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Beyond Cheddar: the Cheeses of the English Westcountry

“Now more than ever there’s no need to look beyond the British Isles for a world-

class cheeseboard”, said The Times’ Frances Bissell in the mid 90s. Ten

years on, the same could equally be said of the English Westcountry alone, where

tradition and innovation have combined to create a range of quality cheeses that any

country would struggle to equal.

The four counties of Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Cornwall are justifiably famed for

the quality of their produce, and can boast more food and drink producers than any

other English region. At the centre of the Westcountry tradition is, naturally,

cheddar cheese, which takes its name from the Somerset town. Cheddar, however,

has long since moved outwards to the neighbouring counties. The importance of

this cheese is indicated by the fact that it has now been awarded the EU’s Protected

Designation of Origin. The PDO scheme was set up in 1993 to define the

authenticity of traditional foods and help to preserve their place of origin, methods

of production and essential ingredients. Only a very select group of British foods

have been protected in this way.

Long established Cheddar makers include Montgomery’s – winner of Gold at the

2005 World Cheese Awards, Keen’s, Westcombe Dairy and Quicke’s. The

Montgomery and Keen families have been cheesemakers for three generations, but

even they look like newcomers when compared to the Quickes, who – but for a few

decades- have been making cheese on their Devon farm for 450 years! Traditional

cheddar as made by these makers has an intensity and complexity that comes from

the muslim-wrapped truckles that mature on wooden shelves for over a year.

Allowed to breathe, the cheese forms an old fashioned rind that is the hallmark of a

well-matured traditional cheddar. Newer examples include Godminster Vintage

Organic Cheddar, a powerful, moist cheese coated in a distinctive red wax.

Other traditional cheeses include the so-called ‘territorials’ such as Caerphilly and

Double Gloucester. The Westcountry can boast fine examples of these in Duckett’s

Caerphilly and in Quicke’s Double Gloucester. Quicke’s also make a Red Leicester, as

do Westcombe Dairies whose ‘Westcombe Red’ is the only cheese of its kind made

with unpasteurised milk.

Wartime rationing allowed production of only seven varieties of cheese – all

pasteurized, and in the early postwar period production of ‘artisan cheese’ or ‘real

cheese’ languished – reflecting the general threat to traditions that which often

seemed anachronistic in the modern world, not to mention competition from large

factory-style creameries with their economies of scale. The last 30 years, however,

have seen a renaissance in small-scale cheesemaking. The impetus here comes

partly from the consumer, tired of homogenized, low-quality food, and partly also

from the production side. Whether it’s dairy farmers seeking to diversify in the face

of low prices for milk, or people with no farming background looking to ‘downshift’

and change their lives, there are now more makers of farmhouse cheese than at any

time in the last 50 years.

New cheesemakers often means new products, like the three goats cheeses

produced by Dave Johnston near Crediton in Devon, one of which – Norsworthy –

won a coveted Gold at the 2005 World Cheese Awards. Impressive given that Dave

only produced his first cheese in 2002! In Cornwall there is Cornish Blue, and Sue

Proudfoot’s three cheeses: Miss Muffet, Keltic Gold and Trelawny. At other times

cheeses are revivals of earlier traditions. The Dorset blue cheese, Blue Vinney (or

Blue Vinny), had almost died out when Michael Davies resurrected it. A now very

popular cheese, Cornish Yarg (distinguished by its covering of nettles or wild garlic

leaves), is based on an old recipe, while Cornish Garland continues an old

Westcountry tradition of herb-flavoured cheeses. In the area of soft cheese one can

– unexpectedly perhaps – find a Somerset Camembert and award-winning bries

(Somerset Brie, Cornish Brie) as well as the similarly mould-ripened, but cream

enriched Elmhirst.

One small area of South Devon – south of Totnes, alongside the River Dart – can

boast two makers of fine cheese, both relatively recent. As well as a vineyard, the

Sharpham estate produces Elmhirst and the wonderful Sharpham Rustic, whilst

Robin Congdon of Ticklemore makes a trio of superb blue cheeses: Devon Blue

(cows’ milk), Beenleigh Blue (sheeps’ milk) and Harbourne Blue (goats’ milk).

Other makers are expanding away from cows’ milk cheeses into goats’ milk, sheeps’

milk, and even buffalo milk products. Historically, sheeps’ cheese was actually far

more common in England, but there is no denying the present-day dominance of

cows’ milk cheeses, and cheddar in particular. A shift, however, is underway, and

producers are keen to respond: the region can now boast excellent ewes’ milk

cheeses such as Nanterrow and Somerset Rambler alongside a whole host of goat

cheeses such as Norsworthy and Ticklemore (hard), Gevrik, Capricorn and

Vulscombe (soft).

One problem for lovers of gourmet cheese has always been that many of these

items are difficult or impossible to buy if you live at any distance from the makers.

Now however, we are in the era of the online cheese shop: over 50 of these cheeses

as well as gift and cheese board selections are available mail order from an online

cheese store like The Cheese Shed. If customers all over the UK can buy cheese online, the prospect is of a

virtuous circle in which a geographically broadening market adds to the makers’

financial security.

There seems to be every reason to think that the re-invigoration of the Westcountry

farmhouse cheese tradition will continue.

Source by Hugh Waldron

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