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.