This week my son Sam and his wife Rachel had a visit from Randolph Hodgson, founder of Neal’s Yard Dairy and former chairman of the Specialist Cheesemakers Association, with his partner Jemima.

Randolph really is ‘the big cheese’, in that he, more than any other individual, has been responsible for creating the conditions for the renaissance of the artisan cheese movement in the UK.

Because of this, Randolph enjoys the respect of all the best known Cheddar style cheese makers, including Montgomery’s Keens, Lincolnshire poacher and others. So it could not have been more exciting to learn that he and Jemima wanted to spend a week on our farm last November, exploring the possibility of re-introducing the traditional method of cheddar cheese making.

If Sam was explaining the changes that they had made to our cheese making process he would use much more technical language, so what I am about to describe really is a very layman’s version, Janet and John style, of the changes that they have put into place.

To make cheese, take warm milk, heat it to 30°C, introduce some friendly bacteria, stir and leave for two or three hours, constantly testing for temperature and acidity. Then add rennet to make the milk set into a kind of junket, cut the curd, drain the whey, consolidate the curd, add salt, mill then pack into moulds before pressing overnight. Then store for a year and sell.

Simple enough, you might think, but the art of cheese making, as with so many other crafts, is in the total focus on quality throughout the process, the timing, attention to detail and critically, the nature of the bacteria that are introduced at the beginning of the cycle.

In our case, Sam and Rachel had been using, until last November, a typical laboratory cultured mixture of two or three strains of bacteria which, when introduced to the milk, ensure that the cheese making process proceeds as rapidly as possible. However, although this is all well and good and in our case has resulted in the production of some very palatable cheese, there actually is another slower and more traditional way.

Perhaps the best way of explaining this is to relate it to the sourdough process of bread making which, by allowing a much slower process of fermentation involving reproduction of a wider range of slower growing yeast organisms, enables much more subtle flavours to come through.

The cheese making equivalent of this process is to use a mother culture of bacteria, to make a small quantity of yoghurt, which is then introduced into the milk and allowed to multiply much more slowly, over several hours. Interestingly, the resulting curd has a completely different consistency, rather akin to that of really good dough.

This was the process that Randolph and Jemima introduced to Sam and Rachel last November, but of course the proof of the pudding or in this case, culture starter, will be in the resultant cheese. So it was with some trepidation that we awaited the verdict of the cheese makers equivalent of the man from Del Monte!

We have been selling Hafod at around one year old, and the oldest of the new cheeses is still only nine months, in other words relatively young, but nevertheless old enough to gain an impression about it’s eventual quality.

Thankfully Randolph and Jemima’s impression, supported by my own focus group of one tasting experience is that the new cheese is incredibly moreish, but we will have to wait another three months, when the cheese is old enough to sell, for the reaction of our precious customers!

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