Cheese is made from a protein called casein found in milk, so one of the first rules of cheese if that if the milk is good quality, the cheese will be too. And full, nutritious milk depends on happy, healthy cows.
For most of us, this conjures up a traditional picture of black and white Holstein-Friesians out in the English countryside, and for smaller farmstead cheese producers, the outdoor grazing period of the year is often when their best cheeses are produced. Simon Jones of Lincolnshire Poacher cheese says his tastiest cheese is usually produced around May, once the cows have been out for a few months. He sells at farmers’ markets around the country, including Notting Hill and Islington in London, runs the farm with his brother Tim Jones, and says he puts the success of their business down to good care of the cows, to the point of providing back scrubs! “I couldn’t be a dairy farmer if I was unable to let my cows out to graze naturally, says Simon, who has his cows out in the pasture while it is warm from March until October. “If things got so tight it became less economic to graze cows I’d pack it in.”
But some dairies in the UK give their cows no outdoor periods at all. This is called ’zero-grazing’ and, though more common in the USA, there are large UK dairies whose milk will be pasteurised and distributed to producers throughout the country, for whom grazing is not important. According to a recent survey by Ipsos MORI commissioned by the World Society for Protection of Animals (WSPA) 61% of adults said they would never by milk produced from around 8,000 cows kept in large indoor sheds. Yet it is hard to know this from the label, so visit the WSPA’s campaign against mega-dairies and battery cows here, to pledge your support.
One of the requirements of organic certification is that 30% of a livestock’s sustenance should come directly from pastures rather than only from fermented food or grains fed indoors. And whilst many small producers do not have organic certification on their product, they are also likely to favour outdoor grazing.
On average, dairies in Europe rear cows to produce 22 litres a day, which is four times the natural amount they would produce daily for a calf. Some cheese producers are careful not to over-milk their livestock since this dilutes the milk’s nutrition and flavour. At Childwickbury Farm, in Hertfordshire, goats are milked once a day, in the morning, and the cheese is handmade in small quantities the same day. The goat’s cheese is out for sale two days later to be enjoyed fresh. It is quite simply ‘the essence of milk’, says producer Elizabeth Harris.
The key to perfecting a cheese is to be able to begin making the cheese while the milk is still warm. Cheese which is not produced on site where the animals are milked is usually pasteurised before being re-distributed to various external producers, which means heat treating to control bacterial growth. The milk is also usually homogenised, which spreads the fat content evenly through the milk and contributes to consistency in flavour and texture.
Patricia Michelson, owner of La Fromagerie, one of London’s best-known cheese delicatessens, is excited about the revival of small-scale cottage industries which remain true to the region and their traditions. “Seeing cheeses made from the milk of one herd rather than mass-produced cheese using milk from hundreds of herds, means traceability can be easier, and also you get the changing flavour profile through the different seasons to enjoy,” she says.
Going large scale at a commercial level demands consistency by mainstream outlets, for a standard size and consistent year round flavour. “Supermarkets need longer life, low price and vacuum packaging, all the things that are spoilers for quality cheese,” says Patricia. The Sharpham Estate in Devon hand-produces all of their cheese from start to finish, from their organically farmed Jersey Cows. Mark Sharman, managing director of Sharpham Partnerships explains that they deliberately decided not to move to a mechanised production system despite growing demand. “Our view is that hand production methods are one of the things that makes our cheese distinctive. We do not want to produce factory cheeses,” he says.
Artisan cheese producers work hard to remain true to the original handmade methods of a particular place and time. At The School of Artisan Food a cheese’s historical roots are to be respected, according to cheese fanatic and dairy coordinator Lee-Anna Rennie, “There are many opportunities to save both time and cost by mechanising the make of the cheese, but we often find that removes the cheese’s character; the one attribute that truly sets it apart from others on the cheese bench.”
There is a new wave of cheese-making that is adapting old recipes, using new modern technology to optimise the humidity for maturing cheeses, and developing methods such as brining and encouraging moulds on the outside of cheese too.
The makers of Stawley, a soft washed rind goat’s cheese named after the village it is made in, optimise each stage of production through simple methods and temperature control. The milk is gravity-fed from the milking parlour to the dairy below to limit agitation of the milk. Once the milk has been acidified, drained and turned, the cheese is put in a drying room until it grows a fine outer skin of geotrichum (a type of fungus), before it is matured in the humid ripening room. This year they are creating a new cheese called Wellesley, named after the Duke of Wellington, and also a local town.
“A traditional cheese does not necessarily translate into great cheese. We are starting to see cheeses that although they have only just been born in the last few years, really make your taste buds sing. Many of these examples come from people who have invested real time and money into their passion and in some cases, their livestock; doing so in a quest for a way of life as much as a desire for good food.” says School of Artisan Food’s Lee-Anna. The School runs artisan cheese-making courses is on the Welbeck estate, home to the Stichelton Dairy, makers of Stitchelon unpasteurised English blue cheeses.
Cheese is undeniably a treat, as a food which famously usually scores a red when traffic light nutrition labelling is applied, because of a high fat content. Cheese can also be quite salty, so it’s important to check the label - if there is one - if you want to control the salt you eat. (though, rather unhelpfully) under current regulations salt does not have be listed as an ingredient in cheese. Other key things to look for are place of origin, pasteurised or unpasteurised milk, and the type of rennet, which may be from animal or vegetable origin. Controversy over the type of rennet used is on-going, but it seems both animal and vegetable rennet have their downsides. Cheese experts generally agree that animal rennet provides a richer flavor and regional identity, but opposition to veal production in the UK has diminished the use of animal rennet, which is removed from a calf’s stomach after slaughter. The alternative artificial vegetable rennet is more commonly used but may be obtained from genetically modified fungi or bacteria, which is sometimes hard to find out as a customer.
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