Part 1 – Getting down and dirty with a cheddar

Alexander our Farmshop Buyer, has a huge passion and love of cheese. Over the next few days we will be sharing his story of cheese so far in the “Personal Reflections of a humble Cheesemonger” we hope you enjoy the read.

Part 1 Getting down and dirty with a cheddar 

Written by Alexander Evans our Farmshop Buyer 

I started in the cheese department at Harrods, more than thirty years ago now.  At the time we sold on average four 54 Lb Farmhouse cheddar’s a day, and often six on a Saturday. The cheeses were made for us by Greens of Glastonbury and each cheese had Harrods stamped in red on the cloth bandage. Each morning it was my job to bring six cheddar’s up to the shop and stack them on the marble counter top. With a big Smithfield knife I would cut through the tough, lard covered cloth, which was green from mould. I would take good hold and give a great yank, trying to pull the cloth off in one go as I spun the cheddar on the counter top. With the cloth, off flew dust from cheese mites and all the mould that had grown on the cheese as it matured in the cheese cellars, so everything had to be cleaned down.

When a new cheddar was opened during the day, the heavy spinning cheese would set off a rumble through the marble counter and alert the locals who knew to get in first and ask for the middle piece. I would half the golden cheese with a long cheese wire then divide it into sixths. The smell as the cheese was opened was like a sudden burst of summer; fruity, sweet and rich. There  is nothing better for taste or texture than a cloth bound Cheddar. It is a living breathing world of healthy microbes bound and protected from the wild yeasts, mounds and critters by the cloth. As the cheese matures, it looses moisture but gains in flavour and especially texture, as the milk proteins are broken down by the healthy bacteria. David Taylor, the buyer was a proud Scotsman and made sure that we had plenty of cheddar from the Isle of Mull, for the old retired Colonels, who after years of Mess dinners, needed a cheese that “would blow the roof of their mouth off”. As a twenty year old, I found this cheese simply too much; it has so much going on, a very strong savoury taste and sometimes a frankly sulphurous nose. Sometimes it was laced through with blue, like many of James Montgomery’s cheddar’s are and as I had never seen this before, I thought something had gone wrong. I now know that this is sometimes inevitable for a 12 month mature cheese. Sometimes the cheese was ivory in colour, not like the golden cheeses of Somerset. What I didn’t know then, was that in the winter, the cows feed was supplemented with fermented grain from the local Tobermory whisky distillery and this feed gave the milk its colour. It also lent an unique taste to the cheese; no wonder it was so popular with the retired colonels of Knightsbridge. We’re proud to offer Isle of Mull  to our customers at Tebay and also proud to say that the Reade’s stop by at Tebay on their way home.

James Aldridge: In Memoriam

It was listening to James Aldridge talk to Derek Cooper on the Food Programme that sparked my interest in British artisan cheese. When I joined Harrods cheese department in 1980, most British cheeses were Territorials, produced in regional creameries, which had been set up during the war as a way to make cheese in the most efficient way. There was little to differentiate between them, indeed, we even had a talk by the owner of a Cheshire Cheese maker that exported his cheese who said that neither the milk, nor the terroir had any influence on the final cheese; only the recipe was important. Therefore, he said, He could make not just Cheshire, but Gloucester, Red Leicester and Derby cheese. I was too young and polite to ask him why it was that the French and Swiss would only allow cheeses to be made in tightly defined areas and with the milk of particular herds? There was no doubt to me that all his cheeses tasted the same and had very similar textures, only the name on the vacuum packed bag gave a clue as to what the cheese was.

From his cheese shop in Beckenham, Kent, where I lived at the time, James Aldridge set out to find cheese makers that were determined to be more than average. He would drive to Chris Duckett in Somerset and bring back cheeses to his shop to mature on. The resulting cheese was Tornegus, where James took a Duckett Caerphilly and brine washed the surface. This encouraged a particular ripening red mould to form. The addition of herbs to the surface, resulted  in a very smelly cheese with a very sticky surface. Customer’s loved it but it wasn’t popular with us as it seemed to get on our hands and overalls, resulting in strange looks when walking through the Perfume Hall to break.

James Aldridge also collaborated with John Savage, a cheese maker just staring out in South Wales. He and his wife set about making a Gouda style cheese called Teifi. When I opened the Farmshops at Tebay Services in Cumbria, Teifi cheeses were the first cheeses I bought, the cheese they made became my favourite cheese. Called Saval (combining Savage with Alridge). It is buttery and savoury without being stinky or sticky! Such a great cheese deserved the James Aldridge Memorial Prize that it subsequently won. James Aldridge helped so many cheese makers establish themselves and the fact that there is such a wealth of great British cheese is largely due to him.

Another man that deserves much praise is Major Patrick Rance, who built up a range of over 150 British cheeses in his cheese shop in Streatley, Berkshire and wrote a great book about British cheese that inspired me amongst many, to discover more British cheees. Sadly, now out of print, it was lost in the move.

Part Two coming tomorrow…


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