Did you know, deep down into the county of Somerset in south west England, there’s a 400 feet deep and 3 miles long gorge? The gorge began forming one million years ago when water from melting glaciers formed a river and the river carved the limestone rock creating steep cliffs. The river gradually made its way underground creating the Cheddar Caves. Does the name sound familiar? This is in fact where cheddar, UK’s most famous national cheese, comes from!
Cheddar is a tiny village about one hour drive from Bath (around 3 hours from London). It’s the quintessential English countryside town with one high street, a few shops and a local pub. What makes Cheddar special are the caves which are open to the public daily (except holidays). It’s an exciting and fun visit especially if you have children.
My pictures can’t do justice to the beauty of the gorge, particularly as you drive into town on Cliff Road through the Mendip Hills. You’ll have to visit and see it for yourself.
The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company
Once upon a time, cheese making played such a big role in this area that it gave name to this village! Today, there is only one producer that makes cheddar in the small village of Cheddar, thus preserving a tradition that is hundreds of years old. It’s the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company and at their shop you can learn how cheddar is made.
Founded by John and Katherine Spencer, The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company is a small award-winning artisan cheesemaking company. The couple had been working in the cheese industry for decades before deciding to set up their own brand. In fact, it was through their jobs in cheese that they met and fell in love.
John and Katherine don’t live in Cheddar, but they knew that the only way to produce a truly authentic cheddar cheese, they needed to be based here. In 2003 they opened their production site and shop and have been hard working at it ever since.
Traditionally, Cheddar cheese had to be made in Somerset, specifically within 30 miles of Wells Cathedral.
Also, according to the Slow Food specifications, Cheddar cheese should be made with traditional methods, such as using raw milk, traditional animal rennet, and a cloth wrapping.
At a time when cheese making all over UK are becoming more and more industrialised (with the result of cheese losing its unique flavours which only come from manual production), John and Katherine took a step in the opposite direction.
With The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company, they want to preserve the traditional cheese making recipes and practices.
I loved hearing John and Katherine’s story and see their love for great cheddar cheese.
Starting a cheese company from scratch is not easy: you have to make a big investment to start and then wait a few years to start seeing results. First of all, you have to find the best quality ingredients.
The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company uses only fresh, local unpasteurised milk from a herd grazing the lush pastures of Cheddar. It was important for John and Katherine to use local milk from one supplier in order to truly protect the heritage of Cheddar. Every morning, the cheesemakers monitor the quality, composition and temperature of the milk as it arrives.
Making is a long game of many trials and fails and it took John and Katherine about three and a half years to make a cheese they were 100% happy with. It’s not enough to develop the perfect recipe (ie. doses, temperatures and timings), you also need to wait months and years for the cheese to mature and finally taste the final product. “You have to be patient, stick to it and believe in your product”, said John.
The Cheddar Cheese Company makes and “cheddars” all the cheese by hand, relying entirely on the cheesemaker’s skill and experience. First, the curds and whey are separated using rennet, then the cheddaring development stage starts.
The process called “cheddaring” involves a series of cutting, turning and stacking of blocks of curd until it’s completely cooled down and drained of all the water. During this stage, the curd is also salted.
I had a go at “cheddaring by hand” during my visit to The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company and let me tell you that, while it looks fun (there are windows from which visitors can watch the process), it is a hard labour job! I also see how it can be a highly satisfying job, much like any artisanal job: every day you can create a beautiful product using your hands.
Once the curd is cold and dry, it is transferred into the traditional cheese moulds and then pressed. After pressing, the cheese is wrapped in cloth and transferred to the maturing stores.
The cheddaring process is extremely important because this is what gives the cheese its texture (slightly crumbly). During the maturation stage that the cheese produces a rind and the flavour develops.
Cheddar cheese is matured for about 12-24 months at a constant temperature. The natural caves of Cheddar Gorge provide the perfect environment for this: high humidity and constant temperature.
During our day tour, John took us inside the caves to see where the cheeses are kept during the maturation. Only one variety of The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company is matured here, while the rest is matured in special room back at the production site.
Tasting Cheddar Cheese
It is important to always taste cheese at room temperature. There isn’t just one kind of Cheddar; the cheese can be mild, medium, mature, extra mature or vintage.
The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company cave-matured cheese is certainly their hero product, a traditional cheddar matured in the caves for about 12 months (at 12 1/2°C temperature). The natural environment (the humidity, air and bacteria) influence the flavours, texture and moisture of this cheddar, making it more complex than other cheddar cheeses.
Back at the shop, we tasted a few of the best-selling cheeses and my favourite was the Oak Smoked Cheddar. It is 100% natural: made through a cold smoking process over smouldering oak chippings, a process that takes hours but gives it special smoke taste.
I also have a soft spot for the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company mellow cheese: the youngest of their cheeses, just six months old! It has a creamy texture and a mild taste. No wonder it won a silver medal at The Global Cheese Awards 2018.
Cheddar is the most popular cheese in the UK and one of the most famous cheese in the world. Chances are you have all tasted it at least once. And yet, there is only one cheddar cheese made in Cheddar. It’s definitely worth tasting!
If you don’t have the time for a trip to Cheddar, you can buy the cheese online at the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company and at Whole Foods in London.
Disclaimer: I was invited to Cheddar on a media visit. All opinions are my own.