Saturday, April 05, 2014

On Location: Ticklemore at Sharpham Dairy in Devon

Sharpham Dairy Owner Mark Sharman with a wheel of
Ticklemore, made just that morning.
If you've had the opportunity in the United States to taste Ticklemore, a pasteurized goat's milk cheese made at Sharpham Dairy in Devon, England, you are likely familiar with a creamy, white rinded cheese shaped liked a flying saucer that is often oozy around the rind and packs a flavor punch.

Turns out, that cheese doesn't exist in England. In its home country, Ticklemore seems much younger, is a firm and crumbly cheese, with gentle, floral notes.

"I've eaten it in the United States, and I've got to say, I've tried to re-enact getting it to the point where you all eat it over there, and I can't do it," Sharpham Dairy owner Mark Sharman told us during a visit this week. "There's got to be something about the environment and time it takes to get to you that turns it into a different cheese. I've brought some back here for my staff to taste, and we all agree it's fantastic. In fact, you might be getting the better end of Ticklemore."

Available in the U.S. through Neal's Yard Dairy, Ticklemore has been made by Debbie Mumford at Sharpham Dairy for the past 11 years. Before that, it was made by Robin Congdon at Tickelemore Dairy, not far from Sharpham. When Robin ran out of room to make both Ticklemore and the three blue cheeses he was also making, Debbie completely took over the production of Ticklemore, and now it's called Sharpham Ticklemore. The Sharmans still buy goat's milk from the same farm Robin used to, with the goats grazing on the edges of Dartmoor, an area of moorland in south Devon, England.

Baby Ticklemore cheese in the Ticklemore nursery at Sharpham Dairy.
While Ticklemore may perhaps be the best known cheese from Sharpham Dairy in the United States, you may also have tasted Sharpham Rustic, a semi-hard raw milk cheese made from a herd of 60 Jersey cows owned by the Sharmans that graze on pastures overlooking the River Dart. It has a funky rind that is often multi-colored with many a rainbow of yeast molds, but Mark says they "get away with it" because the cheese is called "rustic." Sharpham Dairy also makes a variety of other cheeses, including Sharpham Square, which will be served on the cheese board this year at Wimbledon. They also just unveiled a new cheese, Cremet, a soft goat's milk cheese with added cow's cream. Yummy.

Mark was kind enough to serve us a variety of his cheeses, paired with Sharpham Wines. Oh, did I mention, he also owns and operates his very own English winery, making a variety of white, red and sparkling wines? Who knew the English made wine? In case you don't believe me, here's a map of all the English vineyards that hangs in the Sharpham Vineyard tasting room.
Hey, thanks global warming for allowing grape vines to grow in England!
I particularly enjoyed the Sharpham Summer Red, which goes really nicely with some of the washed rind cheeses they're making. Not readily available in the United States, they have a very nice e-commerce store on their website.

Thanks so much to Mark and the crew for giving us a personal tour of his dairy and vineyard. It's a treat visiting such genuinely nice people who make stellar cheese and wine. Carry on!

Thursday, April 03, 2014

On Location: Fighting Cheese Mites at Quickes Dairy

Quickes Dairy Sales Manager Tom Chatfield demos the
Mite Buster for us. Tom is just
about the nicest, most efficient
and one of the youngest sales managers in the business. I kept
wanting to feed him a cookie.
Ever since hearing stories from Wisconsin cheesemaker Bruce Workman about the fun of shrink wrapping random objects in a cheese cryovac machine, my husband has always dreamed of having his very own. Here's a typical conversation -- Me: what do we need a cryovac machine for? Husband: Who doesn't need a cryovac machine?

Well today, I've found a new random object to covet that would make anyone jealous: Mary Quicke's Amazing Mite Buster.

What is a Mite Buster, you ask? Well, for those of you not in the cheese mite know, it is a handy dandy plastic hut big enough to hold a pallet of 50-pound wheels of bandaged cheddar. The cheddar is sprayed with a wand of high pressured air, blowing off pesky cheese mites, which tend to populate, settle in and eat the mold on bandaged cheeeses. The super duper hut is hooked up to a vacuum contraption, which sucks up the mites and leads to their untimely death. It's genius. Sheer genius.

"Cheesemakers used to use a gas to get rid of the mites, but it was banned by the E.U. in 2009 because it was damaging the ozone layer," Quickes Dariy Sales Manager Tom Chatfield told us. "We scrambled for a new solution until Mary came up with the Mite Buster. She even sent the schematics to all of the UK bandaged cheddar makers, but no one else adopted it."

Why they didn't is a really good question, because after watching employees vacuuming bandaged cheddars for hours at other cheese "stores" - I finally figured out this is the English term for a cheese aging facility; what we call a store in the US is called a shop in the UK - I find it fairly sad that it took me four days to get this straight - the Mite Buster seems pretty freaking efficient. It's simply one example of the innovative Mary Quicke revolutionizing the cheddar community in England.

Mary Quicke with a salad she handpicked from her garden
this morning especially for us at lunch at her dairy. Yum!
We met Mary today at Quickes Traditional Artisan Cheddars in Devon County, England for a tour of the cheese plant and dairy farm. Mary is the 14th generation of Quickes to farm land that's been in her family for 450 years. She oversees an operation that includes 1,200 acres and 450 milking cows.

Fifteen years ago, she made two controversial decisions for what was then basically the good old boys club of southwest England: she decided to develop the Quicke's cow: a mixture of Kiwi Friesian, Swedish Red and Montbeliarde, because she believed the cross-breed would be hardy, fertile, long-lived, and produce the kind of milk she wanted for cheesemaking. She went a step further and put all of her cows out to pasture 10 months a year, using a method similar to the Wisconsin version of intensive managed grazing. Today, her freestall barns stand empty except for the harshest months of winter: January and February.

The result, says lead cheesemaker Malcolm Mitchell, has been dramatic. "We've always made good cheese," he told us today. "But we haven't always made good cheese consistently. The breeding and grazing practices Mary implemented has changed all that."

The "cheese store" at Quickes Dairy. I'm slowly figuring out English lingo.
Malcolm would know. He's worked as a cheesemaker at Quickes Dairy for 31 years. He and his staff, like most every other English bandaged cheddar maker, use bulk starter cultures and five different starter strains to avoid bacteriaphage, which can destroy the heritage starter cultures that have been collected, propagated and used in Somerset and Devon counties for more than a century.

All cheeses at Quickes Dairy are pasteurized. Cheesemakers uses four, 1,000 gallon vats and three cheddaring tables to make cheddar five days a week. The dairy is perhaps best known for its Quickes Mature Cheddar, which at one year old, is rich and buttery, much creamier than other English bandaged cheddars. Mary talks about her goal of creating what she calls a 10 mile cheddar: "Drive 10 miles and you can still taste it," she says.

The cheddaring process at Quickes Dairy.
Quickes Dairy also makes several other cheddars, including its Quickes Buttery, a 3-month cheddar that's twice taken Best Cheddar and beaten cheeses twice its age at the British Cheese Awards since 2009. There's also Extra Mature cheddar, which is 18 months old, Vintage Cheddar - two years old, and Oak Smoked Cheddar, which is cold smoked for 18 hours. The Quickes also buy goat and sheep's milk from local farmers, and make hard goat and sheep milk cheeses, as well as whey butter.

In good news, you may already be eating Quickes Cheddar without even knowing it. I'll let you in on a little secret: if you've ever purchased Borough Market Cheddar at Whole Foods, you're actually eating Quickes Cheddar, thanks to Neal's Yard Dairy, who purchases it and then exports it to Whole Foods in the United States using the Borough Market label. You'll also find it under the Quickes label at specialty cheese stores buying it direct from Neal's Yard Dairy in London.

Thanks so much to Mary, Tom and niece Lucy Quicke - the 15th generation of Quicke farmers - for hosting us today and showing off your tremendous cheese operation. We can't wait to eat it back in the U.S.!
The Cheese Geek demonstrates her strength by hoisting
a fake 50-pound wheel of Quickes Cheddar.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

On Location: Duckett's Aged Caerphilly at Westcombe Dairy

Westcombe Cheesemaker Tom Calver stands in the
doorway to the family's underground Caerphilly aging
cellar in Somerset County, England.
Perhaps without even realizing it, a maverick, next generation cheesemaker at Westcombe Dairy is rapidly changing the face of Old World cheesemaking in Somerset, England, bringing a fresh perspective and energy to the region's traditional cheeses.

While cheesemaker Tom Calver may be best known for making Westcombe Traditional Farmhouse Cheddar - one of only three unpasteruized farmhouse cheddars left in England - today, he also crafts the amazing Duckett's Aged Caerphilly. The cheese is named for the late cheesemaker Chris Duckett, who taught Calver how to make the cheese before passing away in 2009. Just a year before, Calver, a trained chef, had fulfilled the role of prodigal son and returned to his family's dairy after an apprenticeship at Neal's Yard Dairy. He's since become the dairy's well-known lead cheesemaker, changing up the family's signature cheeses and creating new traditions.

While Duckett's Aged Caerphilly was always good, Tom's taken what is historically a Welsh cheese to a new level by converting one of the historic family home's cellars into a dedicated Caerphilly aging room and diverting a spring through it to create the perfect temperature and humidity for the cheese’s maturation.

Contrary to much of the horrible plastic Caerphilly cheese that we get in the United States, this real deal Caerphilly is rich with a clean lactic tang and flavors of fresh mushroom and citrus. Tasting it here in England has made me finally understand what all the fuss is about with this English cheese. The folks at Neal's Yard Dairy know this, too: "It's a tricky cheese to get right, but when everything comes together in concert, the result is magnificent, and this cheese stands among the finest in the world."

Duckett's Caerphilly, perfected by Tom Calver.
Of course when you point out this high praise to Tom, he generally looks fairly sheepish, shrugs his shoulders and contests he doesn't know what all the fuss is about. He'd rather spend time thinking up new ways to make old recipes better than take credit for what he's already done right.

Case in point: while few would argue it's hard to improve upon the family's traditional Westcombe Cheddar, a bandaged 50-pound drum of pure beauty, Calver is executing steps to take the cheese to the next level. He's using less starter culture and slowing down the make time, letting the milk and curd speak to him, rather than following a strict timing schedule that traditional Cheddar makers have adhered to for years.

During our visit today, he also unveiled a complicated scheme to change the way the curd for Westcombe Traditional Farmhouse Cheddar is cheddared, which involves a series of wooden plates and cheese cloths somehow pressed down on the slabs of curd. After attempting to demonstrate this new technique, he was basically greeted with a general look of WTF? from his American visitors. Of course, Calver was not phased by our skepticism even a tiny bit.

"My number one goal is to create a better texture, which will lead to a better flavor," he said. "My perfect texture is one that is al dente and a bit bitey. I'm going to do whatever it takes to get the cheese just right."

The current aging cellars for Westcombe Traditional
Farmhouse Cheddar.
Getting cheese just right is something Westcombe Dairy has been succeeding with for years. The company was launched in 1890 by Edith Cannon, whose traditional Cheddar was legendary in the region. In the early 1900s, records show a "Mr. and Mrs. Brickell" took over the farm and dairy, continuing to make cheddar. The second generation of Brickells grew the business in the 20th Century to include several neighboring farms and ramped up production.

Even the World Wars could not stop Westcombe Cheddar. The cheese not only survived the wars, it flourished in the decades of austerity that followed. During the 1960s, Richard Calver, Tom's father, joined the business as a partner, and to compete in the rapidly expanding industrial age, transitioned the company into making block cheddar and modernized the cheese factory. It wasn't until the artisan cheese renaissance of the late 1990s that the family reverted back to traditional bandaged big wheels. Today, Tom Calver continues the family quest to make superb, unpasteurized, bandaged cheddar wheels rivaled only by his counterparts, Jamie Montgomery and Keen's Farmhouse Cheddar. I would say he is succeeding.

And in further news, father and son Calver are contemplating expanding the dairy by building a 100-foot tunnel into the hill behind their cheesrie that will house an American "Jasper Hill-esque" type of aging facility. The expansion would allow the family to produce more cheese and expand further into the American export market.

"The excitement of the Americans towards cheese is infectious," Tom told us today. "You're looking for more flavor and more aged cheese, and we want to send more of that type of cheese your way." 

Bring it on, Tom!

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

On Location: Tasting Montgomery Cheddar with Neal's Yard Dairy

Neal's Yard Dairy Cheese Buyer Bronwen Percival and Cheesemaker Jamie
Montgomery compare notes during the dairy's monthly cheese tasting
to select wheels for retail, wholesale and export.
Just when you begin to believe you might know something about cheese after eating, breathing and writing about it for 10 years, the buyers from Neal's Yard Dairy turn up, promptly taste 30 cheeses in 60 minutes, pick out their favorites for retail, wholesale and export to the United States, and readily demonstrate that you actually know very little about your life's pursuit.

Such was my morning spent today at Manor Farm in North Cadbury, England, home to Montgomery Cheddar and the delightful, humble and generous Jamie Montgomery, owner and head cheesemaker of arguably the most famous Cheddar in the world. I traveled with the inaugural tour of Cheese Journeys, a handful of American cheesemongers led by the venerable Anna Juhl and Neal's Yard Dairy alum Chris George on an 8-day cheese tour of England. We have been privileged to spend the past two days with Jamie Montgomery, eating dinner in his 21-bedroom historic family manor, walking his 1,200-acre farm, viewing two cheese makes, and staying in the family house at North Cadbury Court, which his grandfather, Sir Archibald Langman, bought in 1911.

Brie Hurd, cheese buyer for the Concord Cheese
Shop in Massachusetts, signs the  wheel she'll be
purchasing in September when it's ripe.
This morning, however, was a once-in-a-lifetime treat to join Neal's Yard Dairy cheese buyers Bronwen Percival, Jason Hinds and Owen Baily, as we and the cheddar king himself - Jamie Montgomery - tasted about 30 different wheels of Montgomery Cheddar. Using terms such as "corky, juicy, velvety and elegant," only about 2 sample wheels from 30 different batches scored less than 4 out of 5 stars with the Neal's Yard crew. In short order, they selected two batches for the Neal's Yard retail shop, another six for wholesale, and four more for export to the United States. Between 15 and 20 of the 52-pound cheeses are in every batch, and each batch carries a distinct flavor profile for a specific audience.

As there were five American retailers in the room, we got a bit of say in which batches were exported to the United States. In fact, by about two-thirds of the way through the tasting - which by the way was probably the most educational cheese event I've ever been lucky enough to walk into - several of us could tell which batches would be selected for export. They were the wheels used with a starter culture that carried a distinctive sweet, juicy and brothy note, and Bronwen, an American herself - quickly confirmed those cheeses better suited an American palate. We agreed.

The expansive aging rooms for Montgomery Cheddar are housed on Manor Farm in North Cadbury in Somerset, England. The cheese is made seven days a week by a team of three cheesemakers - Tim, Wayne and Steve - and is one of only seven Cheddars still made in Somerset County, which like Wisconsin, was home to more than 400 cheese factories a century ago.

Cheesemaker Steve hooping Montgomery
Less than 20 wheels of Montgomery Cheddar are made each day in a 1,000 gallon open air vat. The cheese is cut, cheddared, milled, hooped and pressed all by hand, and once bandaged and larded, is put into the farm's aging rooms where it is lovingly cared for by two additional employees, who quite frankly, spend most of their time "hoovering" the cheeses with vacuums to control cheese mites, commonly associated with bandaged cheddars.

Jamie Montgomery oversees both cheese production and the family's two dairy farms. The milk from his 180-cow Friesian herd (the milking parlor is on the opposite wall of the cheesrie) is used exclusively for Montgomery Cheddar. The milk from his second 180-cow Jersey herd is used to make Ogleshield, a washed-rind Raclette-style cheese not yet available in the United States, or actually, in much of England. "You know, there are cheesemakers who can pump out a new cheese every 10 weeks," Jamie told us. "Here, it takes us a good 10 years."

Ogleshield started out as a bandage-wrapped cheese called Jersey Shield (named for both the cows who produce the milk, and for a historical bronze shield found by archaeologists on the farm's Camelot Hill), and turned into a washed-rind beauty once former Neal's Yard Dairy affineur William Oglethorpe got a hold of it. Today, Montgomery's crew is both producing and aging the "new" cheese in a brand new state-of-the-art humidity and temperature controlled aging rooms, and Ogleshield is expected to be picked up by Neal's Yard Dairy in the next 30 days. That means it may hit the U.S. market before the end of the year, and believe me, American cheese peeps, this cheese is worth waiting for. Better than Raclette, it is a perfect melting and cheese board standout. It's so good that I scarfed down the last remaining wedge, eating it like a slice of watermelon with my hands, in front of Jamie Montgomery last night before dinner. Because yes, it's that good.

The same herdsman has managed the Montgomery Jersey
herd for 30 years. These are some of the happiest, quietest
cows you'll ever meet.
Another new cheese being crafted these days at Manor Farm is Camelot, a Comte-style cheese made from full-fat Jersey milk. We tasted wheels at 17-months and it was incredible. The good news is that if you live in Devon, England, you can buy it at Bailey & Sage cheese shop. The bad news is that if you live anywhere else in the world, you can only buy it on the Montgomery website. Such is life.

When they're not busy making cheese or overseeing dairy herds, the Montgomery brothers - Archie and Jamie - actually farm their land. Of the 1,200 acres they own, about 150 acres are put into potatoes, 500 into wheat, 200 into barley, 150 into corn and another 150 into oilseed rape, which was in full yellow flower bloom during our visit. The rest of the land is pastures, of which the cows will be turned out upon next week, but until then, will continue to be fed a total mixed ration of corn, potato, wheat, distiller's grain and molasses silage to ensure a fairly consistent milk supply for cheesemaking.

One new exciting development at Manor Farm is the purchase of Ayrshire semen, of which Montgomery plans to cross with his Friesians in order to improve milk quality. "Twenty years ago, our cows were half Ayrshire, half Friesian, and the milk was different. I'm trying to get replicate that milk," he says. "I think we'll be seeing the dividends of that decision within the next three years."

No matter the breed of milk being used to craft Montgomery's Cheddar, the cheese remains, and has been, absolutely stellar since 1911, when Jamie's grandfather decided to continue the traditional cheesemaking that had taken place on the farm, even while so many others were giving it up during the World Wars. At age 53, with children aged 12 and 5, Jamie and his wife has no plans to retire anytime soon. "We're still coming up with new stuff," he says with a grin.
Montgomery Cheddar Owner Jamie Montgomery and the Cheese Geek
on Camelot Hill on Manor Farm in Somerset, England.