By the third week, the cheeses had a new home in a flat north of the river, where the garage was replaced by a dank closet under the stairs, where my friends kept their wine and brooms.

By the fourth week, it was time to bring the cheeses to the shop and to have the experts taste the results of my experiment. The hands-down winner was the wedge kept in the garage and then the "cellar." A gifted American cheesemaker, who was helping during the busy Christmas season, remarked that it tasted as though it had just been cut from a wheel in the shop (once the superficial mold had been scraped off). The losers were the ones from the fridge. They had become unpleasantly waxy and dry. Surprisingly, the one from the veggie drawer was more dried out than the one from the top shelf. Both had stale, nasty flavors.

I learned from my experiment that the a cool, damp spot is infinitely preferable to the harsh environment of the fridge, provided that you can keep the cheese away from pets and pests. If you have to store your Cheddar in the fridge, keep it away from other food items that have strong smells and eat it quickly. In short, buy just the right amount of cheese so that you don't have to keep your cheese in the fridge for four weeks!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Cheddar Season

All of a sudden it happens. On an undetermined day in late September, rosy Jersey tomatoes, bouquets of basil, and plump balls of fresh mozzarella part ways. For the summer months they keep each other company on central display tables in specialty food markets. Their pert freshness speaks cool words to shoppers, "What could be more simple and satisfying on this hot and humid night than we three in an insalata caprese or in a bowl of spaghetti tossed with cubes of uncooked tomatoes and mozzarella and torn leaves of basil?" Not much, and off the trio fly from the display table, quickly replaced by workers in the produce and cheese departments.

As much as we want to prolong the carefree days of summer in the northeast, we must admit at some point that it's over. The crickets may still be chirping, the days warm and humid, and the garden still abundant with herbs and vegetables, but something has changed. The sun is no longer mercilessly hot. Instead it casts a warm glow, making everything look as attractive as a couple in love, sitting by an open fire. Its golden light catches very busy squirrels, scuttling about the leaves which are slowly changing color, collecting nuts. They can't deny it and nor can we. Summer's over and winter's coming.

Market managers break the news to us by changing the products on the display tables. "Autumn is here," they say, and they say it with apples and Cheddar cheese.

I've written before that I associate Cheddar with autumn, and I'm not alone. In the company of apples, the fruit inexplicably linked with the start of fall in the northeast, Cheddar signifies the end of light, summer cooking. Dishes take on toastier notes and a deep sweetness--think apple pie, roasted squash, beet salads, and stews with root vegetables. This hard cheese, which was traditionally made with the surplus of milk from spring and summer and was ready to eat in lean cold, months, fits perfectly with this flavor profile.

When will the apples and Cheddar disappear? Perhaps when we, at Sickles Market, run out of precious and delicious Cabot Clothbound Cheddar from the Cellars at Jasper Hill. Or perhaps after Thanksgiving, when we'll have to admit that winter has arrived.

Which cheese will help us make that chilly transition?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Not Cheddar

(Sorry again about the sideways picture. My camera is now being repaired at the Canon Service Center, so I hope to avoid these wonky pictures in the future.)

You would have thought that by now, after thinking of nothing much else but Cheddar for ten months, I would have figured it out: what's Cheddar and what's not. But I haven't.

Or maybe I have. After seeing the hard work and passion that cheesemakers all over the world put into making this popular cheese, in small dairies and in huge creameries (factories), I am tempted to cast my net wide and accept all Cheddars as Cheddars. Who am I to decide which cheeses get to go by the name Cheddar and which ones shouldn't? After all, I'm just a woman of leisure who gobbles cheese all around the world.

But I can definitely tell you what's not Cheddar. It's Stichelton. And I can say something else it's not, Stilton. Sure, the name is similar, as are its appearance and recipe, but the name is different. It has to be. Since Stichelton is made with unpasteurized milk, it can't be called Stilton. Less than twenty years ago, the Stilton Cheesemakers' Association mandated that to be called Stilton, Britain's historic blue cheese must be made with pasteurized milk. Before that, traditional--and tasty--Stilton was made with raw milk.

Stichelton, a cheese I wrote about in a typo-ridden entry last Christmas, was the only non-Cheddar dairy that I visited during my travels where I spent more than an hour or two. And it was the last dairy where I actually helped out a wee bit before ending my cheese-focused trip. Spending two full days at the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire was an excellent way to end my Great Cheddar Adventure even though I wasn't making Cheddar. It reminded me, after months of focusing on one type of cheese, that there is more than one way to turn milk into something you can slice and put on top of bread. Whereas Cheddar's "make" (the time from when rennet is added to milk to the time salt is mixed into the curd) is about five hours, Stichelton's is about twenty-two hours. Cheddar is a humming bird compared with the starfish pace of Stilton.

My visit to Stichelton also confirmed what I had already learned during my time at dairies: cheesemakers are wonderfully generous, patient, and giving people. Even though I was just "helping" for a day or two at the farm, I was welcomed warmly by the four other workers, and they patiently explained procedures to me and put up with my inexperience. One even laughed when I exhibited my usual lack of control with a hose and blasted her, instead of a cheese-encrusted spruce plank, with water. The head cheesemaker, Joe Schneider, invited me to stay at his house for two nights, and his wife Audre cooked veggie dinners for me, baked scones for breakfast, and made gin and tonics with fancy Fever Tree tonic water. At the end of my stay, everyone thanked me for my "help," but it should have been me thanking them for their generosity.

Making an unpasteurized blue cheese that is Stilton in everything but name also forced me to revisit the politics and difficulties in protecting the identity of a regional food. The use of the name Stilton, unlike Cheddar, is strictly enforced by the European Union. This is good and bad, and I am not sure how I weigh in. The good: a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) ensures that the integrity of a special, regional food can't be compromised by one that's been inferiorly made outside a designated geographical area. There will never be a Stilton produced in Wisconsin or Denmark; when you buy Stilton, you know you are buying a traditional cheese that was made in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, and Derbyshire, with locally sourced milk. The PDO not only protects the food product's name but also its history. The bad: something can be lost with rigid definitions. In this case, it's the very traditional way that this blue cheese was made, viz. with unpasteurized milk. As a result, Stichelton can't be called Stilton even though this is the way this cheese was historically made. The flip side of this is that Cheddar cheeses that are made with unpasteurized milk with pint starters and aged in muslin aren't distinguished from cheeses made in dairies that produce more in a day than what small farms make in a year. And the other side of this is that the widespread use of the name Cheddar has ensured its worldwide success. Everyone knows about Cheddar cheese.

What to do? Let everyone into the party or just a selected few?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Great Cheddar Moments, New Zealand, Part 2

The South Island of New Zealand is like one big U.S. National Park, but with world-class vineyards, friendly and generous folks who live there year round, and an abundant amount of Cheddar. With so many stunning outdoor spots, a visit to New Zealand tends to be full of activity: hiking, climbing, surfing, kayaking, fishing, cycling, glacier walking, camping, and beer guzzling. What better way to restore yourself after all this exertion in the fresh air than a wee hunk of Cheddar cheese? I can't, and that's why my great Cheddar moments in New Zealand came in tandem with enjoying the great outdoors.

1. In part 1 of this post, I described my first full day in New Zealand, when I spent the morning hiking up the grassy headlands along the coast, south of Christchurch, without any coffee or breakfast, and came back down to the town of Sumner three hours later, where I gobbled a cheese and herb muffin, my first in New Zealand. With this hike and muffin, my Kiwi adventures had began.

2. It wasn't just Cheddar that brought me to New Zealand. It was also its wine. A fan of the crisp and fruity sauvignon blancs from Marlborough, I dreamed of exploring this wine region. When I learned from a friend of a friend in Melbourne that you could bike from vineyard to vineyard, I realized that this trip could become a reality. Anxious about driving, especially when there's wine tasting involved, I couldn't explore the area by car. Public transport wasn't an option either. There wasn't any. A bike was perfect--safer than driving, it provided me with much-needed exercise and a chance to sober up between vineyards. And such a lovely way to get around the dry and breezy valley and enjoy the stunning scenery! I spent two full days biking to almost every vineyard in the region. On the second day I splurged on a multi-course lunch at one of the few estates that offer meals. I arrived hot and sweaty from biking full speed in the heat and wind to arrive on time. The long, delicious meal provided plenty of time recover. Key to this was a slice of very young Cheddar (perhaps too young, even by the cheesemaker's own admission), from local Sherrington Grange, that had been aged in bee's wax, from the cheesemaker's very own hives. It lacked the complex flavors of an aged Cheddar, but it was yummy and milky and I appreciated that it was made locally by the Harper women and that you could eat the wax. After polishing off everything on my plate(s), I staggered back to my bike and hopped on. By the next vineyard, my bulging stomach was less full and I was ready for another tasting of wine.

3. In between my two days of biking around the Marlborough wine region, I went out for a boat ride on the Marlborough Sounds. My hosts were an extended Kiwi family, whom I had met just the night before at a local English-style pub, the Cork and Keg. Two English couples came along as well to fish. The day out on the sounds was great for a number of reasons. First, it got me to the sounds. Until David offered to take me out in his boat, I was stressing about how I was going to get there on my own. If time weren't an issue, I would have taken a few days to hike the Queen Charlotte Track, but time was an issue; I didn't have enough of it in New Zealand. How could I go to Marlborough and not go to the Marlborough Sounds, I fretted. Another bonus was that I got to meet a real, live local family, who took me on board, so to speak. Our time together wasn't limited to the trip on the water; the next morning, I toured the bountiful farmer's market in Blenheim with them and then went over to their house that evening for dinner. To top it all off, I got to eat Cheddar sandwiches, Kiwi style, on the boat. There was the pineapple and cheese sandwich that I had bought that morning at the local dairy, i.e., the convenience store, and then there were all the sandwich fixings that the Bryces generously shared with me: New Zealand block Cheddar that one sliced with a wee nifty wire cutter available at supermarkets (which I forgot to buy to bring back to the U.S.), lettuce and tomato, tamari roasted seeds, hummus, and an assortment of chutneys and thick, flavorful spreads. I made more than one sandwich so I could try as many combinations as possible, all washed down with cans of beer while sitting on the deck in the sun, gazing out at the wooded hills sloping steeply down to the water. A great day out, even if no fish were caught.

4. Can beer drinking be considered an energetic outdoor activity? How about walking to the Montieth's Brewery in Greymouth, instead of taking the van from the hostel? Well, Eowyn, Brian, and I certainly got a workout from drinking numerous glasses of beer at the end of the corporate-feeling tour of the South Island brewery. Having gone for the gold, we needed food. Instead of joining the tour group at an all-you-can-eat barbecue, which didn't tempt us non-meat eaters, we went to a local chippie, as recommended by the tour guide. We each ordered the veggie burger and fries with garlic sauce. Only after I had ordered another burger the next day, before my train to the Southern Alps, did I realize that there was no veggie patty on this sandwich of grilled goodness; it was just a thick square of processed cheese, onions, a slice of pineapple and beetroot, and a fried egg on a hamburger roll. No matter: it was a satisfyingly sloppy, oozing mess of a sandwich that vegetarians rarely get to enjoy. We had the "Cheddar" to thank for cementing most of the fillings together. And we had the beer and the Central Otago Chardonnay to thank for keeping us smiling as we struggled to get everything into our mouths.

5. If I could fool myself into believing that biking to vineyards, sitting on a boat, and walking to a brewery tour were action-packed pursuits, I was certainly in need of some real exercise by the end of my trip to New Zealand. It came in the daring form of hiking up Avalanche Peak, in visibility that was so poor that I actually turned around, before reaching the summit. I turned around again when I came across another solo female hiker. We had met before, a few hours earlier, when we were registering at the Department of Conservation before doing the physically challenging climb. We teamed up and reached the summit together. It was a stunning view from the top. The clouds finally lifted to show the whole range of the Southern Alps and a glacier glowing blue on a mountain to the southwest. After waiting for some more clouds to clear, it was time to head back down. The sign at the base of Scotts Track, one of the two ways to reach the 1,833-meter peak, says that it takes 3 to 4 hours to reach the top. I did the whole climb, up and down, in 4 hours. I had to. I was catching a train later that afternoon to head back to Christchurch. This meant that I had to boogie. It also meant that by the time I made it back down to my hostel in the quaint village of Arthur's Pass, I was knackered and my legs were jelly. Guess what I had to restore my energy. Cheddar cheese, of course, but on a veggie pizza, left over from a rather lonely dinner the night before. It was tremendously satisfying, especially since I had a cold Monteith's Dark Beer with it. That was New Zealand: a tramp (a hike), Cheddar, and a beer...and a two-hour-late train. But it's all good.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Masala Cheddar

If you are looking for great Indian food outside the subcontinent, look no farther than. . . . Well, actually, you have to look pretty far. Not as far as India, but to a place that's nevertheless remote, in the northernmost part of Britain. I am not talking about John o' Groats in Scotland (which isn't, by the way, the most northerly spot on mainland Britain; it's nearby Dunnet Head), but Shetland, a group of islands over a hundred miles away. Traveling by ferry to Lerwick, the island's administrative center, from Aberdeen in Scotland or Kirkwall on Orkney takes almost as long as flying to India, about twelve hours.

The meals that Deidre and I shared (on the same evening) at Ghurka Kitchen and Raba, both in Lerwick, were some of the best South Asian dishes we've eaten. The veggies were fresh, not frozen; the spices, too, were fresh and well-balanced. Each bite was delightful and delicious, as well as surprising. Who would have thought that Asian food could be this good on an island in Scotland?

We started off the evening at Ghurka Kitchen, after a long day of taking three buses and two ferries to reach a nature reserve and its charming puffins on the island of Unst, nearly the northernmost point in Britain. Our plan was to share one dish there and another at Raba so that we could sample the food of both restaurants on our last night on Shetland. After a steady diet of oatcakes and Scottish cheddar for breakfast and lunch and chips, with fish or in a white roll (hmmmm...chip butty), for dinner, we needed variation and vegetables. Ghurka Kitchen, as its name suggests, specializes in Nepali cuisine. There we shared a thick curry of lamb and turnips, scooped up with nan bread and washed down with Old Scatness, a bitter made with an ancient type of barley, bere. It's from the island's brewery, Valhalla, located in Unst, making it Britain's most northerly brewery.

From there we returned to our hostel to plan the next leg of our trip, touring the distilleries on Islay, and then went out again, to Raba, where we greedily ordered an appetizer (chickpeas with puri, a combo I used to eat for breakfast in Varanasi) and two main dishes with chili nan (saag paneer and a mixed vegetable curry). As at Ghurka Kitchen, the food was delicious, but we couldn't finish it. Our young waiter, whose family is from Asaam and who had a charming Shetland accent, obligingly packed up the leftovers for us. The next night Deidre and I ate them on the overnight ferry to Aberdeen (see photo above). We savored the dishes almost as much as at the restaurant, proving that the food was indeed good and that our appreciation for it wasn't influenced by its novelty.

Two nights later we were on Islay. In Port Ellen was another Indian restaurant. Could it be as exceptional as the ones on Shetland? The answer is no. The food was oily; the vegetables frozen; the spices rough. On top of that, the kitchen lacked authentic ingredients. Instead of real paneer, which is difficult to get on Islay (but it was available on Shetland), it had to resort to Cheddar. As curious as I was to try this, we steered clear of the saag paneer, with the waiter's guidance, and ordered saag aloo instead.

So, what does this all have to do with Cheddar? Just a wee bit. It shows that woman can't live by Cheddar alone and that Cheddar can be, in a pinch, Indian.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


If you thought it crazy of me to give up my job and apartment in New York City to chase Cheddar around the globe for ten months, what about launching a 300-gram hunk of it into space?

What lengths--and heights--people will go to to promote farmhouse Cheddar!

(Thanks to Cailin and Ben for sharing this high-flying news item with me.)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Tales of a Curd Addict

(Sorry to be sideways again; the camera I bought in Dubai Duty Free to replace the one that was stolen from a pub in London in December is crashing and burning and doing strange things, like making pictures turn sideways.)

I'll finish my reflective blog posting about New Zealand soon. But first I want to talk about cheese curds.

I'm addicted to them.

Luckily, they aren't illicit, and my addiction won't send me to a rat-infested cell in Bangkok or force me to get pregnant in a Lao prison to avoid a death sentence for drug smuggling. But they will keep me hanging around a cheesemaking room longer than is healthy or helpful.

While working at Isle of Mull Cheese this past June, I timed my second and final break of the day to guarantee that I would be around the cooling table to score some loose curds before they were scooped into molds or cleaned away with a very hot water jet. Once I came over to the cooling table too early for my score and nearly caught my hand in one of the blades that turns the curds to mix in the salt evenly. My alarmed coworker told me I should wear a bell so that he would know when I was approaching.

Munching salty and squeaky curd that was still gently oozing warm whey was the highlight of my day and I allowed myself to think (probably erroneously) that doing so was my right--the payoff for working in the dairy.

A week ago today was the last time on my Great Cheddar Adventure that I got to eat cheese curds straight from the cooling table (see sideways photo above). Almost more than I'll miss an unlimited supply of fresh, unpasteurized milk and merry beers with my coworkers in Mull, I am going to miss those cheese curds.

My addiction for the freshest curds (not the ones sold in plastic bags in Canada) might send me back to work in a dairy. In the meantime, I'll dilute my dairy desires by drinking whisky with Deidre in Scotland. (We're on Shetland right now).

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Great Cheddar Moments, New Zealand, Part 1

This is the first of two posts reflecting on my great Cheddar moments in New Zealand.

When I first arrived in New Zealand in early February, I felt out of sorts. I was alone, whereas in Australia, where I had just flown from, I was always in the company of friends. I was chilled; the temperature in Christchurch was half of what it had been in Melbourne (21 C vs 42 C). I had no agenda; in Australia I had people to see, places to be.

Aimless, I spent my first evening in New Zealand gazing at the gentle waves of Sumner beach and the surfers in full wet suits riding them. The rest of the long evening stretched ahead of me, and I had no idea what to do with it. When you travel alone it can be a problem figuring out how to spend your evenings. Dinner normally fills a good chunk of the time, but I had ruined the chance of that by anxiously gobbling a variety of roasted nuts as I watched the surfers and let my mind whirl. Some of the nuts--the salty mixed ones--had come from Andrea, some--the over-roasted pistachios--from a bar in Brighton, near Melbourne, that I went to with Andrea and Claire the night before, and some--the raw almonds--from a farmers' market in Melbourne. I wasn't even hungry (I had eaten two cheese sandwiches on the plane, made from the 5-kilo stash that Will Studd had given me a few days earlier); I was unsettled.

To do something, I drank a cocktail at a restaurant that overlooked the chilly beach and then went on the Internet at my backpackers in Sumner. I checked a few e-mails and the bus times to the Marlborough wine region and then confirmed that the exchange rate was as good as I thought it was, 1 USD = 2 NZD. It was the first favorable exchange rate of my trip; everywhere else had been bruisers. And then I made a plan for the next day. I was going to go for a run along the beach. The exercise would settle my nerves and help me lose some the weight I had gained.

Without coffee or the complimentary white toast with butter and Marmite, I headed out from the backpackers to the esplanade along the beach and started to run. It was slow going and frustrating. I felt stiff and was in a bit of pain from the tightness of my muscles and the lack of support from my worn sneakers. I ran the long curve of the esplanade until it ended at Scarborough beach, where it became a sidewalk that climbed steeply into the headlands. I alternated running and walking up the hill. At the top, which has stunning views of the small, exclusive town of Sumner, the water, and the headlands, I had planned to run back down, but I decided to carry on. I abandoned running and walked briskly along the trail that brought me down to secluded Taylors Mistake Bay and then back up again into the grassy headlands that rose above the sea. I was worried about becoming cranky from lack of coffee and food, but I encouraged myself to be in the moment and carry on.

The scenery was stunning, and my heart lightened. It was good to be in New Zealand.

Back at Scarborough beach about three hours later, I stopped at a cafe, wittily called Scarborough Fare. My flat white couldn't come fast enough. I also eagerly awaited a cheese muffin with herbs. I was so fatigued from the extended walk that I didn't savor the taste of the muffin, but it was good. Yes, I thought to myself, not only was New Zealand as beautiful as I had heard, but it had Cheddar cheese like I had hoped.

It was my first cheese muffin, but by no means was it my last. No matter what town I was in I could find a bakery or a cafe that sold cheese muffins or scones. The muffins in the photo to the left are from the farmer's market in Dunedin. This meant that all my days in New Zealand started with Cheddar cheese; all in all, twenty-three great Cheddar moments.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Great Cheddar Moments, U.K.

Only six weeks of my Great Cheddar Adventure remain. For many, a six-week holiday is a lovely, extended period of time, but for me, who's been away for thirty-eight weeks now, it seems woefully short. The time will disappear too quickly. That's the nature of time, isn't it? Things--life--start off slowly and then, at a certain point, race to the end.

As my adventure draws to a close, I've been reflecting on my most memorable Cheddar moments. Most of them have been either in the U.K. or New Zealand. I'll share them with you, but in two separate posts so that I don't overwhelm you, dear reader. (As a reminder, I've already written about unexpected meals with Cheddar in Germany, Poland and Spain, all the way back in October.)

1. The hands-down highlight was working at Neal's Yard Dairy in London for two months. There are six reasons why: Montgomery's, Keen's, Lincolnshire Poacher, Hafod, Westcombe, and Isle of Mull. These are the names of six of the best Cheddar cheeses in the U.K. (and many would say the world; see photo of three of them on display at Neal's Yard Dairy), and I could taste them each and every day. Not only could I eat them, but I could also handle them, care for them, make customers and friends happy with them, and make lunch with them. A particularly yummy lunch involved Montgomery's, North Staffs oatcakes, Rosebud Preserve's Old Yorkshire Chutney, and a George Foreman grill. The oatcakes from North Staffordshire aren't the hard, cracker-like ones from Scotland; they're more like spongy pancakes made with a combination of of wheat flour and oatmeal. For my lunch break, I put one onto the grill, spread it with chutney, added sliced Cheddar, rolled it up like an enchilada, and then closed the grill. And waited. After a few minutes, the outside of the oatcake got crispy and the Montgomery's Cheddar melted, becoming sweeter and richer. The warm chutney had acidity to balance the sweetness of the cheese and raisins to complement it. If I wasn't going to be eating cheese for the rest of the afternoon, I would have made another one. (Other memorable lunches at work: North Staff oatcakes with melted Sparkenhoe Leicester and fresh sage leaves; toasted English stick [like a French baguette] with pungent and smoky Ardrahan from West Cork.) Limitless access (well, within reason) to these Cheddars is one of the many things I will miss about working at Neal's Yard Dairy. I hope that one day I'll be able to work there again.

2. Porridge probably doesn't get too many people exicited, but how about a bowl of it made with Scottish oatmeal that has been soaked overnight in unpasteurized whole milk, cooked with more milk and young, tangy Cheddar (only about a week old, also made with unpasteurized milk), and finished with black pepper? Let me tell you that this was so satisfying that I kept thinking about the bowl I had enjoyed at lunch, while I was walking the length of Loch Frisa (about 10 km) later that afternoon. I've made it twice since, including this morning before going to the local producers' market in Dervaig and then for another walk, this one through Glen Gorm to Loch Tor and then onto standing stones (very appropriate today, the solstice). The dish is like a rough but very rich polenta, and I can imagine warring highlanders or miserably cold Roman soliders fortifying themselves with it. That's what I am going to miss about working at Isle of Mull Cheese--easy access to unpasteurized milk (when the tanks are full) and their Cheddar(-like) cheese. With walks and dairy products as good as these, I might never leave!

3. Cheddar is the traditional cheese of Somerset. The traditional drink is (hard) cider. Put the two of them together and you've got a very happy Diana. One of the best afternoons I've had in the U.K. was spent with my friend Stony at Land's End Farm in Mudgley (what a name for a village!), site of Wilkins Farmhouse Cider, after spending the late morning hiking the rim of Cheddar Gorge. When we first arrived at the farm, we were the only two people there, besides Mr. Wilkins himself, an older gentleman with ruddy cheeks and a blue jumpsuit, and a quiet man sitting in a dark corner of the barn, drinking cider from a glass mug. Soon, Stony and I were sitting with Dave, who poured me half pints of medium cider (six in total for me that afternoon!), by mixing sweet and dry cider directly from the large upright barrels. It was a Friday afternoon, and locals starting arriving, either to stick around for a few half pints and stories in the barn's makeshift lounge or to fill up plastic containers with cider to bring home. When I told Mr. Wilkins that I was researching Cheddar cheese, he brought Stony and me a complimentary plate of Westcombe and Green's Cheddar with crackers and a bowl of bracing pickled onions (see photo). It was the taste of Somerset. And how good it was! The cheese is probably what saved me that afternooon; I was sober enough to end the day by walking around a stone circle in the Mendip Hills. That's one of the many things about England that I'll miss, real cider and the real Cheddar to go with it.

4. I'm a woman who likes to eat. And to drink. And I believe that the two of them are best done together, especially when one part of the equation comes for free. The country which does this best is Spain. This past October I finally made it there (what took me so long?), and what I thoroughly appreciated was that when you ordered a drink at a bar, you also got an extraordinarily tasty treat (pinxo, tapa), for free. Why don't other countries do this? The closest you come to this in the States is free tortilla chips with your margarita or pretzles with your beer. In England, not much comes for free (except for healthcare). To satisfy my need to eat something when I drink a pint, I usually buy dry roasted peanuts or a packet of crisps. These options don't sound enticing (especially when compared to the Iberian gourmet tidbits given for free), but sometimes after a long day of work or even a long walk, nothing is more satisfying than a pint and a packet of crisps. I often opt for the flavor of cheese and onion. Need I mention that the "cheese" in "cheese and onion" is based on Cheddar? It ain't manchego, cabrales, or tetilla, that's for sure. But Cheddar is the cheese of England, and of the world, and it's a great flavor for crisps. That's what I'm going to miss about my time in England, going for a pint with coworkers or friends and getting a packet of cheese and onion crips to share.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Cheddaring Workout

Cheddaring is hard work. I've seen men with biceps as large as Rafael Nadal's sweat doing it. I myself become exhausted and cranky, especially if I've gotten up at 4:30 in the morning to be at the dairy by 5:45 a.m. What pulls me through is the payoff of a stray tidbit of tangy and salty fresh cheese curd, as well as the need to save face. I may be a woman, with scrawny biceps, but I can still cheddar!

After months of overindulgence (I know, I go on and on about this), I was looking forward to four full weeks of cheddaring at Isle of Mull Cheese in Scotland. It was going to be my workout, one to tone my arms and burn off excess calories, or at least the ones from eating fresh cheese curd.

But it wasn't to be. Isle of Mull Cheese doesn't cheddar their Cheddar. They stir it. And they do it with a machine. Mechanically stirring the curd doesn't develop anyone's biceps.

Instead of letting the curd particles knit together after the whey has been drained off and then cutting the curd into thick slabs and flipping and stacking these slabs every fifteen minutes or so (see photo above from Westcombe Dairy), the cheesemaker on Mull lets the curd particles rest in a big heap in the center of the cooling table and then periodically mixes it with rotating paddles. All he does is push a button.

This was a real surprise to me. I assumed that they cheddared their cheese, as most farmhouse producers do. It's usually just in the large-scale production of Cheddar that the curd gets stirred. There goes that workout I was hoping for.

I am not the only one who's surprised. One of the guys in the dairy, a young Aussie from Perth who ultimately wants to make cheese from the milk of merino sheep, told me, "Everyone's spun out when they find out that we don't cheddar our cheese." I love that Aussie expression.

Even Will Studd, the master of cheese in Australia who came to the farm on Sunday with a camera crew to film a segment for his great travel series about cheese, Cheese Slices, was "spun out." He didn't say this in so many words, but he called me over to the cooling table, where he was standing with the head cheesemaker, watching the blades spin around, stirring up the mass of curd particles. I was at the other side of the dairy, larding truckles and dressing them in wee strips of muslin.

"Di, you're the Cheddar expert. What makes a cheese a Cheddar?"

I was in a tricky position here. Do I give Will the answer that he was looking for, viz. that a true Cheddar should be hand-cheddared. Or should my answer be more diplomatic in front of the head cheesemaker?

"Well, I think a Cheddar should be cheddared, but Chris just told me yesterday that stirring the curd has the same effect as cheddaring. By the time the curds are milled, they have the same cooked chicken breast texture that cheddared curd does. Also, Mull doesn't call their cheese a Cheddar."

"No, we would never call our cheese a Cheddar. Other people do, but we don't." There was a hint of frustration and defensiveness in Chris's voice. I am sure she has to explain her stirred-curd method more often than she would like.

"It's good that you don't. I wouldn't want you to. Cheddar's made in Somerset, in England, and you're up here on an island in Scotland. You've got something completely different and unique going on."

Ah, so Will was giving his definition of Cheddar.

"So, Will, can Cheddar only be made in Somerset?"

"That's for you to figure out and write in your book," Will winked.

My book. Since my body's not getting a work out, my mind might as well. I'll have plenty of time to do that while my thoughts drift as I lard truckles and wax 200-gram wheels of flavored Cheddar. What is Cheddar cheese?

But maybe they'll let me scoop the chipped curd out of the cooling table and into the hoops. That's a workout, too. And they do that by hand.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Blessed are the Cheesemakers

“Have you ever thought about becoming a cheesemaker?”

It was Sam Holden of Hafod Cheese who asked me this question. When he did, I was leaning over into the dairy's small, circular wooden vat--about the size of a hot tub--which Sam and his wife Rachel had picked up with their car in Holland and took back to Wales on the Eurostar. We were in the middle of cheddaring, or flipping and stacking blocks of curd, heavy with whey.

I was slightly taken aback. Never had the question been posed to me in this way. Usually people ask me, "So do you want to become a cheesemaker?" when they are trying to figure out why I am visiting Cheddar dairies all over the world. They assume it’s because I want to make my own cheese. I tell them no; I am trying to write a travel book about Cheddar, with a good dose of history about the world's most popular cheese type. Sam’s phrasing was different and I couldn’t give my typical response. He almost seemed to be suggesting that I give it a go.

I finished flipping and stacking the last block of cheese curd and then stood upright in my white wellington boots and answered Sam.

“Ah, no. I mean, what cheese would I make?”

That’s the only answer I could come up with. It was an honest response. For someone who is a poor decision maker and who loves all kinds of cheese, how could I select just one cheese to make? Would it be a hard, aged cheese or a soft, young one? Would it be made with cow’s, sheep’s, goat’s, or buffalo’s milk or a combination of them? Would it be a blue cheese, an orange washed rind, or one with a white bloomy rind? Believe it or not, it wouldn’t be a Cheddar cheese. I could never improve on what’s already out there.

Another reason it was difficult to answer Sam was because it was a genuine query and I was tempted by what he was proposing. Why don’t I become a cheesemaker? Sam and Rachel’s life in central Wales is one that I respect and greatly admire. Still quite young (around thirty years old), they gave up London, where they had studied and lived for almost 10 years, as well as their office jobs there, which paid them well, to live in the Welsh countryside. They were done with city life, and they wanted to help make Sam's father's farm economically viable. Bwlchwernen Fawr, which began as commune in the 1970s, as things did back then, is the longest standing registered organic dairy farm in Wales. Sam and Rachel have a good quality of life on the farm and they are doing good things by showing how to farm sustainably. And they make a damn good cheese, Hafod, a buttery and rich Cheddar-like cheese, made with raw, organic milk from the farm's herd of Ayrshire cows.

Could I do it? Would I do it? Because of Sam I am now indeed thinking about becoming a cheesemaker. But for now I am spending my days waxing hockey puck-sized rounds of shredded and flavored cheese on the Isle of Mull in Scotland.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Orange Cheddar

If you hail from Vermont, you probably like your Cheddar milky white in color. If you’re from the South, you’ve preferred orange-colored Cheddar since the 1700s. And if you live in New York State or Wisconsin, you’ve got your pick, white or orange. Same choice goes for the rest of the U.S. and even the rest of the world.

Why the choice? Why does Cheddar cheese come in these two colors?

No one really knows. But there are theories.

It’s pretty easy to explain white Cheddar. Since milk is white, uncolored Cheddar gives the impression that it’s the most natural.

But this isn’t totally true. If cows feed on grass, they ingest and metabolize beta-Carotene which gives their milk a slight golden hue. Instead of invoking cows in a field, white Cheddar can signify that cows are eating silage and not grass, their preferred food source. Most dairy cows these days don't eat grass, but in the past, cows used to eat silage only during the winter months and grass the rest of the year. Cheddar cheese, or any cheese, made from winter milk doesn't have the pleasing light yellow color that summer milk does. To make it seem as though their cheeses were made with summer milk, cheesemakers used the natural food color annatto, the seed of the achiote plant from South America, to impart an orange color. This is one of the theories about why Cheddar was dyed orange, and it’s the one you most frequently come across.

Another theory about orange Cheddar is one that I heard during a group training session for new cheesemongers working the busy Christmas season at Neal's Yard Dairy. By coloring their cheeses orange, small cheesemakers of yore hoped to make their products stand out among all the other traditional hard English cheeses in a local shop or market. Orange is certainly eye catching.

While I tend to subscribe to the former theory, this other hypothesis could be onto something. Orange is used in England like in no other country, as far as I can tell. While orange in the States is associated with outdated kitchens of the 1970s, fast food restaurants until recently, and Home Depot today, you come across it quite frequently in England, especially in uniforms, train tickets, promotional posters, and logos (think easyJet). There's even a mobile phone company called Orange. For the English, maybe orange is both distinctive and familiar. Orange-colored cheese may be good marketing.

Traditional Cheddar makers today don't color their cheeses, so if you see an orange block of Cheddar, it was most likely manufactured on an industrial scale. A white Cheddar, however, is no indication that it wasn’t. It was probably made the same way the orange block next to it in the supermarket was, but just not dyed. A light yellow Cheddar with a rind is the one to go for if you are looking for a cheese with complex flavor.

Don’t be wary of all orange cheeses. Some British territorial cheeses, e.g. Cheshire, Double Gloucester, and Red Leicester (see photo above), still come in varying shades of orange even when they are made laboriously by hand using unpasteurized milk and cloth bandaging. And why’s that? It’s just the color that these cheeses have become associated with. They probably wouldn’t taste the same if they didn’t appear orange even though the coloring agent, annatto, doesn’t impart any flavor. Why's this? Visual clues inform taste sensations. For instance, if I gave you a lollipop that was apple flavored but colored purple, chances are you wouldn’t be able to identify the fruit. You’d be thinking grape or raspberry, but not apple. I remember when I was in 8th grade, a friend dyed my milk green on St. Patrick's Day. I couldn’t drink it. Even though it couldn't have tasted any different from white milk, it tasted wrong. I kept expecting a different taste that didn't come.

Yellowish handmade Cheddars are the ones for me, but if I had to chose a white or yellow slice of American cheese for a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich, I’m going with orange. It’s what tastes right to me, no matter how wrong that may be.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Cheddar, Cider, Circles, and a Cathedral

“Go on. Giver her a bit. She’s got to learn to like Cheddar. She’s from Somerset.”

The woman working at the Saturday market in Wells, England's smallest cathedral city, obliged. She speared a small cube of cheese with a toothpick and gave it to the father who was holding his young blond-haired daughter, probably three of four years old, in his arms.

The girl didn’t do Somerset proud, as her father had hoped. She grimaced and then rubbed her head into her father’s shoulder.

“Ah! See, she doesn’t like it,” smiled the woman behind her covered stall.

The father looked as his daughter, who had lifted her head up and was eyeing the pies and sponge cakes next to the different types of Cheddar at the stall.

“Ah. That’s all right. She’ll learn.”

Cheddar may be the world’s most popular cheese type, but it is essentially the cheese of Somerset. Before being produced all around the globe, Cheddar was made only on small farms in the southwest of England. It is in this county where Cheddar got its name. There’s a small but very touristy village in Somerset called Cheddar. For centuries people have gone on holiday there, not to eat the cheese but to explore the area’s dramatic limestone gorge and caves. The theory is that people would visit the village, eat the local hard cheese after a strenuous hike in the gorge, and then return home, telling people that they had eaten some delicious cheese while in Cheddar. The regional cheese got associated with the specific location.

A Great Cheddar Adventure, such as the one that I’m on, necessitated a pilgrimage to Cheddar Gorge. After spending a week at the three uber-traditional dairies that make Cheddar in Somerset (Westcombe, Keen’s, and Montgomery’s) and days on the Internet at my mother’s cousin’s place in Bath, I took myself off to Wells (probably to my cousin’s great relief!) to meet my friend Stony Grunow, who, like me, grew up in New Jersey with an English mum and has now moved to London.

In one day, driving around in a car that Stony rented in London (despite a driving lesson, I am still too nervous to drive in the U.K.), we “did” quintessential Somerset. We hiked the rim of Cheddar Gorge in the spring sunshine (but didn’t go into the caves; we were unwilling to pay 16 pounds sterling and we were put off by how touristy and tacky the village was), ate Cheddar made in Cheddar (though it wasn’t particularly good), drank real cider (a drink specially linked with Somerset) at a ramshackle but very popular cider mill, and explored two stone circles (see photo above) in the glow of the early evening sun. Back in Wells, we raced off to a pub before it stopped serving meals at 9 p.m. and then walked around the medieval cathedral, spectacularly illuminated at night.

There you have it--Cheddar, cider, (stone) circles, and a cathedral--the enduring tastes and history of Somerset.

For pictures and more descriptions of the village of Cheddar and the cider mill (and the problem we had with the rental car), visit Stony’s Web site.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Flipping Cheddar

This is not a good look for me--the jumpsuit stained with mold and mites, the mask so I don't breathe in any molds and mites that aren’t already rubbed thoroughly into my jumpsuit, and the blue hairnet (to protect the cheese from my hair, not my hair from the mites.)

But what could be more beautiful than a store filled with 225 or so wheels of Quickes Cheddar made with unpasteurized milk?

I spent a happy but tiring afternoon on my first day at Quickes Traditional in Devon, not far from Exeter, turning 185 25-kilo (over 50 lb) wheels of maturing Cheddar. Until they are stripped of their cloth rinds and cut with a cheese wire into manageable pieces, the wheels need to be turned regularly so that they don’t stick to the wooden shelving and so the moisture that remains inside of the hardening cheese gets evenly distributed.

You may wonder what happened to the other 40 wheels and why I didn’t turn them. I hate to admit it, but I just wasn’t strong enough for the task that I had volunteered for. On top of that, I was knackered. Up at 5 a.m. to report to the dairy by 5:45, I spent the morning larding and dressing truckles, helping with the cheddaring, and dipping the truckles that had been made and pressed that same morning into brine and then putting them back into their wee molds for another pressing.

The neglected wheels were up on the top shelves. There wasn’t enough space between them and the ceiling to flip them 180 degrees by tipping them gently over onto their sides. This method would have involved the least amount of wrestling with gravity. The only way to do the job was a risky one. Standing on the top of a wooden step ladder, I’d have to lift up each cheese, bring it toward me, flip it over while getting more mites and mold on me, and then heave it back onto the top shelf. I might have been able to do it if I could have rested the cheese on a shelf below in between the lifting, turning, and heaving, but there wasn’t. I successfully managed to turn three or four in this way, but then I conceded that it wasn’t worth the risk. I was going to either drop a cheese or I was going to fall off the ladder. Not worth it.

It was good for me to get the exercise (I lifted almost a total of 10,000 pounds in less than two hours! Is that right?) since I am still flabby and untoned, but what was more important is that it helped me see why some small cheesemakers (e.g., Montgomery’s and Westcombe) are thinking of following the Swiss, French, and Americans in getting robots to vacuum and flip their artisanal cheeses. The vacuuming sucks up the mites. The custom-made robots, made by a quiet and thoughtful Swiss man, are expensive but in the long run they’ll save the cheesemakers money and will save the backs of their employees. And they won’t have to wear those jump suits.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Mighty, Mite-y Cheddar

Did you have bad dreams about cheese mites after my last post?

If you didn't, you might after looking at this photo!

I'm surprised that I myself haven't had nightmares about cheese mites, especially after seeing them up close and too personal on the cloth rind of a large wheel of Keen's Cheddar. While visiting Moorhayes Farm in Somerset for a day in late April, I followed around George Keen in his enormous cheese store (that's where cheese is matured, not sold--that's a shop), while he ironed maturing Cheddars to get samples for a food lab. If I was lucky, he gave me some of his cheese, considered one of the best Cheddars in the world, to taste. What I wasn't expecting was a close encounter with cheese mites. It was clear that they were around. You could see brownish clumps of them on the exterior of the cheeses and also their dander, which looked like small piles of grayish dust, on the wooden shelves supporting the heavy wheels of cheese. In between ironing cheeses and putting the cheese plugs into sterile clear plastic bags, George spoke about how hard it is to get rid of cheese mites. So that I would know exactly what he and his cheeses were up against, George got a magnifying glass and put it up close to a cluster of them right on the moldy cloth rind. "Here, take a look." George held the magnifying glass as I moved in. I could see them clearly, like the picture above (taken from Wikipedia), but unlike the picture above, they were moving around, probably feasting on the molds. Frankly, it was gross seeing them squirm around. But I took another look. How could I not? It's like having to smell milk that's gone off after someone has told you it has.

Cheese mites aren't particular to Keen's cheese store. They're pretty much anywhere there are cheeses, especially hard ones, and molds. Wherever they are, they are a nuisance to cheesemakers and cheesemongers alike. In a cheese shop they don't look very good, making it seems as though the cheesemongers hadn't dusted in a while. Worse than that, cheese mites aggravate allergies, making skin and eyes itchy and even making it hard to breathe. Cheese-turning day, when the mites become airborne, isn't a popular day to work in a shop. In a cheese store, they can cause greater headaches, both physically and mentally. As mentioned in my earlier post, cheese mites can ruin an otherwise delicious cheese by making small portions of it turn blue (which is fine to eat--even good to eat--but supermarkets don't want blue Cheddar) or brown (which is not fine to eat, not one bit). Cheesemakers have to devote a lot of energy to getting rid of them.

So, how does one get rid of them? Until recently, cheesemakers successfully used a gas to thwart the attack of cheese mites on their cheeses, but it was banned by the E.U. for environmental reasons. Some tried using Diatomaceous earth since the ban, but it isn't totally effective at controlling the mites and it could, as I mentioned in the earlier posting, make the protective cloths come off the rinds, leaving the cheeses exposed to other problems. The only course of action for now is to vacuum the cheeses regularly to suck up the cheese mites and their dander and to petition the E.U. to let cheesemakers use that gas in their stores.

Why all this information about unsavory mites? I don't want to give you bad dreams or the creepy-crawlies. And I certainly don't want you to stop eating traditional cheeses. Keep in mind that by the time you buy your beautiful wedge of handmade Cheddar, wrapped up neatly in white cheese paper, the mighty threat of mites is over.

What I want you to know about is the huge amount of effort that goes into getting you a complex tasting Cheddar. Cheesemakers have to fight many battles before you, the cheese eater, win. They have to wage war against microscopic bugs, do battle with people trying to ban unpasteurized cheeses, and struggle against supermarkets who want their nonconformist cheeses to conform. If they give up the fight, the only cheeses you will be buying are ones that have been aged in plastic or wax, ones that Johnno at Keen's inimitably calls "crappy, tasteless stuff that people call cheese."

You don't want that do you? If you don't, then you will have to put up with some cheese mites, both on your cheese and in your dreams.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Cheddar Blues

When it comes to buying a block of Cheddar cheese from the supermarket, you’ve got a choice of two colors, white or orange. Pale buttercup yellow is also an option if you’re patronizing a speciality cheese shop and are splurging on a wedge of artisanal Cheddar.

But what about blue?

Chances are you’ve never seen a cut portion of Cheddar with streaks of blue, like spider veins, unless you’ve done something dreadful and bought a cheese flavored with blueberries. I wouldn’t be surprised if such a variety exists. At the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company, the only folks, according to them, that still make a traditional Cheddar in the actual village of Cheddar in Somerset, they offer horrendous flavors like Marmite. Blueberry has to be part of someone's line of flavored Cheddars.

The “blueing” that you might find in a traditional, clothbound Cheddar is no gimmick. It’s the mark of a true Cheddar.

When traditionally made, each handmade wheel of Cheddar is wrapped in muslin cloth one or two days after it's been made. Before it's applied, the cloth is dipped in softened or melted lard; the sticky fat helps the cloth adhere to the rubbery exterior of the unripened cheese. This protective covering is permeable, allowing moisture to escape from the wheel of cheese while at the same time retaining enough moisture so that it doesn't completely dry out. People say that the cloth allows the cheese to breath; this is in stark contrast to how most Cheddar is aged--in plastic, which suffocates the cheese. If a cheese can breathe, good things happen. Provided it's been made and stored properly, Cheddar becomes less acidic and more complex-tasting.

Muslin, however, is not a perfect seal. As a 25-kilo wheel matures for twelve months or so, small fissures can develop inside the cheese, behind the cloth. This can happen because too much moisture has escaped and the natural rind cracks as it dries out. Another way that the cracks can happen is less savory. Nasty cheese mites, microscopic bugs that look like fine dust on the exterior of a cheese and on the shelves supporting the heavy cheeses, feast on the molds that naturally develop on the muslin. The tiny bugs don't stop their feasting with the superficial molds. They can carrying on eating the lard and then the cloth itself. Soon they find their way into the body of the cheese. Their munching attack can create unwanted paths into the body of the cheese. To keep the mites away, some traditional Cheddar makers have used diatomaceous earth, which only compounded the problem. Somehow this pesticide causes the muslin coverings to sag and pull away from the cheeses, thereby making them as vulnerable to cracks as the blasted mites did.

What does all this have to do with making a Cheddar cheese blue? If the surface of a cheese is exposed and it has thin fissures, oxygen can find its way into the cheese. This is what leads to the blueing in a clothbound Cheddar. Naturally present in the air are molds like Penicillium roqueforti. When they get into milk during cheesemaking, either intentionally, as happens with the make for Roquefort or Stilton, or unintentionally, these molds turn blueish-green when they come in contact with oxygen. This is why blue cheeses are pierced with needles as they age. This allows the oxygen to get in and create the desired blue color and taste.

Even though blueing isn't wanted in Cheddar cheeses, there is no way to avoid it, save "aging" the cheese in plastic, which is anything but traditional. Nevertheless, cheesemakers try all they can to limit the extent of blueing.

Why is blueing a problem if it can't be helped? The simple reason is that supermarkets don’t want blue Cheddar cheese, in the same way that they don’t want misshapen apples or less than orange oranges. Everything must be uniform and predictable.

Blueing is currently the the bane of cheddarmakers' existence, except for Jamie Montgomery’s because he doesn’t sell much of his prized cheeses to supermarkets. Extensive blueing can mean extensive financial loss since the supermarkets will reject cuts with traces of blue. The cheesemakers understandably go to great lengths to avoid it. At Keen’s, for example, they went through a period of wrapping their cheeses with several layers of cloth and lots of lard, effectively sealing the cheese, almost as if it were in plastic. This led to other problems. If the moisture can’t escape, the cheese can be too moist and acidic, and this is not the flavor Keen's is after in their cheeses. They are now trying new tactics.

It’s such a shame. It doesn’t have to be this way, all this worry about blueing. For example, Neal’s Yard Dairy, where I worked for a while, has the luxury of dealing directly with their customers. Unlike what happens at a supermarket, we cheesemongers can explain that blueing is a mark of a real farmstead Cheddar; it proves that the cheese wasn't aged in plastic. After the explanation, we urge our customers to taste the cheese to make sure it's to their liking. Usually it is. If it isn't, we find another section of the wheel without any blueing or we suggest another Cheddar. We sometimes carry up to five different Cheddars: Montgomery's, Keen's, Lincolnshire Poacher, Hafod, Westcombe, and Isle of Mull.

It would be great if supermarkets embarked on a similar consumer education plan. If they did, traditional cheesemakers could worry less about blueing and focus more on making their cheeses taste as exceptional as possible. It could help them get rid of their Cheddar blues.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Flavors of Cheddar

“Do you taste the dark notes?”

I wasn’t sure I did. But I had better try. I concentrated on the flavors that lingered in my mouth from a small piece of Cheddar--about the size of the tip of my pinky--that I had pinched from Jamie Montgomery’s cheese iron (see photo above for an example of a cheese iron, used by Tom Calver of Westcombe Dairy), pushed into a paste on the top of my mouth with my tongue, and swallowed.

I still couldn't tell. What were dark flavors supposed to taste like? They sounded like something Darth Vader would want in a cheese. They couldn’t be good. I understood that much from Jamie, who had told me that he assures Randolph Hodgson, when he's down from Neal’s Yard Dairy in London for a business visit, that he’s allowed to smell the core samples of these cheeses instead of tasting them because their flavors are so unpleasant. But what I was tasting didn’t seem all that bad to me. I was tempted to lie to Jamie, the man behind one of the best Cheddars in the world, and say, “Oh yes, I do. This cheese is awful!” When you don’t have a developed sense of taste, it’s easy to go along with whatever the professional taste makers say and not express your own judgment. I often take that path, but today I decided to be brave and honest. “Actually, it’s not that bad.”

Jamie, who was looking at handwritten tasting notes for a year’s worth of his Cheddars, deciding which wheel he should iron next to pull out a core sample for me to try, whipped his head around toward me and smiled, “I knew that you would say that!”

I was relieved. There was no look of disdain from Jamie. My admission probably confirmed what he probably had figured out about me and my poor palate. It also let him know that I wasn’t going to pretend to taste something I didn’t.

Jamie dashed off to another row in his massive cheese store, which holds 5,000 25-kg wheels of Cheddar, and ironed a second cheese. He pulled out the yellowish cylinder of cheese and moved energetically toward me. “Try this one.”

If the other cheese I had sampled was dark, this was one was bright. Before I could express this to Jamie, he coached me in what I was tasting. “Do you taste the difference in this one? It doesn’t have those dark flavors. It’s much brighter.”

“That’s what I was going to say!”

“This is a Cheddar that Randolph has selected for the American market. They like bright, acidic flavors.”

Randolph Hodgson, the managing director of Neal's Yard Dairy, travels down to Somerset regularly, as he's done since the mid 1980s, to visit Jamie’s store in North Cadbury. While there at Manor Farm, he samples a cheese from every batch made since his last visit and decides during the tastings which wheels he wants for retail, which ones he wants for wholesale, and which ones he wants for the American market. Each destination has a different flavor profile. The ones selected for his two shops in London, one near Borough Market and the other in Covent Garden, tend to have a sweet and nutty taste or hints of roast beef, and the ones for America are sharp and acidic.

Flavor is a difficult thing to quantify and agree upon. Different folks like different things. In many ways, there are no wrong flavors and no right ones. As James Keen, the cheesemaker at Keen’s Cheddar in Somerset, said to me the day before, “What I taste might not be what you are tasting.” Even if James and I were picking up the same flavors, we might not be able to express this to one another. Language could fail us. Articulating the complexities of flavors and textures is difficult and takes practice.

Flavor is everything when it comes to farmstead Cheddar cheeses. It’s what informs the ethos and, on a more practical level, the way Cheddar is made at the few remaining traditional dairies in the West Country. George Keen, James’ father, and Jamie Montgomery want their Cheddars to recall the taste of real Cheddar, that is, the cheeses of their grandparents, who lived in a time before bulk cheeses, or, what Johno, James’ young assistant, colorfully calls mass-produced rubber rubbish.

There is no way for them to know whether their cheeses hold the flavors of the past. The only thing they can go by is the reaction of people who try their handmade Cheddars. George Keen told me about two people he met at a local farmer’s market in Somerset. First, there was an older gentleman who relived a taste experience long forgotten when he sampled Keen’s Cheddar. “I remember that flavor,” he said appreciatively to George. The other was a woman whose eyes lit up and exclaimed, “Angels are dancing on my tongue!” after George gave her some of his Cheddar cheese. Jamie has his own story about a stooped older man who passed by him and his Cheddars at Neal’s Yard Dairy in Covent Garden. Jamie tried to get him to sample his cheese, but the gentleman retorted, “I gave up Cheddar thirty years ago.” Nobody gets by Jamie and his cheese, so, with a good deal of persistence, he got the grumpy man to try some. Jamie looked into his eyes as he ate it and saw a flicker of a memory lost. The man nodded and knowingly said, “Yeah. Yeah, that’s how Cheddar used to be.” Recalling that episode still gives Jamie the shivers. It confirms all his efforts.

Mary Quicke in Devon has a very specific flavor that she’s going for in her pasteurized, but handmade Cheddars. She’s very good at articulating it. "I want a Cheddar that’s creamy with a long-lasting finish." Everything that Mary does at her dairy is done to get her cheeses to realize this ideal flavor that's in her head.

Without flavor, Keen’s, Montgomery’s Quicke’s, and Westcombe would be just another Cheddar on the enormous worldwide market. Without flavor, they wouldn’t be able to command high prices for their handmade cheeses. And if they couldn’t do that, they wouldn’t be able to compete with the bigger, more industrial makers of Cheddar cheese. They are just too small. Flavor, then, is also about economics.

Jamie wasn’t done. He ran off energetically to the far wall of the store and hopped onto the second row of wooden shelves. From there he could iron a wheel on the third shelf above. He jumped down and returned to me. “This is probably the taste you are more familiar with.” He was referring to the clothbound wheels of Montgomery’s Cheddar that I used to sell at Neal’s Yard Dairy.

I was a bit nervous that I would miss what Jamie wanted me to enjoy in this particular cheese, but then the flavor hit me. It filled my whole mouth in the most satisfying way. It didn’t have the brightness of the earlier cheese, but it had a wide range of delicious flavors. After I swallowed it, the flavor kept going and going. The finish was long and complex, like a fine wine. I didn’t want to say anything. I didn’t want Jamie to say anything. I just wanted to enjoy the lingering flavor of this exceptional farmhouse Cheddar. With no sign that the sensation in my mouth would come to an end, I realized that this must be what Randolph calls a 12-mile cheese. That’s one that he can still taste and enjoy even after he’s driven 12 miles away from Manor Farm on his way back to London.

“Yeah,” I said to Jamie. “Yeah. That’s it!”

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

First Aged Cheddar in Ages

Unlike my fellow Western travelers in Southeast Asia, I didn't miss cheese during my six weeks there in March & April. Hard to believe, I know, given my passion for fermented dairy products and how frequently other travelers say that they miss the stuff. It doesn't take much time away from home for them to start longing for cheese. As I might have mentioned in an earlier blog, Misty, a massage therapist from Toronto, craved cheese so much during her first week in Chiang Mai, where we were both taking an introductory course in the northern style of traditional Thai massage, that she took herself out alone to a Mexican meal in the vain hope of scoring a dairy fix. It didn't work. She got more beans than cheese. Kathy, a friend whom I had met last year in northeast Thailand who was now back at the same time as I was, told me that she would kill for some real cheese. She and her daughter Tulli had to settle for slices of processed cheese in their sandwiches. To be fair, they had been away from Australia for a long time, about four months. On the other side of the Mekong, in Laos, it was a bit easier to find dishes made with cheese, thanks to the lingering culinary legacy of French colonization. Fancy French restaurants in Louang Phabang, a charming UNESCO World Heritage city in Laos, promoted their cheese selections on large signs at their entrances, along with their offerings of French wines, to tempt visitors who were longing for their fromage. Those restaurants were out of my price range and beyond my own cravings. I didn't want cheese. Why would I want it when there were baskets of sticky rice, piles of salty fried seaweed, and bowls of spicy curries to eat? (But I confess that I had a crepe for breakfast that was filled with melted Cheddar. I had to, for research, of course. The other mornings I ate soup with rice noodles and leafy vegetables, fresh herbs, and lots of spicy heat and drank viscous coffee Lao sweetened with condescend milk.)

And there was probably the issue of my having overdosed on cheese for five months straight. My body couldn't handle it anymore. Goodness knows my burly thighs couldn't! I was on a dairy strike and even dreaded the thought of eating cheese. What was I going to do when I returned to England, the land of dairy delights?

I was going to take it slowly. This was easy to do at my mother's cousin's house in Surrey, not far from London. Diana and her husband were extremely generous in welcoming me into their home in the days before I left for Australia, New Zealand, and Asia, and in the days after. Diana has quite strict dietary requirements and doesn't have much dairy products in the house. In her fridge are goat's milk milk, yogurt, and butter, but no cheese or anything made with cow's milk. Or so I thought. This suited me just fine. I ate organic pumpkin butter and free range eggs (not at the same time) to get protein and only once craved a wee bit of cheese instead of another egg to go with the veggies that were right out of Diana and David's kitchen garden.

One afternoon Diana made a quiche, with leeks, eggs, and goat's milk yogurt in a nutty buckwheat flour crust. To my surprise she pulled out a knob of Cheddar from the fridge (where had it been hiding?) and grated it over one half of the quiche, for David and me. I had mixed feelings about the appearance of this cheese. On the one hand, I was happy to see Cheddar again and wished that I had had discovered the precious chunk earlier. And on the other hand, I feared I wasn't quite ready for it. It turned out I wasn't. Not even realizing it, when I cut myself a slice of quiche, as we sat at their outdoor table, soaking up the friendly spring sun, I took a portion from the non-cheese side. Diana had to point this out to me. With no cheese on my plate, I felt a bit deprived, and so took a very thin slice from the cheese side. It was good. Ah, the magic of cheese. It can make anything taste better!

But even that little bit was a bit too much for me. The Cheddar, which Diana proudly proclaimed had some real flavor, unlike most in the supermarket, had a richness that weighed down my taste buds and overpowered my mouth. It was going to take some time to reincorporate cheese into my diet. I really wanted to...and needed to. Not only was it going to be a bit awkward spending two months visiting Cheddar cheese makers in the Britain if I wasn't keen to eat cheese, but also it would be beneficial for me to eat more dairy. Diana showed me one of her books about eating for the right foods for one's blood type that she thought would help me lose weight. According to the book, my blood type should eat dairy products and avoid beans and nuts, staples of my current diet, to lose weight. And there was some weight to lose!

A visit to Neal's Yard Dairy helped, of course. Back in the shop that has ignited and satisfied my dairy cravings for the past eight years, I sampled a number of my favorite cheeses and bought some Sparkenhoe Leicester which is satisfying and easy to eat. It's the cheesemonger's cheese of choice for lunch. It's the one that you always find down in the lunch room at Neal's Yard Dairy. For breakfast I ate the deep orange cheese melted on pancake-like North Staffordshire oatcakes and then sliced on dry, crumbly oatcakes for lunch (my blood type is supposed to avoid wheat, too, as well as corn, buckwheat, sesame seeds, and chickpeas. No more falafel sandwiches!). Both ways were yummy. I was making progress.

And then I took a step a bit too quickly in my reclamation of aged dairy products. On a Saturday morning, after I had left Diana and David's and was back in London for a week, I battled my way through the maddening crowds at Borough Market to buy a grilled sandwich from William Oglethorpe's stall (see photo above). It was a pilgrimage. These are world famous sandwiches prepared with a mixture of shredded cheese--mostly of Montgomery's Cheddar--diced raw onions, and Poilane bread. Wow! The taste was really full on, sweet, unctuous, and rich. It was almost too much for me. But I happily and greedily ate it all as I rushed to the tube at London Bridge to meet Erica in Islington for our sunny walk along the Regent Canal to Limehouse Basin.

Baptism by panini press. My taste buds are born again. Welcome back, Cheddar!