This week I spent 4 days studying the art of cheddaring. Driving around the ridiculously idyllic Somerset region of England, 8 of us from UNISG had the pleasure of learning about clothe-wrapped cheddars from three of the greatest Cheddar cheese makers in England.
Montgomery, Keen and Westcombe Farms became our educators of all things Cheddar. We stomped around in the muck; meeting cows, learning about different silage and the ever-present cheese mite. We entered the inner sanctum of their cheese warehouses and observed how these perfectly rounded cheddars age to create the rich acidic flavors we expect. Each farm produces a distinct flavor in their cheddar, making the comparisons of dryness, acid, creaminess and a hundred other finer flavors fascinating.
One thing remained the same; the traditional process of cheddaring, a method of cutting and turning curds to create the perfect hard-aged cheddar. In addition, all of these farms have their own herds, meaning they have absolute control over their milk. Milking begins at three am, seven days a week. The creamy raw milk is pumped into a massive tank where it is slowly warmed and prepared for its starter and rennet processes. After the rennet is added, mixers are traded for wire curd cutters and the curds are cut into rice size grains, the perfect size for hard cheese.
Whey is drained and the cheddaring begins. As the curds release their liquid, the particles begin attaching themselves to each other, creating stretchy almost rubbery squares of goodness. These are cut, flipped over and stacked, flipped, restacked and cut again, over and over. The curds get flatter and more cohesive until they are sent through a shredder, salted and pressed into large cylinder molds.
After they come out of their molds, they are smeared with varying layers of pig lard and thin cotton fabric, repressed and placed in the warehouse to age about 18 months.
Each producer has his own method of cheddaring, adding starters and dealing with cheese mites but all of them honor this time consuming traditional process to create absolutely beautiful cheese. There is a purpose behind maintaining the value of clothe-bound cheddars that can only be understood when you open a wheel and inhale its rich aromas, slice off a piece and savor the creamy pungent texture. That is, of course, why we preserve the traditions of our past and value the processes that have been perfected through generations.
I look forward to a good grilled cheese and tomato soup lunch.