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!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Where's Weginald?

Perhaps the more immediate question is, Who is Weginald?

You may remember Weginald from a year and a half ago when "he" hit the big time and made all the major news outlets (and my blog), but I can't expect you to be as Cheddar obsessed as I am and recall this story.

To refresh your memory, Weginald is a wheel of traditional English Cheddar, dressed in muslin cloth and weighing in at approximately 50 pounds. Its place of birth was Westcombe Dairy in Somerset. That's England's West Country and Cheddar's true home. What made Weginald stand out from the other 100 wheels or so of Cheddar made by hand at Westcombe in the same week was a video camera. Weginald's maker had the novel idea of showing him mature in real time on his own Internet site and then posting a time-lapse video of Weginald's maturation on youtube. It takes at least a year for a traditionally made Cheddar to come of age. The video takes less than a minute.

Weginald generated so much publicity that Westcombe decided to make good of the situation and auction the celebrity Cheddar for charity. From youtube, Weginald rolled to eBay. The money raised from the on-line auction went to Children First, and Weginald traveled by first class, as a celebrity should, to the winners of the auction, Mud House Winery in New Zealand. And he wasn't heard from again.

I frequently wondered what had happened to Weginald after the publicity died down. He was like an Oscar winner who made the headlines for days and then slipped out of public consciousness. I made it my mission to hunt down Weginald.

It wasn't easy to track down New Zealand's most famous wheel of Cheddar. The obvious place to start looking was Mud House Winery's Where's WeginaldWeb site, but it wasn't any help at all. When I first checked it, the site was under construction. A few months later it reported that Weginald had gone on walkabout. Just where was Weginald? Was he in dairy rehab?

And just where was Mud House Winery? Its Web site lists two locations, one in Marlborough, world renown for Sauvignon Blanc, and the other in Waipara, just an hour north of Christchurch, the South Island's biggest city. I emailed Mud House in the summer (Northern Hemisphere) via its confusing Web site to see whether I could meet Weginald's current owners. No response. I tried again in the autumn. Again, no response. Finally I found actual e-mail addresses, and I received an immediate response from Mud House's PR person. We set up a meeting at the winery during my second week in New Zealand.

The meeting was in Waipara, not Marlborough. It turns out that Mud House grows the majority of its grapes in Marlborough, but doesn't have a cellar door there. The group directors chose the lesser known wine region of Waipara Hills for the cellar door because of its location on Route 1, the major road that goes up and down the east coast of the South Island. They hope that a cellar door on a highly used road will attract tour busses and travelers and their New Zealand dollars.

The bus I traveled from Nelson down to Waipara dropped me off right at the cellar door. The building was grand and struck me as more slick and corporate than the wineries I had biked around the week before in Marlborough. Waipara itself, however, was a lot less inspiring. Perhaps it was the rain that dampened my view. The region also seemed economically depressed. Later that day, after my meeting at Mud House, I rode a rickety bike to an olive farm only to discover that it was up for a quick and desperate sale. No doubt it wasn't doing well. Not helping my opinion of the area was my backpacker accommodation. It consisted of disused railway cars, a concept that might seem romantic on paper, but in actuality, in the rain, the site felt like a ghost station on the U-Bahn in Berlin.

I arrived at Mud House's cellar door in a disheveled state, wet and shabbily dressed and with my backpack. I hadn't brought many nice clothes with me to New Zealand, and even if I had, I wouldn't have been able to fit into them after months of heavy cheese eating. Despite my unprofessional appearance, the manager of Mud House's dining and tasting room, a tall thin young woman of Irish extraction, treated me well, bringing me a bottle of fizzy water while I waited for my meeting with Mud House's director, Neil Charles-Jones. Still having time to kill after I drank the water, I left my backpack by a table in the cafe and went over to the tasting room, located in a lofty dining room with a grand fire place. As I went up to the bar I looked around for Weginald in the spacious room. Was he here? I had expected him to be prominently on display. Had he already been eaten?

As the young guy at the bar poured my first glass of wine to sample, a Sauvignon Blanc, of course, I asked him about the absent wheel of cheese.

"Oh, you're here for the cheese. We heard something about it a while ago. There was all this fuss and then it was gone. What was it for?"

I explained about the auction and how Mud House was the one to win the bid.

"Do you know how much they paid for it?" I should have, but didn't.

Before we got much farther talking about Weginald or making our way through the range of Mud House wines, Charles-Jones came to get me for our meeting. He apologized for being a bit late. He had flown in from Auckland that morning and had driven up from Christchurch. Transportation wasn't going his way and it had made him fall behind schedule. I told him that it wasn't a problem (where did I need to be?), and I noted to myself that his accent was English. He also struck me as a decadent man, as someone who liked his job for all the wine drinking that went with it. He led me outside through French doors, in spite of the rain, and we sat at a table on a covered terrace, so he could smoke. I looked out to the brown hills beyond the vineyard, now obscured by rain clouds, and then turned my attention back to Charles-Jones, who had already lit a cigarette. I asked him to tell me about Weginald.

"Such a bloody good story. I heard about it and thought that it was bloody good publicity. So I decided we should try it ourselves, set up cameras and show wine grow in real time. Then the auction happened and I bid and I bloody won." He let out a gravely laugh as he stubbed out his cigarette.

He lit and put out many cigarettes during our meeting and drank several cups of double or triple espresso. There wasn't anyone else around, but the staff, when not bringing Neil-Jones coffee, was getting ready for a large tour group of Germans who were coming for a tasting.

Neil-Jones still has Weginald, but he's stored in a partially opened box in Mud House's pantry (see photo above). The arrival of the famous wheel of cheese was intended to spark publicity for Mud House and its new Web cam. But the plan went, as the English say, pear shaped. The initial publicity was good. Weginald flew first class from England courtesy of Air New Zealand, and there was a photo shoot on the plane of this wheel of cheese living the high life. Weginald ran into problems with the law shortly after arriving in New Zealand. He didn't have the right papers. It wasn't that Weginald was made with unpasteurized milk (he already got clearance for that) but that he was in an unmarked box. To get the right papers, Weginald had to be flown all the way back to England and then returned, months later, in a properly marked box. He didn't even make it to economy class for these trips.

This all took time, too much time, so Weginald has to lie low until the PR machine can resurrect him like a forgotten actor. Let's hope he's not too much beyond his prime by then.

Stay tuned.