Inside Our Food

Cheddar Reborn: The Revival of an Artisan Cheese Industry

You might know Cheddar cheese as a mass-produced commodity, useful for slicing into sandwiches or grating over a jacket potato. But once upon a time, Cheddar was an artisan product with hundreds of hyper-local varieties.

What makes a champion Cheddar?

‘This was one of the judge’s favourites, the Gold Award Winner for the vintage class. I think we should try some, don’t you?’

I’m already salivating as Kay Legge, Specialist Technical & Development Manager for Cheese at Tesco Stores Ltd, withdraws a grading iron from her pocket and plunges it into the enormous buttercup-yellow wheel of cheese before us. She twists it deftly, then slowly removes it to reveal a core of Cheddary delight, the colour paling from rich gold at the edge to weak spring sunlight towards the centre. As Kay offers it to me, I catch the scent of hay meadows and butter.

Welcome to the 2023 International Cheese and Dairy Awards – heaven on earth for a passionate cheese-lover like me. In an enormous warehouse in Staffordshire, UK, rows and rows of long tables are laden with cheese assembled from all over the world to be judged in the most significant annual competition in the cheese industry’s calendar. From aged Parmigiano Reggiano to pungent Époisses – whether made from cow, goat, sheep, or buffalo milk - every imaginable type of cheese is here. As one of this year’s judges, Kay shared yesterday's enormous task of judging the four thousand-plus entries to decide the winners for each class and the supreme champion of them all (a Matured Double Gloucester, since you ask). Now that the trophies have been handed out, she has offered to show me around the entries and explain the differences between a good cheese and a standout one. As one of the most popular cheeses in the UK, the Cheddar classes (Box 1) naturally had some of the highest number of entries.1

Some of the four thousand entries at the 2023 International Cheese and Dairy Awards. Credit: Caroline Wood
Some of the four thousand entries at the 2023 International Cheese and Dairy Awards. Credit: Caroline Wood

‘When it comes to vintage Cheddar, you want it to snap like a carrot and have a rugged or flinty texture’, Kay says, demonstrating on a stick of cheese. ‘It should have a fresh, creamy aroma, possibly with caramel notes, depending on the starter cultures used and methods used to mature the cheese. You may see small white ‘cheese crystals’ within the cheese, which naturally form within any cheese beyond 12-month maturity and which are calcium lactate crystals – the mark of a very mature Cheddar.’

She breaks some off for me, and we both pop a piece in our mouths, rolling it around so it can touch all the different types of tastebuds on the tongue. ‘This one has the taste of a proper farmhouse Cheddar: a great savoury depth, with sharp fudge and butterscotch notes.’ A worthy winner then, of the ‘Best UK Vintage Cheddar’ class, but according to Kay, ‘This isn’t what the average retail customer is looking for when buying a supermarket block Cheddar – they are expecting consistency with a rounded flavour profile that is versatile, and can be used for several culinary occasions. Shoppers wanting something a little different, for a special occasion or a cheeseboard, generally like to shop for a speciality Cheddar, with a unique flavour profile.”

These cheeses are a million miles away from the plastic-wrapped yellow Cheddar blocks we see on supermarket shelves. But if all cheese starts with the same basic ingredients – milk, salt, starter culture, and rennet – what makes the end products so different? To find out, I’m going to where it all begins…and where better than the birthplace of Cheddar itself?

The rise, fall, and rebirth of British Cheddar

Emma Hill, a Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company tour manager, leads me to their viewing gallery.

‘For a quality Cheddar, everything starts with the milk,’ she explains. ‘All of ours comes from the same herd of cows every day, just up the road from us.’

Cave-aged Cheddar maturing in Gough’s Cave, Cheddar. Credit: Franz Marc Frei, Getty
Cave-aged Cheddar maturing in Gough’s Cave, Cheddar. Credit: Franz Marc Frei, Getty

Cheddar may be worldwide these days, but once, this tiny town in Somerset was the epicentre of the entire industry, with all Cheddar having to be made within 30 miles of Wells Cathedral.2 Eventually, as cattle dairies became more common from the 17th century onwards, Cheddar’s popularity caused its production to spread across the country.3 During the Industrial Revolution, however, the introduction of standardised methods, mechanisation, and large-scale factories caused much of the individuality and variation between Cheddar types to be lost.

But it was the two World Wars that truly devastated the industry, particularly the period of cheese rationing between 1941 and 1954, when only specific types of cheese could be made.4,5 Before the First World War, there were over 3,500 UK farmhouse cheese-makers, but by the end of the Second World War, barely 100 remained. Fortunately, the 1980s proved to be a turning point, thanks to the public having more disposable income and a greater interest in where their food came from, the work of tireless visionaries who championed artisan cheese, and the dissolution of the Milk Marketing Board giving an economic incentive for farmers to turn surplus milk into cheese.6,7,8 Now, the number of UK cheesemakers is finally rising again, and Britain has around 750 distinct types of cheese!9

A new era for a traditional craft

These new-wave cheesemongers include the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company (founded in 2003) with a commitment to reviving the traditional methods that produced the original Cheddar cheese.

Visiting today, I see an enormous open metal tank containing up to 2000 litres of fresh milk delivered this morning. Emma explains that, for artisan cheese, the milk quality has a huge impact since it will be sourced from only a few local dairy herds. ‘The final cheese will be influenced by the breed of cow and its diet and also the geography of the land where the cows live – including the soil, altitude, weather and quality of grass. This gives the cheese a terroir, or ‘sense of place’, just like wine.’

Although the tank looks enormous, it only contains enough milk to make ten large truckles of Cheddar, since 250 litres are needed to produce each one. Since it arrived this morning, the milk has been gently heated, and then a bacterial starter culture was added to begin the fermentation process. This converts the natural milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid, helping the milk curdle and split later on and discouraging the growth of harmful bacteria. The choice of starter also impacts the final flavour, and many artisan cheesemakers culture their special blend – a ‘secret recipe’ if you like, perfected over generations.

After about an hour, rennet - the enzyme that separates milk into semi-solid curds and liquid whey - was added to the mix. Now, the milk has set and is ready for the next process – cutting the curd to remove moisture. Emma’s colleague Luke enters the production room, carrying a curd cutter: a tool with rows of wires suspended across a metal frame. Starting at one end, he inserts the cutter into the top layer of the milk and drags it slowly across to the other side. The entire mixture will be cut three times: twice vertically and once horizontally, releasing the liquid whey to the surface.

‘Once cut, the curd will be ‘scalded’ by heating it to around 40°C for 45 minutes, to shrink the curd and release even more moisture’, says Emma. After that, the whey is ready to be drained off. Around 90% of the original milk solution becomes whey – the main reason it takes so much milk to make one cheese. ‘We don’t waste anything, though – the whey is used as a feed supplement by a local pig farmer, and apparently, the pigs love it!’ says Emma.

Now, the cooling curds are cut into 20-30 cm blocks, which are turned over and stacked several times to encourage more whey to drain out and to make the curd ‘knit together.’ This process, called ‘Cheddaring’, is unique to cheddar and produces a dense, slightly crumbly texture.

‘Cheddaring’ – stacking and flipping blocks of curd – is done by hand at artisan producers such as Quicke’s. Credit: Matt Austin.
‘Cheddaring’ – stacking and flipping blocks of curd – is done by hand at artisan producers such as Quicke’s. Credit: Matt Austin.

After Cheddaring, the curd - now a pale yellow colour – is shredded by a milling machine and then salted (which helps preserve it). For flavoured versions, it is at this stage that any additions (from garlic and black pepper to chilli or even prosecco) are added. The curd is then shovelled into a stainless-steel mould and pressed in a hydraulic press to force the curds into a single mass of Cheddar.

It’s all in the detail

Although the basic process is the same for all artisan Cheddar, there are endless opportunities to introduce tiny variations to make a unique product, from the exact blend of starter culture to the number of times the curd is stacked and turned. ‘It’s one reason no one has applied for protected status for Cheddar production: even the Cheddar makers can’t agree on the right way to do it!’ laughs Emma.

For industrial Cheddar, on the other hand, the cheesemaker may not get their hands dirty at all. ‘Supermarket or “block” Cheddar is made on an absolutely enormous scale’ says cheesemonger James Grant, a passionate advocate of British artisan cheese and manager of No2 Pound Street. ‘An artisan producer may make around 150 tonnes of cheese a year, whereas an industrial block Cheddar factory can easily produce more than 200 tonnes of cheese a day. Every stage is mechanised, with the milk automatically fed into tanks and machines, and the human involvement reduced to pressing buttons.’

Another key difference is that industrial Cheddar will typically use milk sourced from many different dairies, losing any sense of terroir. Furthermore, this milk is pasteurised (heated to over 70°C to kill harmful bacteria and prolong shelf life), whereas many artisan Cheddars use unpasteurised (or ‘raw’) milk. ‘Using unpasteurised milk retains all the valuable flavour-enhancing bacteria, enzymes, proteins, and minerals’, says Emma. ‘And because we use only one milk source and maintain excellent hygiene standards, our Cheddar is of the highest quality in terms of flavour and safety.’

Applying a tracing tag to a wheel of cheddar at Quicke’s. Credit: Matt Austin.
Applying a tracing tag to a wheel of cheddar at Quicke’s. Credit: Matt Austin.

Ageing like fine cheese

After cheese has been made, it’s time to mature it.

‘Maturing cheese sounds complicated, but in simple terms, you are farming mould.’ I’m sitting across from Mary Quicke, a titan within the artisan cheese industry and manager of Quicke’s cheese company since 1987. We are at the China Exchange in London to witness the final of a most unusual competition: the Academy of Cheese’s Affineur of the Year contest. The challenge sounds simple: all the entrants were sent a young cheese from the same batch at the same time and tasked with looking after it until judgement day. But, as I will find out, refining a cheese (known as ‘affinage’) is a hugely complex mixture of skill, artistry and science, where even minute changes can radically affect the final product.

This year, the Hard Cheese Category features Mary’s award-winning Quickes’s Cheddar. The entrants received a one-week-old eight-kilogram truckle 12 months ago. Upstairs, the judges are assessing and grading each entry, and Mary is excited to see the different approaches the entrants took. While we wait, she explains what happens as a cheese matures.

‘As soon as a cheese has been made, micro-organisms start to break down the cheese’s molecules, causing acidification and fermentation. Over time, these microorganisms die, and the traces they leave will ultimately develop the characteristic texture and flavour of the final cheese,’ she says. The whole process is highly sensitive to the surrounding conditions, particularly the temperature, humidity, and airflow.10 Another critical factor is time: ‘Generally, if you mature a Cheddar for longer, more complex flavours will develop,’ says Mary. ‘For instance, our mature Cheddar (aged for 12-15 months) has a creamy mouthfeel and a very clean taste. Whereas our vintage Cheddar (matured for 24 months) is much more intense, with a greater depth of flavour, from umami to salted caramel.’

This is particularly true of artisan cloth-bound Cheddars, wrapped in a muslin cloth, which is applied using a layer of lard. ‘Unlike plastic, the cloth is breathable, allowing air to get in and moisture to get out’, says Mary. ‘This layer of moisture allows moulds to form on the rind, which gives the cheese its unique characteristics.’

Traditional clothbound cheddar is wrapped in layers of muslin, not plastic. Credit: Matt Austin.
Traditional clothbound cheddar is wrapped in layers of muslin, not plastic. Credit: Matt Austin.

Although these ‘mould gardens’, as Mary calls them, are safe to eat, they can attract an unwanted pest: cheese mites.11 These spidery, microscopic creatures thrive wherever they encounter mould (their favourite food) and, left unchecked, can end up ‘having a party,’ as Mary puts it. Although not a risk to consumers, cheese mites burrow into the cheese, damaging the structure and forming an unsightly brown dust. ‘For the artisan cheesemaker, it’s a constant balancing act between cultivating the good mould whilst keeping these “cheese vandals” at manageable levels’, says Mary. Since using methyl bromide was banned in 2006, most artisan cheesemongers manually brush them off or blow them away with tiny hoovers.12

According to Mary, this hands-on approach creates unique, highly characterful cheeses. ‘Artisan producers can give each cheese the individual attention needed to bring its best qualities to perfection. You can observe the little details. For instance, many artisan cheesemakers insist that their cheese does better in a particular corner of the maturing room or that they prefer to be kept with a specific type of “companion cheese”.’

The small-scale approach allows artisan producers to be more experimental and apply additional techniques. These can include washing the rind with brine- or alcohol-based solutions, rubbing it with butter, or even smoking the cheese. And it’s not just what you do that matters, but where. Artisan cheddar cheese is typically matured in temperature-controlled rooms set to 10-12°C with around 80-85% humidity. But some producers have revived the ancient practice of maturing cheese in caves. Caves can be perfect Cheddar storehouses thanks to their naturally high humidity levels and cool, stable temperature. While visiting the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company, I saw their 12-month Cave Matured Cheddar maturing on racks in Gough’s Cave. The enormous truckles appeared ghostly white as they quietly slept in the semi-darkness, with the only sound being the steady drip-drip from the cave ceiling.

In contrast, many industrial cheeses are vacuum-packed immediately after pressing and aged within tight-fitting plastic. As James Grant says, this results in ‘an uninformed taste with little character.’

A Cheddar for every cheese lover

Back at the China Exchange, I tour the Cheddar competition entries. Each one is accompanied by complicated humidity charts, temperature logs, and even ‘turning’ schedules. Many entrants have gone even further in their attempts to impart superior sensory qualities. ‘I am a huge fan of my native Lancashire, so I wanted to introduce something that represents this wonderful county’, says cheesemonger and competition entrant Jonathan Pearcey (The Crafty Cheese Man). ‘So, I took inspiration (from) a method used to produce Lancashire cheese. Every two weeks, I painted the whole rind with butter using a fine paintbrush to introduce sharp, citrussy flavours. I’ve never done it before on a Cheddar, so (I) had no idea if it would work!’

The Cheddar entries are inspected at the Affineur of the Year competition. Credit: Caroline Wood.
The Cheddar entries are inspected at the Affineur of the Year competition. Credit: Caroline Wood.

Finally, the results are in, and the golden envelope is opened…

Sadly for Jonathan, it isn’t his day, with first place going to The Courtyard Dairy. The judges deemed their Cheddar to have ‘an amazing texture, with a toothsome, super-complex taste and balanced in every way.’

Not all Cheddars may be ‘Champion winners’ - but there are plenty of distinct and unique ones for you to try. Why not explore what your local cheesemonger has to offer?

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