Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Westcombe Cheddar

Anyone can make Cheddar. The word ‘cheddaring’ describes the process of cutting and turning the curd. There’s a place in Somerset that is called Cheddar, but cheddar cheese is made all over the world.

However, the best Cheddar is West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, which is a PDO (Product of Designated Origin) recognised by the EU, and to meet this standard the cheese must be made in the traditional manner using local ingredients in one of the 4 designated counties of SW England: Somerset, Devon, Dorset or Cornwall.

Westcombe Dairy in Somerset produces one of the three great West Country Farmhouse Cheddars, recognised by Slow Food and part of a distinguished Presidium, Slow Food’s mark of quality.

The little village of Westcombe is tiny and rural and cheese has been made there since 1890. The fortunes of cheesemakers have fluctuated over the years, and fashion suggested for a while that block cheddar was the way to go, but lately the Calver family has returned to the big cloth wrapped rounds that are the traditional cheddar shape, and the cheese is flying out the door.

Richard Calver owns the farm, and things really picked up when Tom, his son, came back to Somerset after training as a chef with Prue Leith. Together with the cheesemaker, Bob Bramley, they are making cheddar of an exceptional quality. The milk, from herds grazing locally, is unpasteurised. The cows are fed on grass in the summer and in the winter 85% of their diet is grown on the farm.

Cheese is a truly ancient food. Milk has always turned sour, but at some point in history artisans deliberately caused milk to coagulate, and when the resulting product was particularly successful samples of the original starter were handed on to other dairies. For a long time all cheese was made from these starter cultures - wild, adventitious bacteria present in the milk, probably from vegetation, that grew and produced acid as they consumed the lactose in the milk. This acid aided the action of rennet in the coagulation of the curds and gave the product flavour, structure and longevity.

With modern production methods, particularly the demand for standard and repeatable flavours and textures, nearly all cheese is now made with the addition of a dose of freeze dried or deep-frozen culture, straight from the packet. It’s a ‘use once only’ product – you can’t hand on a sample of the culture to start off another batch of cheese – and the cell numbers are concentrated by filtration or centrifugation. Only a small proportion of the lactic acid bacteria is robust enough to survive this treatment.

Five miles away from Westcombe is Ditcheat, where the Barber family has a big cheesemaking operation. They were dismayed to realise that the old traditional Cheddar cheese starter cultures were in danger of dying out, superseded by direct inoculation cultures. They determined to do what they could to save them and now all the great West Country cheesemakers use these traditional starter cultures to make their cheese.

Nothing is easy though; there are good bacteria, which are to be encouraged, and there are bad bacteria, known as ‘phages, which, if not controlled, will overwhelm the good bacteria and spoil the cheese. All cheesemakers are constantly on the lookout for the point at which the ‘phages start to get the upper hand. The price of your after-dinner treat is constant vigilance.

After the rennet and the curds and the whey and the cheddaring and the milling and the salting comes the moulding of the cheese, which is then pressed, sealed with lard and wrapped in cloth before being pressed one last time and stored.

At Westcombe they make 18-20 cheeses a day, 5 days a week, with family friendly sociable hours. The big rounds will be matured for up to 18 months, tested from time to time by plunging a cheese iron into their centres, and checked for flavour and acidity. You never quite know when a cheese will be ready – it just takes as long as it takes. Typical Westcombe cheeses will display a rounded sweetness with a good long finish and perhaps a hint of butterscotch.

They sell as many as they make, and if you want to watch one of their cheeses maturing you can do so at http://lbx.cheddarvision.tv. You can watch a timelapse video of the life of the cheese; and so far over 1,600,000 people have checked its progress!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Quince and Pheasant

This time last year there were quince in the market, small versions of the big French ones you can sometimes buy, and I bought them and made an effort at membrillo. The fruits were hard, difficult to peel, impossible to core and chop, and splashes of boiling conserve kept stinging my forearm as I stirred the paste. It was sort of ok, a mellow terracotta colour, but not great.

This year someone gave me a whole bag of little quince from their tree. They don’t look at all like the usual fruit and, small and knobbly, I knew there would be nothing left if I started in to peel, core, etc. So I put them in the pan whole, half covered with water on a low heat and, knowing it would take ages for them to soften, went about my business elsewhere. Less than half an hour later the house was filling with a rich perfume and I bounded into the kitchen to find the whole fruits blossoming soft in a reducing liquid. I put them through a sieve, leaving behind the pips and the skins and the gritty bits that feel like toe nail clippings, and found I had a wonderful sunny puree. As I hadn’t added anything to the poaching liquid I added sugar to taste, and some lemon juice, which may preserve the colour, or may not, I don’t know.

I’m amazed. This puree is tart and fruity and would make a lovely sorbet, or a stunning ice cream, or a filling for little tiny tartlets, or…just about anything. But tonight it is going to add zing to a newly shot pheasant (mind your fillings).

The pheasant recipe is embarrassingly easy:

Preheat the oven to 200ÂșC

Liberally cover the base of a shallow, lidded casserole dish with olive oil, herbs (fresh or dried, but lots) and seasoning.
Half or quarter some waxy potatoes and turn them in the oil.
Joint your pheasant, musing on how you might have been a damn good surgeon.
Season the joints and place on top of the potatoes.
Chop an onion roughly, chop a couple of cloves of garlic finely, scatter over pheasant.
Season again, add more herbs, splash on some more oil.
Cover and cook in the oven for an hour.
Uncover for last ten minutes to allow to brown.

Serve with something green and a spoonful of the fabulous quince puree.

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