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Last Updated: Monday, 21 August 2006, 22:51 GMT 23:51 UK
Separating the curds from the whey
By Will Smale
Business reporter, BBC News, Somerset

John Spence at work weighing one of his cheddar rounds
John Spence and his team make their cheddar by hand

Cheddar cheese has gone a long way since it was invented in the quaint Somerset village of the same name back in the Middle Ages.

Then it was made by farmers' wives as a tasty way of using up and preserving excess milk.

Today it is the best-selling hard cheese in the English-speaking world.

It is so ubiquitous that wherever it is made in the world it can be called cheddar.

The US Department of Agriculture even tracks cheddar's price levels to determine the health of the American dairy industry.

Yet a victim of its own success, far too much of today's cheddar is rather bland and uniform.

It is generally a mass-produced cheese that you put in your sandwich or grill on your toast without thinking too much about it.

Unpasteurised

Yet artisan cheddar producers do exist, most notably the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company - the only cheddar cheese-maker still in Cheddar.

Maturing cheddar cheese rounds
The cheddar matures for a year in cool cellars

Owned and run by John Spence since 2003, it uses unpasteurised milk from local cows to produce traditional, homemade cheddar.

His mature cheddar is so strongly-flavoured you feel it is going to remove the roof of your mouth, only in a good way.

"Unfortunately cheddar cheese is such a commodity these days," says Mr Spence. "We want to keep up the heritage of the real thing."

Making just 60 tonnes a year compared with between 20,000 and 40,000 tonnes at a standard commercial producer, Mr Spence's cheese differs from usual cheddar in a number of ways.

What is very pleasing is how popular our cheese is in France
John Spence

Not only does he use unpasteurised milk, which contributes to a more complex flavour; in addition, the cheese is matured in traditional rounds covered in linen cloth.

Mr Spence says the cloth allows the cheese to breathe and create a natural rind, again leading to a better flavour.

By comparison, large scale cheese producers mature their cheddar in giant brick-shaped blocks wrapped in plastic.

While this is more convenient, it cuts out all contact with the air.

Like whisky

But before Mr Spence's cheddar can be formed into rounds, he and his four fellow cheese-makers have to separate the milk into the solid curds and liquid whey.

CHEDDAR CHEESE FACTS
Mentioned in the Doomsday Book of 1086
Traditionally had to be made within 30 miles of Wells Cathedral
It takes 10 litres of milk to make 1kg of cheddar
Originally matured in the caves in Cheddar Gorge

The curd will go on to become the cheese, while the whey goes to local pigs.

To separate the curds from the whey, the milk is first heated and continually stirred before a starter culture of bacteria is added, followed by rennet, the traditional enzyme used to coagulate the milk in cheese-making.

Once the curds have formed, they are heated to make them harder and the whey is drained away.

The curd is then cut into small lumps, before salt is added and it is pressed into the metal tins that form the cheese rounds, the whole process taking about seven hours.

The formed cheese is then pressed for three days before the real waiting game begins - the cheese has to be matured for up to a year in cool, dark cellars.

By contrast, mild commercial cheddars are matured for just a few months.

"Making good cheese is a bit like making whisky," says Mr Spence. "You have to be patient before you can try the finished article.

"It is the long maturation that gives proper mature cheddar its intense flavour."

'Different'

The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company today sells 90% of its cheese direct to customers, be it visitors to its shop, or mail order customers both across the UK and overseas. The remaining 10% goes to delicatessens.

The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company's cheese on sale
The company sells 90% of its cheese direct to consumers

"What is very pleasing is how popular our cheese is in France," claims Mr Spence.

"When you think how seriously France takes cheese, this means something."

Mr Spence admits that while it has its devoted fans, others are not too impressed.

"Some people like it, some less so, but everyone says it is at least very different from mass-produced cheddar," he says.

"We will never be to everyone's taste, but we are a pleased to be a specialist niche producer in an enormous commodity market."




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