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September 24, 2015updated 02 Nov 2022 10:24am

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes:
The New Old Cheeses of
the English-Speaking World

Wallace & Gromit make endearing symbols of Great Britain. The heroes of Nick Park’s Oscarwinning claymation films, the absent-minded inventor and his smarter dog, have a benign nobility of spirit. Like A Charlie Brown Christmas, the adventures of man and dog are a highlight of television schedules during the holiday season. Their gastronomic impact started early. The first short film, A Grand Day Out (1989), features the pair building a rocket to visit the moon so that Wallace can indulge in his passion for cheese; the character has remained an archcaseophile ever since. His signature love of Wensleydale, a hard cow’s milk cheese originally from the English county of Yorkshire, inspired enough popular attention that it would prove the commercial salvation of the last remaining Wensleydale creamery in the county. From a position perilously close to bankruptcy, the Wensleydale Creamery at Hawes rebounded on a wave of stop-motion enthusiasm. The image of Wallace & Gromit can now be found peering out on the supermarket shelf from special mini-truckles of waxed cheese.

In the face of such warm-hearted fervor it seems churlish to push for further details, but I have always been curious about Wallace and his love of Wensleydale. Peter Sallis, the veteran actor who gives voice to Wallace, was born in 1921, and over the course of his lifetime the cheese has evolved beyond recognition. What once were 15lb (7kg) wheels with a soft-textured paste (described as “spreadable with a knife” and “softer than Stilton”) and a natural rind have become vacuum-packed blocks of white, crumbly, acidtasting cheese. Much of the cheese is sold flavored with the addition of dried fruit. An application for Protected Geographical Indication status within the European Union is underway, but the proud Yorkshiremen have been forced to acknowledge the wide genericization of their cheese; the name settled upon is the somewhat ungainly Real Yorkshire Wensleydale.

So which Wensleydale does Wallace love? The evidence in the films is unclear, but the tie-in promotions suggest that it is the modern hard-acid cheese. In that lies great irony for the character. The changes to the cheese since the early 20th century reflect the triumph of logistical considerations over a once-great cheese. Compared with the pungent soft, brine-washed cheeses of the 19th-century, the modern make is quick and straightforward; while the flavors might be hard and unforgiving, the crumbly-acid cheeses can be produced in half the time in the creamery. The embrace of vacuum-packaging in plastic greatly facilitates handling and dramatically reduces waste and weight-loss during its brief aging. At each stage the material reality of the cheese has been changed to fit the available equipment. Typifying the British cheese experience in the years since World War II, Wensleydale has become a cheese defined and limited by technology. And that is just wrong for the character of Wallace. Although his own inventions are vastly overcomplicated and owe more than a little debt to Rube Goldberg, each of Wallace’s creations, however fanciful, is designed to perform a given task that would otherwise need to be performed by hand. Tasks are never redefined in order to fit the available gadgetry. The fearsome contraption that Wallace designs to dress himself in the morning always uses conventional clothes; he is never forced to leave for work in a special disposable muumuu because that is easier automatically to fit over his head.

What follows is a brief exploration of how producers and scientists are pushing the boundaries to make British and American cheeses define their own technology rather than the other way around. From Llangybi in Wales, to Greensboro, Vermont, cheesemakers are at once rediscovering lost techniques from the past century and collaborating with the latest high-throughput DNA sequencing techniques. I also discuss the implications of the success of these cheeses and the technological challenges facing the cheese market in the second decade of the 21st century. Most of all, a transatlantic perspective makes sense when it comes to talk of artisan cheese. With no language barrier, there is a fluid exchange of expertise and personnel between the UK and North America, and in the absence of longstanding domestic traditions bright young American cheesemakers have been drawn to Europe for inspiration and education. Mateo Kehler at Jasper Hill served a wandering apprenticeship in Europe, including time working at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, a cheese retailer, wholesaler, and exporter. Randolph Hodgson, the owner of Neal’s Yard Dairy, was intimately involved with the Holdens at Hafod in the development of their new Cheddar make. And, I must confess that it is a milieu of which I am myself a part; my wife Bronwen is the cheese buyer for Neal’s Yard. Significantly, she is also an American.

Exploring past and future

Put simply, cheesemaking is just the removal of moisture from an acidifying milk gel. Cheesemakers will record the development of acidity in the vat (the acidity curve is a useful shorthand to illustrate a cheese recipe) but it is the relative speeds at which acidification and drainage occur that will dictate the character of the cheese. From this perspective, the two extremes of cheesemaking are on the one hand an Alpine-style cheese like Comté, and on the other a goat’s cheese like Ste-Maure-de-Touraine. In the case of Alpine cheeses, some bacterial starter culture will be added to the milk (this often takes the form of whey from the previous day’s cheese, left to incubate overnight) but the milk is left to “ripen” for only half an hour before the addition of the rennet, with little opportunity for the lactic acid fermentation yet to develop much in the way of acidity. The milk will coagulate in another 30 minutes, and then the curds are cut and heated, speeding the removal of the whey. Further stirring and heating of the curds (described as “cooking”) encourages the drainage of more whey. The curds are transferred to molds, where they are then pressed for another 20 hours. Crucially for the finished cheese, it is only once it is in the press that the acidification really begins to get going; the mechanical extraction of water has already taken place.

In contrast, the milk for Ste-Maure-de-Touraine is largely coagulated by the action of the lactic acid fermentation. A tiny quantity of rennet will be added to the milk, as much for how the enzymes help develop flavor through protein breakdown as for their action setting the milk. Again, the starter cultures of lactic acid bacteria may take the form of some of yesterday’s whey, but in this case the milk will gently acidify over a much more protracted length of time. It could easily take a full 48 hours to reach the target acidity at which point the yoghurt-like curds will be ladled into molds. When the acidification takes place in a wet medium the calcium in the milk is dissolved out of the protein matrix. Within the protein matrix the calcium functions as the “glue” that holds the matrix together, so as it leaves the curd, the networks collapse, leaving a fractured texture. This demineralization leaves a crumbly, brittle texture compared with the pliable curds when calcium is retained. (As a basic principle this also accounts for the facility with which a cheese will melt; demineralized cheeses will much more quickly split into a messy pile of curdled protein and fat.)

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If one was to ask most Cheddar producers on either side of the Atlantic where they would position their cheese on this continuum, I am sure that the overwhelming response would be to say that Cheddar is a cheese of a rapid acidification, matched by aggressive mechanical drainage. “Cheddaring” itself refers to the stacking and restacking of blocks of curd so that they stretch and knit together, but also expel more whey. Even on the farmhouse scale, Cheddarmaking is hard physical labor. The best farmhouse Cheddars have a muscular granularity to them, with savory flavors to match; roast beef and Dijon mustard is a typical tasting note. Within the United States, it is the sharp acidity that serves as a quality mark — a cheese labeled as “Very Strong” or “Extra Sharp” will be selling at a considerable premium. However, in a spirit of enquiry, leading British farmhouse Cheddar producers have held Cheddar workshops where they have examined their approaches and conducted some experiments. It was at these sessions that Randolph Hodgson first introduced the work of Dora Saker. An employee of Somerset County Council in the early 20th century, Saker was an instructor in cheesemaking at a time when most dairy farms were producing their own cheese. Her book, Practical Cheddar Cheese-making (1917) has attained cult status within the Cheddar community. While much of the book talks good sense about the importance of hygiene in the creamery, her basic conception of Cheddar cheese initiated a revolution. In place of a quick make and runaway acidity, Saker advocates small doses of starter and protracted make times. For modern cheese professionals, her curd looks out of this world; where today’s Cheddar curds are generally mottled and friable at the end of cheddaring, Saker claims that it should ” be in thin sheets and resemble chamois leather, velvety to the touch, smooth in texture.”

The challenge was presented: Who would be the first producer to commercialize a World War I-era make? Would customers even understand it as Cheddar? Bwlchwernen Fawr is a 130-acre (52ha) farm near the coast of West Wales. It is the home to Hafod (pronounced “Havod”), a cheese that is about to become the Next Big Thing. (With cheese, as with wine there is the agonizing wait while amazing products gradually reach a consumable degree of maturity.) The oldest continuously certified-organic farm in the principality — Patrick Holden, the father of cheesemaker Sam, was the longtime Director of the Soil Association — the extended Holden family are committed to the sustainability of small-scale dairying. Although they had made a start with a Cheddar-style cheese, Sam and his wife Rachel realized that for serious cheese producers sustainability means making a claim to uniqueness. With gentle prodding from Randolph Hodgson and cheese consultant Dr Jemima Cordle, they embarked upon a great adventure.

All cheese recipes are the products of the environment in which they are developed. The Alpine method, with its brief blast of intense and hot work followed by a leisurely acidification in the press, is designed as a cheese to be made by a herdsman on the side of a mountain (these are the cheeses of transhumance) and then transported some Cheddar could not be more different: It is a cheese to be made by a dairy farmer’s wife. With the make progressing at a gentle pace, there are long periods where the curds can be left to their own devices while the cheesemaker addresses her other chores. The sedate speed is also very forgiving; there is plenty of time to make adjustments for the inevitable variations that will occur in a raw milk cheese; matching the mechanical interventions of drainage to the acidification curve is not a constant game of catch-up. At Hafod, cheesemaking has shifted from a two-person job that fits within broadly conventional office hours (7am to 5:15pm) to a task for a single person prepared to linger in the creamery until 7pm.

It might be time-consuming, but the nature of the time spent is quite different; it is no longer “busy.” Time is spent in calm contemplation of the curds as they peacefully drain and acidify; the work environment is as mellow as the flavors in the finished cheese. Cheesemaking has become task-orientated, rather than dictated by the timediscipline of paid work.

The great gender history of British cheesemaking has yet to be written, but the most significant single shift in the farmhouse cheese world during the course of the 20th century was the post-war move from cheeses made by women (largely the farmer’s wives) to cheeses made by male paid employees; Cheddar became a masculine domain. The rhythm of perpetual busyness that is expected from work in the industrial (and post-industrial) era was matched by a culture that exalted in the brute physicality of keeping up with the make. If your Cheddar is made by an employee, then making cheese according to Dora Saker’s method will inevitably involve paying them to stand around and drink a lot of coffee. Of note here, those individual British cheeses with the strongest claims to a continuity of tradition — Appleby’s Cheshire and Kirkham’s Lancashire — were both made and dominated by significant cheese matriarchs. More than a civilized work environment, the new old make creates cheeses that are intensely expressive of their raw materials. The more measured acidification and less demineralization makes for broad, rounded flavors where with the more “modern” make the flavor profile was more spiky and nervous. But even more important, the smaller dose of starter gives the native lactic acid bacteria of the milk more room to shine. Despite the fact that the public health dogma has come to equate any bacterial count in milk with dangerous pathogens, the milk’s own microflora are key contributors to raw milk cheesemaking. French cheese consultant Ivan Larcher is quite clear that milk devoid of a bacterial population, “is not clean, it is dead.” According to Larcher, good milk for cheesemaking is capable of acidifying on its own (this, after all, is the original technique for all cheesemaking). Fresh milk has a pH of 6.7, but milk that is good for cheese will acidify to pH 4.6 in 24 hours if held at 86°F (30°C).

While the Holdens are busy rediscovering the past, over in New England microbiologists are looking toward the future. At Harvard University, Dr Rachel Dutton and her colleague Dr Benjamin E Wolfe are uncovering the extent to which science does not yet know or understand the microbial ecology of artisan cheese rinds. Dutton arrived at her project looking for real-world situations in which she could model and replicate microbial interactions in the laboratory. Essentially the cheese rind stands in for the lab rat. The aim is to use the rinds as an example of a simple system for the study of the interaction of microbial communities to prove that the concept can work, before it can be applied to more complex environments like the human gut. Even then, it has been necessary to start from very basic knowledge. Collaborating with brothers Mateo and Andy Kehler at Jasper Hill in Greensboro, Vermont, Dutton and Wolfe have realized that they have to start from the beginning. As Dutton explains, “the overwhelming majority of microbiological research has been on disease; because there has been so little research on food in general, the first step was to catalog before we learn anything from comparative analysis.” To study the factors that determine the microbial communities on cheese rinds, Dutton and Wolfe have taken samples from over 160 different types of cheese; for each sample they also record the pH, salt, and moisture contents of the cheese. For the cheesemaker there are not yet clear results in terms of useful interventions through which to manage microbial communities. “But,” says Dutton, “you can’t fix a problem if you don’t understand what is going on! Any additional information is helpful in troubleshooting.” When I asked her the age-old question what determines microbial terroir, she was ready with a diplomatic answer. Is it the type of cheese or the place where the cheese is made that determines its populations? “It is clear that the type of cheese selects for the species, but there is an exciting potential for diversity at the level of the genome.” Unfortunately, this remains to be studied From adjuncts to L’Incorruptible

Faith in the market, control of their own brands, and the lack of dominant affineurs means that British and American cheesemakers have a much more direct connection with the consumers of their cheese than their French or Italian counterparts. In particular, the weaker role of market gatekeepers means that the industry has to grapple with the question of how to define cheese quality. It was therefore of special interest when in their July 2012 issue, Cooks Illustrated devoted a feature to a tasting of American artisan Cheddars. The venerable food magazine takes pride in its tasting panels, so the preferences of their 21 editorial staff are an interesting snapshot of the American market. Subtitling their tasting report “Culture Shock,” the Cooks Illustrated editors were seduced by the “butterscotch-y,” “gamy,” and “toasty” flavors of Cheddars made with the addition of powerful adjunct cultures. (Cabot Clothbound from the Cellars at Jasper Hill — advertised as “all the characteristic texture of an English-style Cheddar with the sweet caramel and milky flavors that sets it apart from other bandaged Cheddars” — was a close runner-up in the tasting and is a good example of a cheese crafted through the use of adjunct cultures.) These cocktails of lactic acid bacteria are added to the milk at the same time as the starter culture, but they are not designed to acidify the milk. Instead, they are purely used for the flavor profile that they give the finished cheese.

Lactobacillus helveticus has become the culture of choice for those seeking to make Cheddar with broad mass-market appeal. With a powerful, sweet, caramel flavor-profile Lb.helveticus is in danger of becoming ubiquitous, to the extent that some American cheesemakers now talk of “candy cheese,” but Cooks Illustrated presented them as a new template for All-American Cheddar. By the end of testing, the panelists were “convinced not only that the hybridization of traditional and modern cheddar-making methods leads to a top-notch product but also that these new-school American cheeses more than hold their own with the stalwarts across the Atlantic.” A month later this theory received official support when Beecher’s Handmade Cheese’s Flagsheep (a hard cheese made from a cow and ewe’s milk blend) won best in show at the 2012 American Cheese Society Competition. How does the cheese taste? “A really distinct caramel flavor.” Just like aromatic yeasts in winemaking, powerful adjunct cultures in the creamery are a dangerous gateway to the homogenization of flavor. Where the end-product tastes simply of the freeze-dried cultures that were added to the milk, the cheese is stripped of its uniqueness and returned to the world of the commodity; from being the product of a specific farm, it is now vulnerable to infinite substitution with cheese made by anyone with access to the same set of microbiological supplies. Fortunately, they are not to everyone’s taste within the cheese world. Randolph Hodgson has over 30 years of experience in the world of British Cheddar and has built his business around the selection of individual batches of cheese for their flavor-profile, but he tells the story of judging at one of the major British cheese competitions. Like the Cooks Illustrated panel, he was impressed by the rich caramel flavors of the Cheddars; they were instantly attractive. “It was like your first sip of Coca Cola — when it is cold and sweet and caffeinated and you really can’t imagine anything better. But then as it warms up it becomes sickly and unpleasant; it is just too much.” The other judges, supermarket buyers, were enthusiastic about the commercial prospects of the sweettasting cheeses, but Hodgson fell back to find succor with a piece of Keen’s Cheddar. “It was thoroughly indifferent Keen’s, with a distinct acidic burn, but by god it was refreshing. Finally something that tasted different!” That is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with Lb.Helveticus. In Gouda or Alpine styles of cheese where Lb.helveticus would traditionally be used, the butterscotch and caramel flavors are part of the expected flavor profile. It is not even just a simple question of typicity; in these cheeses the flavors of the starter express themselves with much greater subtlety. Val Bines is the Grande Dame of British Cheddar. Before becoming the Director of Studies in the Dairy Program at the School of Artisan Food in Welbeck, England, she was a consultant for many of the leading producers of West Country Farmhouse Cheddar. With her experience, she finds sweet flavors particularly obtrusive in Cheddar: “In Gouda or Comté, they have a very long acidification and the flavor of the starter blends in; in Cheddar there is a very rapid acidification and the [Lb.]helveticus just tastes as if it has been chucked in.”

But the big, bold, sweet flavors are immediately accessible. As we have seen, they even score well in competitions which, just as in the wine world, habitually favor the instant gratification of products that shout and scream rather than expressing more interesting ideas at a more delicate volume. In such an environment, the mellow, warm, and complex flavors of the new-style Hafod seem almost out of place, like turning up at a Metallica concert to discover a late Beethoven string quartet. Indeed Cheddar as a category seems particularly shouty. With names like “Tickler,” “Twanger,” and “Gum Burner,” there is more than a touch of le vice anglais to the market; some customers appear to want cheeses that will punch them in the face. However, Sam Holden is confident that his cheese will prosper without resort to sadomasochism: “It is a slow burner, but it is different from all other cheeses.” His faith in the power of uniqueness is touching, but with the present dominance of easily-replicable flavors from adjunct cultures raises the question: What does quality cheese actually taste like?

Within any market, the idea of quality can be thought of as simple fitness for purpose. What is appropriate for one market segment is not appropriate for another; this is something with which we are very familiar with the world of wine, but it is equally applicable to a cheese world that stretches from a jar of Cheez Whiz to clothbound Cheddar. Although each market segment will define the purpose of their cheese differently, there are two broad perspectives into which these ideas will fit. With cheese as with macroeconomics, people are either supply-siders or bow before demand. Supply-side definitions of quality focus upon those properties that are hardest to achieve. The harder it is for the producer to achieve a particular characteristic in a cheese (or for that matter a wine) the rarer this characteristic will be and that scarcity will drive demand. This is the inverse of the useful definition of a wine fault as any characteristic (Brettanomyces or TCA or pruney over-ripeness) that is easily replicable wherever the wine has been made. It is also the fundamental basis for any appellation system or hierarchical classification: In essence, produce from these places has unique and distinctive characteristics that deserve some kind of special recognition.

In contrast, a demand-led model will define quality as those properties that the consumer most likes. It is the domain of focus groups, product testing, and an essential tool of the quality assurance system of any industrial-scale producer. Where the product will reach a diverse audience of less-heavily-engaged consumers, such a broad approach is essential to keeping everyone happy, but at the same time it demands that the product is instantly accessible to a naïve palate. The more a product is driven by the desire for accessibility, the more it will lean toward straightforward flavors; sweetness, saltiness, and umami will dominate. It is the difference between the meticulous scoring of an Olympic gymnastic display and the popular vote on a television reality show.

Within the French model it is the affineur who serves as judge and custodian of the idea of quality; they are a kind of secular caseo-priest of taste. This role is most effectively illustrated when French champions take on the rest of the world in the International Caseus Awards, the Olympics of cheesemongery. The event is sponsored by the Conseil National des Appellations d’Origine Laitières, the organization of dairy industry products of Protected Designation of Origin status. British and American teams habitually struggle with the extensive quiz on cheese PDOs. The decorative cheese presentation and cheese service rounds similarly serve to emphasize the patrician side to French cheese retail. The judges ask contestants not to help an inquisitive customer select a cheeseboard; contestants are asked to prepare a cheeseboard of the best cheeses. Of course, we should remember that despite cross- Channel differences in the role of producer, affineur, and cheesemonger, artisan cheese is an inherently awkward product for the retailer. There is batch variation to manage and communicate to the consumer, together with the high maintenance demands of the wheels of cheese themselves. Some degree of waste is inevitable if the cheese is to be kept in good condition and cutting the cheese to order immediately imposes significant manpower demands. While there is a significant difference in the operation of the British and American cheesemonger and their European counterparts, the dynamics of the interaction between customer and cheesemonger inevitably still allows plenty of room to hand-sell favorite cheeses.

As such we could think of the Anglo-Saxon affineur as not so much the priest of taste, mediating between the producer and the customer by dictating the truth, but more the Presbyterian minister of taste, arriving at their gastronomic theology through earnest discussion with their customers. Before Dominic Coyte co-founded the Borough Cheese Company importing Comté, he worked for nine years at Neal’s Yard Dairy, so he is acutely aware of the difference in approaches to educating and engaging the customer. For Coyte, at its best the British approach consists of a “flavor dialogue” between the retailer and the customer, with feedback and information traded in both directions.

Problems start once that dialogue is lost. It is the quandary that has troubled revolutionaries for centuries: How do you keep the people virtuous once you have gotten rid of all the priests? Notoriously Maximilien de Robespierre attempted to solve this problem in the French Revolution through the creation of a new civic religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being, but artisanal cheesemakers lack the coercive mechanisms available to the Committee of Public Safety. Short of the guillotine, what cheese needs is an active and engaged public sphere, where controversies are battled out in public and information can be shared and discussed. Dare I say it, the world of Anglo-Saxon cheese is crying out for its very own World of Fine Wine.

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