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A workshop on sheep's cheese 

The cheesemakers sitting around the central table

Five years ago I didnít eat cheese. Now I love it. Itís strange how tastes can change, but it seems that tastes that are quite hard to acquire are often the most enduring ones.

So I was delighted to be invited to a sheepís cheese workshop, held by Nealís Yard Dairy at the Monmouth Coffee Shop in Borough Market. The event brought together several of the UKís leading proponents of eweís milk cheese to discuss their produce with an attentive audience made up largely of Nealís Yard employees.

It was a remarkable evening: while Iím just an interested learner when it comes to cheese, the discussions and commentary gave me an insight into issues involved in making serious cheese. This was a pretty hardcore cheese-nut evening. Many of the issues under discussion were reassuringly scientific in nature, though Ė familiar territory for me Ė because cheese making is essentially practical microbiology.

The evening was compered (in a very loose way) by Randolph Hodgson, who stimulated the bulk of the discussion by asking appropriate questions. For those who donít know him, heís the dude behind Nealís Yard. Jancis Robinson says that Randolph Ďhas done more in my opinion for the quality and integrity of British food than all the chefs on television and those who have appeared in the honours listsí.

We had two wines with the cheese, which were selected by Randolphís son, Raef, who is currently working in the wine trade at The Winery in London. First, a German Riesling that was crisp and fresh, with a nice texture. It was dry and quite broad with melon and lemony notes. Then we had a white Burgundy (a Bourgogne Blanc 2004) that was smooth, rich, balanced with nothing sticking out and a nice texture. Lemony and nutty. Both worked well but not spectacularly with the cheeses. I apologise for not having more specific details of the wines Ė my attention was on the cheese for this occasion.

Randolph Hodgson (far right), next to his son Raef and a pile of cheeses

Frances Percival, a food writer with an interest in wine and cheese matching, points out that salt and rinds are a challenge for wine matching. Rind fights with any wine you put with it. The only real option is to blast past it with something seriously sweet. Tannic reds react negatively with cheeses and end up tasting metallic and thin. Randolph suggests that wine and cheese donít really go very well together, but suggests out that beer is great. [Having said this, the wines disappear pretty quickly, suggesting that they arenít an awful match.]

Here, Iím reproducing my notes from the evening. I realize that this is a bit geeky, but I wanted to capture some of the spirit of the evening, which was a group of passionate producers with a dedication to making authentic, characterful cheeses, and who were happy to share their knowledge with an attentive audience. This sort of open-minded pursuit of excellence is, to me, very exciting.

Anne and Wendy Wigmore make two cheeses: Spenwood and Wigmore. The first is hard, the second semi-soft. Theyíve been going for 20 years and buy in all their milk. They also make cowís milk cheese (Waterloo).

The Wigmore we try is soft and smooth with nice tangy acidity. Itís quite broad with a lovely smooth texture and a bit of smokiness. Good rind and a grassy, herby finish.

Anne says this is a nice cheese, and that it has improved since they changed the size: now it matures more evenly. With larger cheeses they were getting a more acidic centre, and this acid was developing because the brine (used to salt the cheese, controlling microbial growth) didnít get through to the centre.

Might the cheese improve? The risk is that the rind might dry out. They use a penicillium mould for a rind that doesnít get too thick. Itís a washed curd cheese, which is a way of reducing the acidity in the vat.

Spenwood is semi-hard with lovely warm, rich nutty flavours. Quite sweet with crumbly but smooth texture. Nice balance here: itís almost a bit cakey. Delicious.

Anne says that this is a bit too young. She thinks it might be Januaryís cheese, because they had difficulty getting hold of sheepís milk in November and December, so everything made in these months became Wigmore. She thinks that a nutty flavour will come through after six months. Randolph says itís a shame to cut it early, but itís still a lovely cheese.

Freeze dried starter culture is used here. One of the problems in dairies is the presence of bacteriophages (specialized viruses that attack bacteria) that can knock out certain strains of bacteria. As a result, the sachets of freeze-dried bacteria typically have a mix of strains. Itís necessary to do TA (titratable acidity) titrations to get a consistent acid increase in the cheese. Some people use pH meters, but these have been found to be variable in practice Ė many of the producers describe them as useless because thereís too much variation in the readings.

Flower Marie
Kevin and Alison Blunt make Golden Crust (from their own goatís milk) and Flower Marie from bought-in sheepís milk, which has been made since 1992.

The Flower Marie we try is soft, rich, fat and tangy. Itís quite mellow: smooth and broad with some nuttiness and some tang.

Kevin thinks it is not breaking down under the rind enough Ė itís perhaps a bit too salty for him. This cheese is made with either fresh or frozen milk that is allowed to coagulate for 14 h, ready for ladling the next morning. ĎI like the textureí, he says. ĎThis will break down a bit more as it matures. I donít like them to get really gooey as if it breaks down under the rind too much you get soapy flavoursí.

Randolph asked whether Kevin had considered using dry salting as an alternative to brine, but Kevin replied that he hasnít with sheepís cheeseí. In response to a question, most of the cheesemakers present said that they brined, but some also did dry salting.

Little Riding
Dave Bartlett is from Wooton Organic and makes Little Riding, along with James Bartlett, Tamsin Rampling and Hannah Burr. They have 220 ewes, of which they milk 100.

Itís soft, fat and a bit grainy with some salt adding balance. Broad and quite rich. The rind isnít too thick.

ĎWe get some grey mould on the rind, but we would like to get on top of thisí, says Dave. They are trying to get the environment right for the rind to grow well, and recently changed the recipe. They are using Geotrichum rather than Penicillium, a mould that doesnít give thick white rinds. There is some discussion about whether thick white rinds are an English style, and the general conclusion is that they arenít. Thereís also some discussion about humidity for rind growth, along with some fairly technical talk about rinds in general.

Linda Dutch makes Berkswell cheese with the Fletcher family from 500 ewes that they milk. Itís a hand-pressed hard cheese.

We tried two examples, both made on the same day.

Berkswell ĎCí 26.2.07. Vegetable rennet. Hard. Nice, smooth, a bit crumbly with some tang. Quite broad textured. Frutier, with more acid.

Berkswell ĎDí 26.2.07. Animal rennet (lamb). A bit harder with less richness, and a smoother, firmer texture. Quite savoury, with broad flavours. Deeper and richer.

Randolph pointed out that he can almost always taste the difference between cheeses made with vegetable and animal rennet. The vegetable rennet gives cheeses that are spikier, spritzier and fruitier; the animal rennet makes smoother cheeses.

Animal rennet comes from the stomachs of young slaughtered animals. The young females are kept, but there is no use for the young males. The Fletchers had 250 male lambs that they didnít need this year. Some are sold to city farms, but the rest have to be slaughtered, and as they donít even weigh 3 kilos, there is no market for them. The dairy industry is criticized for this, but animal welfare standards are high: unless animals are happy they wonít milk well. As an example of the effort required to keep your animals happy and healthy, from December to March, they worked at least 13 hour days with just one weekend off.

Victoria Tagg makes Crockhamdale from bought in milk, which is based on old Wensleydale recipe. She canít find enough milk.

Itís semi-hard. Nice and tangy with a lovely grainy texture. Dry and quite firm, with a sheepy tang that reminds me of Manchego. Grassy and spicy, too.

Victoria says that this is young. She likes it young in the spring and summer when it is milder and quite moist. Often it is more crumbly than this, she adds. This one is 6Ė8 weeks old. In the early days the cheese was quite open on the outside, so they had to get a better press. They then ended up making 32 cheeses in different ways to find a way to prevent the cracking: the key seemed to be the strength used putting it into the mould.

The recipe was created by James Aldrich, who was a cheese retailer who had in a previous life been a scaffolder. He was responsible for lots of cheese recipes, but didnít want the drudgery of making them day in and out.

St James
Made by Martin Gott, the St James we try is smooth, rich, intense and salty. Itís tangy and a bit stinky. Delicious with some pungent acidity. A rich style thatís smooth, soft and quite striking.

Unfortunately, Martin had to kill his flock and this cheese was made from bought-in milk. Itís the first cheese of the season: thick and acid. The next lot is thinner and less acid.

All these cheeses are available from Nealís Yard (www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk).

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