Cheddar has something in common with cheeses such as gouda and brie: On one hand, it can be traced back to its origins long ago. On the other hand, it was never origin protected (like for instance morbier or stilton are), and therefore the cheese is produced all over the world and in many different kinds of qualities.
Take a look at these four and very different cheddars:
To the left, we have a red cheddar, produced in blocks at a large dairy. It is matured three months, and is best used in the kitchen. Number two is a vintage cheddar, aged for about 18 months, also from a large dairy. The taste is caramel-sweet with crunchy crystals. Number three is a traditional cloth bound raw milk cheddar from Montgomery Cheese (aged for one year). The last one is from the same place but is aged for two years. The last two have deep umami notes and are closer to forest floor, mushrooms and cabbage.
Cheddar roots in Somerset
On the soft rolling hills grows lush green grass. We are in Somerset in the south-west of England. Perfect conditions for cows – and the home land of cheddar. Historical sources back to 1170 talk about a cheese made in the village of Cheddar. Originally, the cheese was made in the summer from the cows’ abundant milk, and in the winter, the cheese was eaten. In other words, cheddar was stored for a maximum of six months.
The Montgomery family
In 1911, Sir Archibald Langman purchased the North Cadbury Court mansion and the surrounding lands. The house has 100% ‘Downtown Abbey´ spirit, and you can see pictures from it in my diary from the cheddar odyssey with Cheese Journeys. Sir Archibald produced cheddar from unpasteurized milk from own cows.
History wasn’t gentle to farm dairies in the UK. 3,500 farm dairies in 1914 became less than 100 in 1945. Fortunately, there has been a renaissance since then.
Some cheesemakers stubbornly stuck to making cheese in the traditional way. Montgomery cheddar is one of them. Today, grandson Jamie Montgomery heads the family business, whose cheddar has been said to be one of the world’s best cheddars! In other words, the family stubborness came with a result!
Traditional farmhouse cheddar
Montgomery cheddar is made from unpasteurized milk, which gives an interesting complexity with more than just one taste sensation. Also, it varies over time – because the cheese follows the milk. All cheeses are wrapped in cheese cloth and covered with lard to protect the cheeses during maturation.
200 Holstein-Frisian dairy cows graze outside for as long as possible, approx. 8-9 months a year. The autumn of 2021 was very mild and the cows were not taken in for the winter until end of November.
Let’s follow Jamie Montgomery into the dairy…
The crucial starter culture
When you make cheese, you add starter culture (also called lactic acid bacteria) to the milk, and these bacteria help to start the acidification and not least also adds to the cheese personality.
Some dairies buy cultures, others use a little whey from yesterday’s production or yet others sour some milk with purchased bacteria and add this ‘yoghurt’ to the liquid milk. The latter is done at Montgomery’s Cheese.
There is a special story attached to the cultures they use in the dairy today. In the past, it was local practice to exchange the best cultures with other farm dairies. This was done to protect the bacteria’s strength. If the same bacteria was used day after day, it would lose strength and gradually be taken over by a virus which is found naturally everywhere. But by constantly bringing new strong bacteria into the dairy, this was avoided.
The last tiger
In the 1950s, a company collected these bacteria strains from various dairies to cultivate them for sale. After some company acquisitions, the project was closed down, but an employee wasn’t happy with this and simply ran away with the invaluable bacteria bank of generations’ work. Actually, it was a bit like holding the very last tiger in your hand. Fortunately, Barbers took on the task, securing this goldmine of cheese cultures and heritage.
Today, Montgomery uses a different starter culture on each of the days of the week, and the cheeses are known among connoisseurs as ‘Monday’, etc.
’The cheddaring process’
Once the cheese curds are cut and stirred, whey and curd is pumped onto a flat cooling table. Whey runs off, and quite quickly the cheese curds binds together in a cohesive mass. It is then cut into large blocks which are turned over and stacked on top of each other. This very special fermentation process, which differs from (most of) the rest of Europe’s cheese production, is called cheddaring.
The process is repeated after 4-5 minutes, and each time the stack of cheese blocks gets higher, while each cheese block is pressed a little flatter by the weight, and a little more whey is squeezed out.
When the acidfication is perfect (this happens after about 4½ hours), the cheese blocks must go through a small grinder that mills the blocks. Then it’s time to knead salt into the cheese grains. Salt stops the acidification.
The curd is then put into molds and pressed. Afterwards, the cheeses are wrapped in cheese cloth and covered with lard. It is done to protect the cheeses against cracks and damages during the long maturation.
Flavor evolves over time
Montgomery’s cheddar ripens for 1 or 2 years. The cheeses have a delicious earthy flavor with notes of mushrooms and broth. They are acidic, like most other English cheeses, and especially the one year old cheddar becomes creamy when chewed. There is a difference in taste whether you eat the heart of the cheese or the layer just below the rind, where the taste is most intense.