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!”

1 comment:

Alan said...

Very well written! makes me want to come and experience your cheddar tasting. hope all is well!