The Somerset countryside seen from the top of Glastonbury Tor. Dairy farming is prevalent.
Cheddar Cheese is one of those staples on the shopping list of nearly every household, not just here in Britain but in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA; the English speaking countries and probably far beyond. It is made throughout the world. There are a variety of Cheddar Cheeses in my local supermarket. I can buy, Cathedral City, Cave Aged Cheddar, Davidstow Cornish Mature Cheddar, Taw Valley, Maryland Farmhouse Vintage Cheddar, Pilgrims Choice Mature Cheddar, Seriously Strong Cheddar White, Canadian Vintage Cheddar, Mature British Cheddar and also a variety of medium and mild strength versions of these. Other supermarkets have some other varieties.
Cheddar Cheese can be used in a cheddar bake with grated cheddar cheese melted into a dish of pasta. “Welsh Rare Bit,” which is sometimes called cheese on toast is very popular. A glass of wine to go with Cheddar adds to the pleasurable sensory experience. Cheddar Cheese is connected with caves and witches, subterfuge and fraud, travel and adventure and of course with the county of Somerset and the village of Cheddar where it all began.
In 1714 Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, went on a tour of Britain and wrote about his adventures describing the places he visited in a book called,
“ A TOUR THRO’ THE WHOLE ISLAND OF GREAT BRITAIN DIVIDED INTO CIRCUITS OF JOURNIES GIVING A PARTICULAR AND DIVERTING ACCOUNT OF WHATEVER IS CURIOUS AND WORTH OBSERVATION.”
Defoes journey through the British Isles.
It was printed in 1715 by W. Mears at the Lamb, just outside of Temple Bar, one of the gateways into the City of London. It was sold at The Lamb and also by J. Stagg in Westminster Hall, G. Strachan in Cornhill and R. Franklin under Tom’s Coffee House in Covent Garden and also by S. Chapman and J. Jackson in Pall Mall. It must have had a wide readership. Those places mentioned were where the writers and businessmen, bankers, politicians and aristocracy lived and met. It obviously reached those in power and those with influence. Cheddar Cheese has a prominent place in Defoe’s description of Somerset. He clearly describes how it fits into the nation’s economy.
“.. every county furnishes something for the supply of London, and no county in England
(Somerset) furnishes more effectual provisions, nor, in proportion, a greater value than this. These supplies are in three articles.
1 Fat Oxen as large and good as any in England.
2. Large Cheddar Cheese, the greatest and best of the kind in England.
3. Colts bread in numbers in the moors……..”
Daniel Defoe’s book was useful to politicians, bankers and businessmen. He is describing the wealth and industry of the country. He took on the role of an economic and political observer.
Defoe described the surrounding countryside and Cheddar Cheese within that context; its value to the manufacturer and the consumer and hence its value to the country. It is worth reading what he wrote. It is easy flowing prose with an important message for his time. He provides a feel for a place. He is clear and succinct in his descriptions.
“In the low country, on the other side of the Mendip Hills lies Chedder, a village pleasantly situated under the very ridge of the mountains; before the village is a large green, or common, a piece of ground, in which the whole herd of cows, belonging to the town, do feed; the ground is exceeding rich, and as the whole village are cow keepers, they take care to keep up the good ness of the soil, by agreeing to lay on large quantities of dung for manuring and inriching the land.
The milke of the town cows, is brought together every day into a common room, where the persons appointed, or trusted for the management, measure every mans quantity and set it down in a book, when the quantities are adjusted, the milk is all put together and every meal’s makes one cheese, and no more so the cheese is bigger or less as the cows yield more milk, or less milk. By this method, the goodness of the cheese is preserved, and, without all dispute, it is the best cheese that England affords, if not, that the whole world affords.
As the cheeses are by this means very large for they often weigh a Hundred weight, sometimes much more, so the poor inhabitants, who have but few cows, are obliged to stay the longer for the return of their milk; for no man has any such return ‘till his share come to a whole cheese, and then he has it; and if the quantity of his milk delivered in, come s to above a cheese the overplus rests in account to his credit, ‘till another cheese come s to his share; and thus every man has equal justice, and though he should have but one cow, he shall, in time, have one whole cheese. This cheese is often sold for six pence to eight pence per pound, when the Cheshire cheese is sold but for two pence to two pence halfpenny. Here is a deep, frightful chasm in the mountains, in the hollow of which, the road goes, by which they travel towards Bristol.”
The road is still there, winding through the, “deep, frightful chasm.” I drove through Cheddar Gorge last summer on the way to Wells and Bath. We stopped to explore some of the caves dripping with stalagmites and stalactites and we actually saw some large barrel like cheeses in some of the caves, maturing.
Cheddar is still made in Cheddar and the fields in the surrounding countryside still have dairy cattle grazing in them. Their milk is used to make the local Cheddar Cheeses.
The side of Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. Limestone cliffs.
Cheddar Cheese is first recorded as being made in the town of Cheddar in the 12 th century.The cheese was named after the town. Cheddar is situated on the edge of The Mendip Hills which are mostly formed from limestone rocks. Cave formations have been formed from the action of springs and rainfall creating underground streams and rivers through the limestone. These underground passages and caves have a constant temperature and humidity that helps with the maturing of a good cheese. Cheeses are stored in these caves for this reason.
Cheddar Cheese is mentioned in The Pipe Rolls of 1170. Pipe Rolls were a series of financial records kept by the treasury from the 12th century right up to 1833. They got their name, Pipe Rolls, because the paper or parchments they were written on were rolled up into tubes or pipes and stacked on shelves. In 1170 the pipe rolls record that Henry II (1154-1189) purchased 10,240 pounds (4.6 tonnes) of cheddar cheese costing a farthing per pound. Prince John, his son, who became king in 1199 , kept up this cheese tradition. He bought Cheddar Cheese for royal banquets.
The rolls during Charles I (1625 – 1649) reign, show that he bought Cheddar Cheeses even before they were made and gathered up all the available stocks. Cheddar Cheese it appears was only available at court during the Stuart period. ( Another excuse for a Civil War, perhaps.)
Cheddar Cheese today is made all over the world. However the European Parliament has passed a law and given certain local versions of Cheddar Cheese , Protected Designation of Origin. Certain Cheddars can only be called “West Country Farmhouse Cheddar,” by law. There are only fourteen farmhouses in the West Country of England that are allowed to make this unique form of Cheddar. To qualify, the farmhouses making, “West Country Farmhouse Cheddar,” must be located in Devon, Cornwall, Dorset or Somerset. They can only use milk from local cows and dairies and they must use the traditional methods to make the cheese. The minimum age for a cheese must be nine months. This makes it a mature cheese. Cheeses made elsewhere make mild and medium cheeses which take from three months for mild to six months for a medium cheddar. Extra Mature takes about fifteen months and Vintage takes eighteen months or more to mature.
Some of the farmhouse cheese makers use unpasteurised milk which tends to have rather more complex and stronger flavours. Others use pasteurised milk. Cheddar Cheese flavours vary also depending on the time of the year they are made and also it depends on the diet of the cows.
A river going underground in The Mendips.
Some of the creamery or industrially made cheddars around the world are increasingly being sold at older and older ages because peoples tastes are developing.
Cheddar Cheese is unique, not only for its maturing process in caves but also because of a special cheese making process called, “cheddaring,” named after the cheese. Once made the cheeses are turned on a regular basis which allows the curd to be turned. They are also piled on top of each other which helps drain the whey. This process also stretches the curd which creates a hard firm cheese. As Cheddar matures its taste develops from creamy to more and more complex and sometimes nutty flavours which linger after eating.
Cheddar Cheeses maturing in limestone caves beneath Cheddar Gorge.
Apparently there was a controversy over the quality of cheese making in the 17th century. There may have been what we might term, fraud, going on. The University of Vermont has a cheese specialist. Yes, I will leave you to consider that academic headline for a moment or two….. right…. lets continue. Paul Kindstedt, cheese expert of The University of Vermont says that in the 17th century many English cheese makers realized that if they skimmed the cream off the milk before making the cheese they could make butter with the cream and add to their income and profits. However by skimming the cream off the milk before making the cheese the colour of the cheese was lost. They tried to trick their customers by adding colouring such as saffron, marigold and carrot juices. This returned the colour to the cheeses. They had in fact invented a low fat version of their cheeses which nowadays would sell perfectly well as a low fat cheese. But they didn’t know that then. The devious scoundrels.
As part of my research into Cheddar I thought I should eat some. The cheese I have in front of me at this moment comes from my local ASDA supermarket. Many people will immediately react to that and think, well, not a promising start.ASDA being a supermarket chain usually selling the cheaper brands. I should imagine a few critics will say, that can’t be very good then. The packet label says, “EXTRA MATURE, Strong and Punchy, English Cheddar.”( love the use of the word, punchy, by the way. Somebody must have thought hard and long.) It is actually quite a pleasant sensory experience. It is has a pale creamy colour. It is dry and crumbly. It has quite a strong tangy smell. The taste is creamy with some strong sour overtones. There are some sharp flavoured crystals within the cheese which give some pleasant explosions of flavour and the taste is lasting, yes, for quite some time, while I continue to type this. I am not sure what my wife paid for it but it is markedly better than some supposedly strong cheddars I have bought in other supermarkets. Yes, not a bad experience at all. I will be eating more of that.