Find out why the British version of this cheese is coveted.
Cheddar, a cheese which has almost become synonymous with the word ‘cheese’ across the globe is, undoubtedly, the most famous cheese variety there is. But what variety is that? There are so many different versions of this same cheese, it can be hard to categorize it. So which is the original and why has it evolved into so many distinct guises?
Unlike many cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Stilton and Comté, cheddar does not have a protected name, geographical status or, in fact, recipe. This is why you can see it in various formats, and it is made in various countries including Canada and New Zealand as well as the U.S., far from its original home.
It has copies worldwide, some of which have no resemblance to British Cheddar. It wasn’t until recently, in 1994, when a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) was applied for and granted to create this distinction between copies and the original style. The PDO is West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, which, in short, means that to use this status the cheese must be made using the appropriate cheddaring process (which will be explained later), be aged for at least nine months and is made in southwest England. In 2003, a stricter quality mark was created by three Somerset cheddar producers who were granted a Slow Food Presidium for Artisan Somerset Cheddar.
British Cheddar History
Cheddar’s origin lies in Somerset in the southwest of England, taking its name from Cheddar Gorge and the market town of Cheddar, where cheeses were once matured in the natural caves and sold to tourists visiting the Gorge. There is now only one cheddar maker left in the town—the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Co.
Cheddar’s popularity is undisputed, with it accounting for half of all British cheese sales today.
However, British cheddar has not always had it so easy. As Ned Palmer writes in his book “A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles”, cheddar did not escape the attrition of the 20th century. He writes that Patrick Rance, a cheesemonger and author who has been considered responsible for having saved many British cheese specialists’ products from extinction, “counted 333 farms in the southwest making cheddar in 1939. By 1974, 300 had been lost, and numbers dwindled through the decade. In Somerset, Montgomery’s, Keen’s and Westcombe held the line joined in Devon by Quicke’s”. From the 90s onward, these stalwarts were joined by newer cheeses, such as Hafod and, most recently, the Trethowan Brothers who make Gorwydd Caerphilly. They have expanded into cheddar, making the new and award-winning Pitchfork Cheddar.
The Cheddar Profile
Traditional cheddar goes through a specific process in its make called ‘cheddaring’, which is responsible for cheddar’s texture and is partly responsible for its flavor profile. Cheddaring consists of stacking knitted bricks of curd on top of one another, which expels whey predominantly, but it also acidifies the curd and creates the texture we know and love. There are different types of cheddars even within the UK, and they are differentiated mainly by make, shape and outer protection. Traditional cheddar is made in a ‘Truckle’ at around 55 pounds, give or take and depending on producer. Hafod are considerably smaller, for instance. Cheddar can be natural rinded like Hafod, or cloth bound like with Quicke’s and Montgomery’s cheddars. Cheddar can also be made in a block—Barber’s 1833 being a great example of this—and some cheddars are wax coated after being extruded post maturation to provide a soft, creamy texture.
Cheddar Around the World
Cheddar is made worldwide, and its popularity is infectious. In the U.S. in 2019, around 3.7 billion pounds of cheddar cheese were produced. Andy Swinscoe of the Courtyard Dairy, a specialist cheese shop in the north of England, writes that “the recipe developed in the 1800s was a cheese-making method that was easy to industrialize and an efficient way to make cheese, so it was adopted by many as the best way to make cheese from milk. It also can be sold young or old, suffers from few defects or problems and travels well.” He adds, “The recipe was spread by people leaving the west to go to the Americas and the Antipodes, taking their cheese-making expertise with them, whilst various dairy professionals, such as Joseph Harding who refined the cheddar-making method, went on to teach the recipe to farmers in Scotland and the New World.”
British Cheddars Available in the U.S.
A name that needs no introduction, Mary Quicke is at the helm of her farm and dairy in Devon, where the Quicke family has been for around 500 years. The Quicke’s estate is 3,000 acres, 700 of which is pure grazing pasture. Their 600-strong herd of cows are grass fed year round, with 10 to 11 months of grazed grass and the remainder topped up with silage from the summer when they are indoors in winter. They make around 250 metric tons of cheese per year, which equals approximately 59-pound wheels per day. Quicke’s Mature cheddar is matured for 12 to 15 months and shows a wonderful, rich complexity with a moreish buttery texture. Their most recent addition to the range is ‘AlpenCheddar’, a hybrid of raclette and cheddar, which is a great melting cheese.
Montgomery’s is an unpasteurized cheddar from Jamie Montgomery in North Cadbury, Somerset. Montgomery uses the same strains of starter culture as his grandfather did 100 years ago. About 120 cheeses are made each week using the milk produced by the Montgomery’s cows. Montgomery is almost unique in using a peg mill to break up the cheddared curd, which gives the cheese its signature texture. Most use chip mills, which are three times faster, however their chopping instead of tearing provides a far less interesting texture in the curd. To eliminate issues, which would come from the loss of speed, Montgomery developed a funnel that feeds the curds into the mill faster, taking the milling time down from 40 minutes to 10, which means he can continue to use his peg mill. The cheeses are matured for 12 to 18 months wrapped in muslin cloth on wooden shelves. Montgomery’s has a characteristic earthy flavor with broth, vegetal notes and a meaty savoriness interchanging between batches.
This is the new cheese on the block with only a few years of production under its belt. It is made by the Trethowan Brothers at Puxton Court Farm near Weston-Super-Mare in Somerset (they moved back from Wales in 2014) who make the well-established Gorwydd Caerphilly. Following their move, the brothers decided to make another cheese on the farm to go alongside their famous Caerphilly and, as they were in cheddar country, Pitchfork Cheddar was born. Following traditional techniques handed down by Somerset cheddar makers, Trethowan Brothers use old-fashioned bacterial cultures. They ‘cheddar’ by hand and cloth-bind each cheese, before maturing these for over a year. In 2019, Pitchfork Cheddar won both Best Cheddar and Best British Cheese at the World Cheese Awards, which is rare so early on in a cheese’s career.
Barber’s 1833 is a different style to all of those mentioned so far. It is a block cheddar as opposed to a truckle. It is also from Somerset and has been since 1833, when their ancestor Daniel Barber began making cheese on his Somerset farm. Their own cows graze on Somerset and Dorset pastures. For additional milk, they work with farmers in their local area. Barber’s is very important in the British cheddar making world as it is the sole guardian of the country’s last remaining traditional cheese starter cultures, which are used by many well-known cheddar makers as well as themselves.