Friday, April 21, 2006

Montgomery's Cheddar

I was in the town of Somerton yesterday, not far from Glastonbury. There’s a very good delicatessen there called Emma B (+44 1458 273444) that sells a really good selection of local cheeses. The one that caught my eye immediately was Montgomery’s Cheddar. James Montgomery from Manor Farm, North Cadbury, Nr Yeovil makes a cheese that is regularly judged the best in the country, and recently the world.

Cheddar itself, with its limestone caves, and its awe inspiring gorge formed by the release of glacial meltwater after the last ice age, is also in Somerset, but some thirty miles north of Yeovil. Any cheese that is made by the ‘cheddaring’ process, where the curd is cut into large strips, and then turned by hand to allow the last remnants of whey to drain away, can be called Cheddar. But the best Cheddar comes from Somerset, and the best Somerset Cheddar is from James Montgomery.

His cheese is made from unpasteurised milk from his Friesian cows and he uses the same cultures that his family has worked with for over seventy years.

There’s a bit of conflict going on about the use of unpasteurised milk in cheese making, ever since a scare several years ago about the listeria bacterium L. monocytogenes.

L monocytogenes is widespread in the environment. It can be found in soil, dust, mud, vegetation, silage, sewage and most of the animals that have been tested. It has been found in up to five per cent or more of normal healthy people usually in the gut. For this reason exposure to this bacterium is unavoidable. It’s everywhere, including the organic salads we eat, and it has the unusual characteristic of being able to grow, albeit slowly, at temperatures as low as 0oC. So refrigeration does not kill it. It can cause a variety of infections ranging from minor chills to serious illness, affecting pregnant women, infants, and people whose immune response is compromised, but commonly only affects 1-3 cases per million of the population per year. Soft cheeses like Brie and Camembert and blue veined cheeses seem to be most suspect, and hard cheeses like Cheddar have given less cause for concern.

Cheese made with care and with due consideration for hygiene should never cause problems, but the cautious areas of government would prefer all milk for cheese to be pasteurised. This involves heating the milk to 72 degrees for 15 seconds and effectively kills off any lurking bacteria.

This also suits the producers of bland, soap-like slab cheese that line the supermarket shelves because large cheese producers, selling to the mass market, are interested in shelf life, price and, above all, uniformity of flavour, and that uniformity is what pasteurisation gives to the cheese. The artisan cheese maker, on the other hand, is interested in preserving the flavour given to him by the elements which make up his milk. The breed of animal, its age and feeding routine, good hygiene, the soil and the season all have a bearing on the quality and flavour of the milk. The artisan cheese maker does not try to standardise those elements and, as a result, he can produce a cheese with character which is full of flavour. He knows that to blend the milk and, in particular, to pasteurise it, destroys many of the elements which give the cheese its unique character.

This may not matter to you if what you want is some dairy protein for a sandwich or a cooking ingredient, but if you want a cheese to savour on its own the complexity of the flavours of the unpasteurised version opens up a whole new palette of tastes. Montgomery’s Cheddar has clean balanced acid flavours, with the pronounced nuttiness of aged Cheddar, rounded and full. A perfect English cheese.


lindy said...

This pasteurized cheese debate makes me very cross, as do other similar controversies. I do not understand why people who are pregnant, have compromised immune systems, or allergies, (or their parents, where applicable) cannot be trusted to avoid foods which are uniquely dangerous to them.

Certainly here in the States much of this is the outcome of the success of my fellow lawyers in suing, and obtaining damages for people who do incredibly foolish things- such as placing hot paper cups full of coffee on their laps while driving.

I am reminded of a law school professor who asked our class the question, "At precisely what point does a person become too dumb to live?"

No hot coffee or delicious cheeses for us so these folks can be protected from themselves?

I'd better not get started ...this is related to a lot of my other quarrels with the sanitized, Disney World life so many people seem to prefer these days. It is hard to believe , but a lot of folks would rather visit the pretend Paris in Los Vegas than the real one. Or eat a yellow soapy block of pasteurized "milk product" than a gorgeous cheese.

Sorry. end of rant.

June said...

Exactly. A Five Star Rant.

Sam said...

June might be surprised to find out that you can not get a decent cuppa over here too - precisely because of the boiling water problem. Not in any restaurant or cafe do they make the water quite hot enough for tea.

though you can actually get montgomery cheddar here i believe in wholefoods and cowgirl. I am not sure how they manage that, but I have seen raw cheeses from Neals Yard for sale in SF.

June said...

I'll have a small tea rant here myself...on the days when all I want is an ordinary cuppa it drives me bonkers when people insist on listing all the dried up packets in the cupboard (hibiscus-and-spinach, gentian-and-cauliflower...) Just a CUP OF TEA please!

Sam said...

June - I got hold of some montgomery for my tea party and it was a hit! Oh so delicious. My English friend penny and I agreed it must be the best in the world, as you say!

Sam said...

ps - i am with you on the 'hippy teas'!

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