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.