Monday, April 24, 2006

Rob Visits Keen's Cheddar

We take artisan cheddar for granted these days, but in truth, there’s not that much of it left down in Somerset, England anymore. Tamasin and I went up from Cross Farm in the Quantocks to Moorhayes Farm in Wincanton, about an hour’s drive up the back roads, to meet George and Stephen Keen and see their operation.

The family has been farming since 1898, and now Stephen and his wife Jennie, and his brother George with his wife Sue, and their sons Nick and James, respectively, carry on the family tradition of cloth wrapped, raw milk handmade cheddar from the milk of the 250 or so Friesians they raise. They sell all they produce, of course, and can’t make any more; not unless they can buy some nearby fields and raise a few more animals.

They drink their own raw milk everyday, it ‘keeps us healthy’ Stephen says, and they make one vat of cheese a day, too, about 24 of the 56 pounders we sell at Murray’s. They were surprised to learn we sell around fifty wheels a year, though I suppose we might easily sell a hundred. For them, the ideal age to eat the cheese is twelve months.

First thing we ate were some salted curds, about five hours after it was still milk, with the texture of chicken breast. The milk comes in at nine in the morning, and they add animal rennet and some starter culture that comes in sterile and frozen that then gets thawed for the next day’s batch. The whey is separated for cream, about nine gallons of it, and the rest of the whey gets mixed with slurry for the fields.

The starter cultures are rotated to avoid the pharge floating around the atmosphere; they used to make their own starter but the pharge interfered, but they avoid what most use, which is DVI, a mass produced direct to vat inoculation; eg, powder; this is a pint bottle put into a milk churn that serves for an entire vat of milk.

The cheddaring you have seen or read about. The curds are blocks first, then cut and turned, all done by hand, and salted and left to stand around twenty minutes before being turned into metal molds. They go into a horizontal press, and later change from the original heavy cloth they are made in to a blue cloth overnight. Next day they take them out of the blue cloth and dip them into hot water for thirty seconds, then hand lard them with what looked to us like Danish lard, good enough for baking pies (not that I’d know).

The lard is smeared on by hand, three layers in all, then in for another pressing, a three day process altogether. There is more than a half kilo of lard per cheese, which is why their cheeses tend to blue less, all the cracks filled in nicely. The cloth is muslin from India. In this way, each step meticulously made by hand (which they tell us now makes them unique in all the land), they are able to produce one hundred fifty tons per year.

The cows come outside about this time of year, and yes, the spring milk is preferred. The cows get buffer feed of maize, barley and wheat, so the cheese is consistent but only to a point. Anyway, the cheeses next head into the aging room, around ten degrees C with 90% humidity. The cheeses are tagged with the date and for authenticity; no tag, then don’t accept the cheese as the real thing, they told us. I asked Frankie; he says they are always tagged.

We tasted several batches. February cheese was creamy, mild and lactic. December cheese was a little harder, a little sharper, but still creamy. No surprises; the surprise was the quality. I began to think that I had underestimated my own taste buds for many years; it is hard to imagine that any cheddar is better.

George is concerned with his cows, and the science of rumen, and what is going on in each of the cow’s four stomachs, and how to keep the stress out of each as well as the cow itself. The October cheese was fudgy, still mild, but the August batch finally had that complexity we seek, smoother, not claggy, with a lingering finish. George is truly a man to ‘let nature do its thing’ and doesn’t much care for the problems that develop in a cheese much older than a year. The May cheese, at eleven months, had lots of flavour, and grassy notes, without a trace of bitterness.

Part of this he attributes to the live starter; George feels the vegetable ones don’t work, and are one of the key principles of great cheddar. In summary, these principles are: made in Somerset from the best grass; the cheesemaker’s own herds; raw milk; pint starters; animal rennet; hand cheddared; cloth bound; and aged a minimum of eleven months, and never more than eighteen.

The Keens do what their grandparents did, though with a bit more technology, not too much, and they do it six days a week. Along with Montgomery’s and now Westcombe, they have made Slow Food’s Presidium as the only artisan Somerset cheddars. We are very proud to carry Keen’s at Murray’s, and I look forward to having them visit us soon.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Making Mons

by Liz Thorpe

At its most basic, affinage is the practice of aging cheese. Cheese folks will tell you affinage is the art of aging cheese. The affineur, of course, being the artist.
Art more than science, because temperature and humidity are the easiest factors to control in a cheese cave. What of the molds and yeasts, invisible, ambient little darlings unique to one animal’s milk, one region’s grass, one cave’s packed soil floor? Or the changing seasonal diet that, in one fell swoop, increases fat content, decreases protein, and modifies the flavor profile of rich, raw milk? What will be the impact of these seemingly tiny variables?

A good affineur will know, or have a fairly certain guess, before laying a hand on the wheel, wedge or round in question. As this ancient art of cheese maturation begins to take hold in the United States, with American producers building Little House on the Prairie-type rooms into their hillsides, and urban meccas like Murray’s constructing subterranean grottos in the middle of Manhattan, the work of French affineur Hervé Mons makes me realize how far we have yet to travel.

Hervé is a third generation affineur, working with his brother Laurent to oversee several small shops around Lyon, and guiding his aging facility outside of Roanne. I hesitate to call them caves, lest you imagine a dank, stone room carved into the mountainside. Caves like this do exist, but most serious facilities are run with mechanical precision. Hervé’s looks something like a long, white shed sitting alone in the middle of a field. The primary work area is limited to staff properly dressed in hats, jackets and clogs that never see the light of day, or the potential contamination of sidewalks, driveways, and hallways. Each cave is a lean, vaulted room where like cheeses are grouped with like, all the better to share their molds and bacteria. The floor is dirt, with stones, which retain the necessary ninety or so percent humidity. The planks are wood, usually spruce, as pine is enormously expensive. Small goat cheeses reside in one room; thick, crusty tomme-style cheeses in another; massive mountain wheels of two or more years in a third.

It wasn’t until I visited Hervé and some of the farms he works with, that I understood the truth of an affineur. Hervé’s starts in the dark, and the cold, at about 3:15 in the morning. The hotel we leave from has no coffee to offer because it is, arguably, the middle of the night. Hervé has recently had his license returned after multiple speeding offenses. The apparent benefit of the fast ride (twenty extra minutes of sleep) is immediately outweighed by the intense and persistent nausea of driving up endless hairpin turns at 130 kilometers an hour. Hervé is totally unfazed because he never sleeps more than four hours a night.

The traditional buron, or cheesemaking hut.

Our rush is to reach the buron of the cheesemaker Marcel, high atop the Massif Central. The buron is the traditional stone hut of the region, occupied by men at high altitudes who still make the annual pilgrimage skyward to make cheese. The Massif Central is a broad, flat expanse, the now-dormant plain of a former volcano, in the middle of Auvergne, at the bellybutton of France. On its flatness, you feel at the top of the world.

View from the buron.

Marcel’s day also begins in the dark, and the cold. He is one of eight remaining producers of the cheese Salers du Buron, a highly regulated farmhouse cheese not unlike Cantal, but far more complex. It can only be made from May 1-October 31, though snow often truncates the production season. It must be made of the raw milk of the Salers cow, with their burnished red coats and solid, curving horns. The milk must be gathered by hand, which is why the day begins so early.

The Salers cows.

By first light Marcel and his compatriots are out in the fields, separating mothers and calves; Hervé pulls up in a spray of dust; I focus on smiling and not throwing up. The men have one-legged stools bound to their waists so they can rock back in balance as they squat at the udders of some 70 cows. The wayward calves are strapped alongside, as Salers cows won’t milk without their baby present. The calves begin to nurse, are pulled away to siphon milk for the cheese, and are returned to finish breakfast. The men milk into wood buckets that are emptied into a wooden barrel strapped to a broken-down cart. The cart is pulled, I kid you not, by a blind and ancient donkey. One slap of the flank and the donkey, unaided, winds his way back to the cheesemaking room. He has made the same trip each day, all summer long, for fifteen years.

The ancient donkey, transporting milk.

As the popularity of Salers has waned, and the producers willing to work brutally long hours for little more than a piece of nostalgia have disappeared, Hervé has struggled to keep the cheese alive. Going so far, in Marcel’s case, as to purchase cows, sealing their partnership, and increasing the raw material available to make more cheese.

Following the rickety donkey on his last walk of the morning Hervé points at the calves, inquires about the rain fall, notices how much hay has been necessary this dry summer to augment the wild grasses. He chats with the young baker who wants to learn this craft, continuing to make Salers when Marcel cannot. Later, he expresses doubt that the young man can stand the lifestyle, and sure enough by summer’s end the baker declares that he will not return the following year.

The tiny, warm, damp cheesemaking room has two doors: one open to the plain, and a second, closed, leading to the aging room. Flies have gathered in the protection of the still air; the men agree a storm is coming. While Marcel begins the first of the day’s two cheese batches, Hervé flits around. Grabbing a nibblet of curd from last night’s make, already expressing the sour, slightly gamy flavor of Salers, he considers the squeaky texture, the finish, the curd size. He dips a finger in the barrel of milk, helps wash the equipment down with whey, a natural sanitizer that will run out the door to the pigs. He disappears into the adjacent, rudimentary kitchen to help with morning coffee.

I am mildly shocked that an aging room exists at all, since Hervé is supposed to be the ager. This dark cellar of cheese wheels has one tiny window, at ground level, through which a steady breeze circulates. One its invisible gusts, Hervé explains, come particles from the earth, the dandelions, arnica and mountain flowers that grow rampant, the essence of this space. To remove the Salers too young would destroy its character entirely.

It is this depth of understanding, this relationship not just with the producer, but with the breed of animal, the process of cheesemaking, the land, the difference between June and September, rainy season and dry spell, this ability to champion a 2,000 year old tradition while guiding, advising, and adjusting it, this is what makes a good affineur an artist, and far more than an ager of cheese. Hervé Mons, far more than any other individual I have met, is gifted in his ability to master these things simultaneously. He does not buy cheese and age it. He ferrets out the best potential and becomes a partner, helping producers to make better cheese, and ultimately, to survive as farmers.


Coagulating milk, and beginning to cut the curd.

The curds coagulate.

Marcel works his magic.

Stirring the curds, in whey. Until several years ago a
traditional wood board was used for stirring. Today it's plastic.

Marcel scoops out excess whey.

The curds sit for 12 hours, developing
characteristic sour, slightly barny flavor.

The curds are wrapped in cheesecloth.

Marcel pats the curd and begins the pressing. Curds are
turned, stacked & pressed a minimum of 15 times!

The traditional weighted press.

The wheels begin to mature in a tiny room
of the buron. I do not join them for long.

A cross made from the first butter of the
season sits above the cave entrance.

Taste it for yourself! Buy Hervé Mons cheese.