Ahh – cheese, glorious Cheddar cheese! Nothing quite like it, right? We’ve flirted with Stilton, had our heads turned by Brie, but Cheddar absolutely has our hearts. So, if we could, we’d probably bear hug the guys who discovered the unique method of production ‘Cheddaring’ and invented the first Cheddar cheese, in the Somerset village of Cheddar in 1170!
Well, wind the clock forward a few hundred years and today, there’s only one team of cheesemakers creating authentic Cheddar in the place it was originally invented. They’re the awesome people at the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company. They have a shop that's full to the brim with the most wonderful varieties of Cheddar, a ‘tasting bar’ (oh yes!) where you can try a little piece of whichever cheese takes your fancy, a small and perfectly formed Visitors Centre sharing the story and history of Cheddar cheese - and a dairy. Here you can watch their award-winning cheeses being lovingly handmade by artisan cheesemakers, in exactly the same way it was done whey back when (Whey hey!!).
We loved the sound of it so much, that a couple of weeks ago I went to visit the home of this world-famous cheese - to chat to owners Katherine and John Spencer and to have a go at handmaking authentic Cheddar, using traditional methods. Now that was an experience! (more on it in a bit) :).
As you’d probably expect, Katherine and John are cheese gurus… genuinely lovely people who are incredibly passionate about what they do. Their energy is infectious and there’s nothing they don’t know about what it takes to create stunning cheese that stands out from the rest.
Working in the dairy industry all their lives, cheese was even responsible for them meeting and falling in love! :) Katherine went over to the Loire Valley to check out a batch of imperfect Brie produced by the company John worked for at the time... and the rest is history! Now that's a story that made us smile.
Anyway, four children and several years later, their dream to create something small-scale and special became a reality when the chance to take on the Cheddar business came up in 2003. They knew then that they had to grab the opportunity to rebuild a Somerset icon – and that’s exactly what’s happened. They’ve reintroduced traditional Cheddar making methods, researched, refined and perfected their recipes over 14 years, restored the onsite shop and created an artisan cheese haven that the whole team there can be incredibly proud of.
“It’s all about making authentic Cheddar here in Cheddar” Katherine tells me. “It's local, handmade, unique and a total team effort,"
and that’s definitely something that strikes me when I visit. It might sound cheesy (I know! I know! ;)) but the team is like one big family, with everyone getting stuck in and building up their knowledge and skill.
John used to the make the cheese himself too, so he knows exactly what it takes to get it spot on:
"I used to finish the day completely exhausted but so proud," he tells me
- and I also bump in to Andy, another expert cheesemaker who’s been with the business for 19 years.
By chatting to Katherine, John and Andy, I begin to realise just how much dedication, skill and strength goes in to creating Cheddar cheese by hand. These guys are keeping the art of Cheddar making alive – and believe me, it’s definitely an art. I see it for myself when I pop on some overalls, bright white wellies, a very glamourous hair net and meet Shaun and Will - the two artisan cheesemakers crafting the cheese that day.
They let me loose in the dairy to have a try at making the Cheddar with them and here’s the plot spoiler – there’s no way I’ll ever be hired in a million years! :).
In a nutshell, the cheesemaking process takes about seven hours and around nine cheeses are handcrafted each day. You can watch every element of the process from the dairy windows - and wave at the cheesemakers too (love that ;))!
It all starts with the delivery of unpasteurised milk from one local farm each morning. The milk’s gently warmed and a starter culture is added, which basically ripens the milk. Vegetarian rennet goes in, the milk sets, curds and whey are produced and they’re then scalded and stirred at a high temperature, before being drained. The curd that’s left is popped on to a cooling table… and that’s when the real fun begins!
To be true to the unique ‘Cheddaring’ process, you’ve got to cut the curd and turn it, cut it and turn it over and over and over again… and if you have wimpy arms like me, you’ve no chance! I had no flipping idea how hard the curd would be to cut and when Will (with a knowing grin) hands me a knife, I can barely get it into the curd, let alone cut a whole chunk in half! ;) Expert cheesemakers like Will and Shaun are doing this constantly and it’s definitely not as easy as they make it look...
... although as Will tells me, when he first started out he did have nightmares about draining the whey and there being no curds at all! :)
Thankfully, the guys don't make me cut too many pieces, because having all the watching visitors giggling at me, instead of giving me a friendly wave, would make me blush big-time!
It’s not just the cutting that takes skill and strength either. The pieces themselves are pretty heavy to lift, but again the experts make light of it...
... and constantly check for the ideal temperature that lets them know how quickly to work, to create the perfect Cheddar.
Once the Cheddaring’s done and dusted, the curd’s loaded into a Miller – that basically tears the cheese curd in to tiny pieces. Loading the slabs into that bad boy really gets your arms aching too!
Once that's underway, the next challenge is to 'hand-salt' the milled cheese. Now that job gets the blood pumping! It’s a workout and a half and as Will tells me,
“ I definitely don’t need to go to the gym anymore”.
Ain’t that the truth! :)
It also takes a keen eye to judge how much salt to mix in. Get it wrong and the cheese develops green spot and is ruined, so skill is most definitely needed!
Finally, the curds are packed into traditional moulds, pressed and dressed in their cotton-cloth best! Again, there are no measures, no machines... it's all done with experience and a very keen eye for detail.
Each cheese weighs about 28kg’s (err wow!) and then it’s off to the stores to mature, where it ages patiently for up to 24 months.
Where the Cheddar matures, and how long it's left to age, determines its flavour and as a rule, the longer the cheese matures the stronger it is. That's definitely reflected in the taste of the different cheeses you try at the shop's tasting bar - from the Mellow Cheddar that's matured in the stores for six months and has a creamy, milder taste, right the way through to the Vintage Cheddar. This beauty was awarded ‘Best Cheddar in Show’ at the World Cheese Awards in 2008 and it knocked my flipping socks off!
Don't forget to try their Cheddars with natural flavours too - whether that's Cheddar with chilli (wait for the kick that comes after seven seconds), the Cheddar with local cider, garlic and chives, or the one with a good slosh of port for Christmas!
The Cheddar with Copper Leaf Ale is also to die for and this energy for experimentation is one of the things we love about the spirit at the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company. They're never afraid to try new things.
They're currently experimenting with the whey to see if they can make ricotta and whilst I'm there, I get to test out one of Katherine's truly awesome trials... Cheddar cheese with lavender! What started out as a chat between Katherine and the owner of Lavender & Coin Axbridge, just down the road from the shop, has turned in to something pretty exciting if you're a cheese lover. Katherine's now tweaking the flavour to see if she can get it spot on - and we can't wait to taste what happens next! :)
Katherine's have-a-go approach is also behind their award winning cheese straws. Using cheese that wasn't a perfect shape, Katherine created her own recipe at home and when the straws were trialled in the shop, they proved so popular that a local baker now makes them - using perfect whole cheeses to keep up with demand! It's not hard to see why...
Anyway, back at the tasting bar I decide two Cheddars are my favourite and both are award winners - the beautiful Oak Smoked Cheddar (Champion Cheese at the Devon County Show 2017) and the unique Cave Matured cheese (Best Cheddar at the British Cheese Awards 2013). Yep that's right... a selection of the handmade cheeses are taken to the spectacular Cheddar Gorge Caves, a stones throw from the dairy, where they sit peacefully in the rock as their flavour develops in the natural environment. The caves act like a giant fridge and it's amazing to see the cheese ageing here... knowing that when the time is right, these unique conditions will be reflected in the creamy, earthy taste. COR!! :)
Standing in the quiet stillness of the caves, a thought I've been having for most of the day truly hits home. There are very few things in life we genuinely have to wait for these days. We dash about and want it all right now... but when something's handcrafted with so much care, in the traditional way, you simply can't mess with precious time. There's no pushing it. No rushing it. No artificial method of hurrying it up. You make, you wait and six months, twelve months, two years later, you discover whether the cheese you've created is perfect (and if you're experimenting with the flavour like Katherine is with the Lavender cheese, you wait a whole lot longer once you create, tweak, taste and tweak again).
Skill, dedication and strength is a cheese making must... but to create something as special as this, you'll need patience by the truckle load!
When I was little, I thought all cheese was made in the magical village of Cheddar (either there or on the moon, because that was definitely made of cheese ;)). It turns out there’s only one bunch of cheese making legends in Cheddar – and it was an absolute privilege getting to know them.
If you get the chance to check out the shop, or taste the cheese, you'll be over the moon yourself! The look on my face tells you I definitely was. ;)
The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company is open from 10am, seven days a week all year round except Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. There's a small admission charge for adults to see the cheese making area. Accompanied children under 16 go free. Katherine and John will also be at the Bath Christmas Market with a selection of their cheese. It's perfect for the Christmas cheeseboard, so pop along and say hello!