SLOW FOOD WORLD – Cheese 2003 Revisited

The British booths at Cheese 2003 (Bra, September 19-22) are swamped. So much so that I have trouble finding a spot to stand and talk with David Lockwood, the manager of London’s Neal’s Yard Dairy, and we are continually interrupted as short stout men carrying 10kg rounds of cheddar need to get by. But I’m on a mission to explore the Anglo presence at Cheese 2003 and am willing to battle hordes of ravenous cheese lovers to do it. David gives me an overview of what I can find (if only I could make my way to the counter) at the Neal’s Yard Dairy booth. There are four artisan cheddars, a Stilton, a crumbly Lancashire and a Gorwydd Caerphilly.

None of these cheddars resemble the orange plastic-wrapped blocks I find on my supermarket shelf in the States. Apart from the obvious size difference—these wheels are over a foot in diameter—the color of the curd ranges from creamy white to pale yellow, while the rind is a brownish-grey, slightly textured affair. All three cheddars are made in the same area (Somerset) from the same race of cow (Friesian) with natural calf rennet, yet they all have distinct flavor and texture profiles. Jamie Montgomery, an eloquent, tall fellow from J. A. & E. Montgomery Ltd dairy, explains to me that the flavor differences are caused by the unique microflora found in the raw milk, different from one dairy farm to the next, while the texture variations can be explained by slight differences in production technique. The last cheddar is made organically at Daylesford Creamery in Gloucestershire, hence it is not part of the Somerset Cheddar Presidium, but the quality is on a par with the other three. According to Joe Schneider, the friendly American expatriate cheesemaker/owner of the dairy, his cheddar is more of a nibble-all-day-long cheese, while the other three have a heavier character.

Talking with the cheddar producers it is clear how unique a place Neal’s Yard Dairy is. They have a sort of awe for Randolph Hodgson, the uber-blond, middle-aged owner of the legendary 23-year-old cheese shop. He is something of a guru, traveling from farm to farm in search of the best of the best. But he doesn’t merely pick and choose, but invests his time and expertise (before becoming a cheese shop, Neal’s Yard Dairy produced its own cheese) into helping farmers make the best cheese possible. Richard Calver, whose Westcombe Dairy has been producing cheese for over a hundred years, confides that Randolph would periodically stop by the farm for two years, tasting and giving advice, before he bought a single wheel of cheese. In his two London stores he stocks 70 cheeses that hold up to his high standards—primarily farmhouse cheeses from England and Ireland.

Moving on from cheddar, I taste the other cheeses that Neal’s Yard has to offer. I find the Kirkham’s Lancashire particularly delicious. It is aged two months, and tastes of cream with points of yeasty sharpness; the crumbly, moist texture is delightful and the cheese is balanced and interesting. The Caerphilly is a mere six weeks old and has an acidy bite—just what an American expects from a British cheese.

The next stop on my cheese lover’s virtual tour of the United Kingdom is Wales. I find Carwyn Adams of Cawscenarth Farm at a nearby stand. He has nearly sold out of all his tasty Welsh cheeses. People are surprised to discover they make cheese in Wales, says Carwyn, who left his job as a mechanical engineer in the ex-Soviet bloc countries to help out on the family farm. The cheesemaking tradition nearly died out in the 70s when the reduction of British milk quotas made it nearly impossible to produce and sell farmhouse cheeses. Carwyn’s father remembers being a small child and sneaking into the kitchen at night to dip into a wooden barrel of homemade Carephilly cheese. Today Carwyn makes that same cheese on his organic dairy farm, which revived the recipe in 1985 and has been selling the stuff ever since. I taste another of his cheeses, the Perlwen. A deviation from tradition, it resembles a Brie cheese with a Caerphilly center and is the dairy’s bestseller. Today Cawscenarth Farm is at risk because a neighboring company is applying to plant genetically modified crops, which would inevitably contaminate his pastures and result in the loss of his organic certification.

I move on and encounter Pam Rodway, a petite Scottish woman with small, round glasses. This is another cheesemaker who has brought to life old traditional to be enjoyed for the first time by this generation. Following a recipe from the seventeenth century, she began to make Sweet Milk Cheese in 1970. She now has 25 organically fed Ayrshire cows whose milk is utilized to make this historic cheese. The recipe calls for whole raw milk, a digression from the then in vogue practice of skimming the cream off the milk and reserving it for another use. The cheese is yellow-gold inside, with a flavor reminiscent of cheddar but notably milder. Pam’s cheeses are made at the Wester Lawrenceton Farm (where she also raises sheep and chickens) in Moray, Scotland, and all her cheese is sold at Scottish farmers’ markets and restaurants. Pam likes the idea that her cheeses are eaten locally, on the same land where they were enjoyed hundreds of years ago.

After this thorough tour of the British Isles, I head over to the New World, to the Presidia Market where over a dozen US Raw Milk Farmstead cheeses can be tasted in tiny 50g portions. I was hoping to buy myself a taste of home, but all 90 kilograms of farmstead cheese were sold out before I arrived! To get an idea of what I was missing, I talked with Anya Fernald, an American cheese expert who was lucky enough to get a taste the US cheeses that arrived. She particularly raved about the Trade Lake Cedar from Wisconsin, a cooked curd sheep milk cheese with a natural rind that is aged on cedar boards and a crust rich with natural molds. It smells of the forest under-story, she says, and in the mouth it is rich and full, with notes of chestnuts and a slightly acidic closure.

The UK cheeses provided a lovely change from the Italian staples I’ve been munching on the last few months—Parmigiano Reggiano, Piedmontese goat milk tomas, pungent Gorgonzola piccante. After a few months interning at the Slow Food headquarters in Bra I’ve got the leisurely pace of Italian life down—a little too well, perhaps. At Cheese 2005, I’ll hurry up to get a taste of the American raw milk cheeses!

Sarah Weiner, a graduate of Dartmouth University in New Hampshire, currently lives in Italy, where she is a member of the editorial staff of old.slowfood.com

Photo: Artisan Somerset Cheddar

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