30 Mar 2012

Robiola: turn over a new leaf

From the dense woods around Alba that hide pungent white truffles to the neatly staked vineyards of Barolo, food and drink is written into the landscape of Piedmont. This hilly corner of North West Italy is home to picturesque hazelnut orchards and marshy fields of risotto rice, while Piedmontese cattle graze the fertile land on their way to producing sweet milk and meltingly soft beef. Wherever you go in Piedmont, you are never far from good food.

Carpeted in grass, thanks to the heavy rains that sweep in from the Alps, it's also a perfect place for cheese making. Rich and buttery Toma Piemontese and crumbly Castelmango are classic 'formaggi' from the area, but it is sweet and creamy Robiola that in many ways best encapsulates Piedmont's undulating terrain. Made with milk from cows, goats and sheep (often mixed together), the cheese is produced throughout the region and varies from village to village, depending on local traditions and geographies.

In the Langhe – a wild and rugged area of the Cuneo province, high in the foothills of the Alps – the Cora family give full expression to the stunning countryside around their small dairy by wrapping goats' milk Robiola in leaves from the local woods.

Cherry, fig, walnut, chestnut and even cabbage leaves are picked during the summer months to protect and flavour the snow-white discs of cheese they hand make in tiny batches using unpasteurised milk. Robiola Fia (wrapped in fig leaves) and Robiola La Rossa (cherry leaves) are both supplied by La Credenza – an Italian food importer run by Fabio Antoniazzi.

The cheeses, which are made between February and November when the goats' milk is at its best, are aged for up to two months with the leafy wrappers providing unique flavours. “Each one gives a different taste and consistency to the cheese with different moulds developing on the skin,” says Lorena Cora, who works with her father, mother and brother in the dairy. “The fig leaf gives a sweet vegetal aroma, but with La Rossa the cherry leaf gives a very strong fruity taste. You can actually taste the cherries. The goats' cheese itself is quite acidic, but with the sweetness of the leaves it is very balanced.”

* To read the edited version of this article go to Harrods Magazine, please click here.

21 Mar 2012

Stilton returns to Derbyshire

Britain's select band of Stilton makers is set to welcome a new member with the revival of the Derbyshire-based Hartington Creamery.

There are currently only five Stilton producers in the world, after Quenby Hall went into administration last year and Dairy Crest closed its Hartington Creamery in the Derbyshire village of the same name in 2009. 

But two former Dairy Crest executives have teamed up with the village's cheese shop to start a new company and relaunch the Hartington brand, bringing Stilton-making back to Derbyshire once again after a three year hiatus. 

Due to start production at a site in nearby Pikehall next month with plans to run cheesemaking courses and open a tourist visitor centre, the new company will produce pasteurised Stilton, Brie and Derby.

Much smaller than the original Hartington Creamery, the new business is targeting the premium end of the market. “We will be making Stilton using artisan techniques with everything done by hand, so we will be targeting premium retailers,” said director Adrian Cartlidge. “ We will be joining the forces of the smaller producers of Stilton.”

Around £500,000 has been invested in the new business at Pikehall, which will initially only make 50 tonnes of cheese per year (the old Hartington Creamery made around 5,000 tonnes a year).

“Hopefully people will recognise and remember the name. There are still big opportunities in the market for Stilton, both in the UK and internationally with growing interest from the US and Japan,” said Cartlidge.

Under the terms of its EU protected status, Stilton can only be made in the three counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. The five companies that currently make the cheese are all based in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire: Colston Bassett, Cropwell Bishop, Long Clawson, Tuxford & Tebbutt and Websters.

National Stilton Week runs from 15 - 21 April 2012

15 Mar 2012

Quickes cheddar: the art of seduction

Mary Quicke: a way with words
There's no denying that Mary Quicke has a way with words. The transcript of my interview with the award-winning cheddar maker is punctuated with lovely turns of phrase as she goes into detail about the farm and her cheese.

Take this line about how eating good cheese focuses the mind on the here and now: “It's an education in being present. It's about the moment, which is where real happiness lies.”

Then there is a mention of Tess of the d'Urbervilles as she explains women's role in cheesemaking, followed by a story about Slow Food, where a French acquaintance described her cheese as having a 'palier' (grand staircase) of flavours.

The poetic language is not surprising when you discover that Quicke once studied for a PhD in English literature. That was while she was living in London, but her heart was always back on the family farm in Devon to where she returned in 1984, working alongside her parents Prue and Sir John Quicke and eventually taking over the business.

The Quicke family has farmed near the village of Newton St. Cyres for 450 years, but the dairy was only built in 1973. By this stage Quicke's father was deep into agri-politics (for which he was knighted), so it was her mother that was actually the driving force behind the business, while somehow managing to raise six children at the same time.

Today the 1,500 acre farm has a 500 strong herd of cows and produces around 300 tonnes of cheese each year, the vast majority of which is cloth-bound cheddar, both pasteurised and unpasteurised.

The fact that Quickes has been run by women for over 30 years has had a major impact on the cheese itself, says Quicke, who was awarded an MBE in 2005. “There is something distinctive about cheddar made by female cheese makers. It's said that women's palates are more sensitive. Of course some men's palates are wonderfully sensitive, but there can be a boy thing of wanting flavour that hits you between the eyes. As a business we've always prized complexity, subtlety, balance and length of flavour. Is that because it's a female thing? We want to be seduced and allured on our way to pleasure; not beaten up!”

A mature Quickes cheddar has a creamy front, followed by some acidity, rich savoury flavours and caramel notes at the finish, she says. Achieving these layers of flavour depends on several factors. On the farm, Quickes rears cross-bred cows (Kiwi Friesian, Swedish Red and Montbeliarde) to get the required balance between fats and proteins in the milk. The cattle also graze on green Devon grass for around 10 months of the year, much longer than most dairy cows, which means the milk is rich in nutrients and complex flavours pretty much all year round.  

The cheese-making process is also obviously key to achieving complexity. Quickes cooks (scalds) the curds at a slightly higher temperature than most to achieve a creamy flavour and, like other farmhouse cheesemakers, uses a complicated blend of different cultures. Known as 'starters', these are added to the milk at the beginning of the cheese making process. The cultures feed on lactose, creating lactic acid, which helps curdle the milk and flavour the resulting cheese.

Most industrial cheesemakers use simple single strain starters, which are far easier and more reliable to use but lack subtlety, says Quicke. “They have started using a type of single-strain starter called Helveticus, which is common in Swiss cheese. It typically gives very sweet flavours and covers up a multitude sins. The supermarkets have told their cheesemakers that they have to use it and so cheddar has started to become this sweet thing that is accessible and easy.”

Despite these concerns, Quickes does actually supply the supermarkets, including Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury's and Morrisons. Around 20% of sales are to the multiples, with independents making up 54% and exports 26% of the business.

It seems a risky strategy that could alienate independents, but Quicke is keen to explain her reasoning. “The supermarkets select a more forward flavour, which is less complex and balanced than the cheeses that go to the independents. It's good for us to be able to take them out of the way of the independents. The next step is to distinguish the different types. We need to label it up differently.”

Labelling will also have to change if Quickes ever becomes part of the EU's Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) scheme protecting West Country Farmhouse Cheddar. The company contributed its views when the PDO was set up in 1996, but eventually decided not to take part.

Quicke has recently enquired about joining, but her cheese is made in a slightly different way to the rules of the PDO. It means the regulations would have to be amended, something that is under discussion at the moment. There's no way Quicke would change her recipe to meet the PDO. That might compromise the 'grand staircase' of flavours she has worked so hard for in her cheddar.


* A version of this was first published in the Cheeswire section of Fine Food Digest March 2012 

9 Mar 2012

Vermeer: the world's best cheese?

I can't get my head round the fact that a reduced-fat Gouda-style cheese from the Netherlands was named the best in the world at the 2012 World Championship Cheese Contest in Wisconsin.

I should make it clear now that I haven't tasted the cheese, but I just don't see how a reduced fat cheese made by a massive dairy multinational is the best the world has to offer. What about Brie de Meaux? West Country Cheddar? Manchego? Or even a full-fat Gouda like the two-year-old raw milk beauty (pictured) I sampled at Borough Market last year?

An international panel of judges in the US obviously knows better. They picked the Dutch cheese, called Vermeer, from over 2,500 entries from 24 countries. Out of a possible 100 points, the cheese scored 98.73 in the final round of judging.

The fact that US cheesemakers dominated the competition, winning gold medals in 55 of the total 82 categories judged, suggests that the World Championship Cheese Contest doesn't have as wide a remit as the name implies. Switzerland came in second with seven golds, but there wasn't a single gold for French, Italian or British cheeses.

Anyway, back to the reduced-fat Vermeer. It's made by the FrieslandCampina cheese factory in Steenderen, Netherlands - a company that has 14,500 member dairy farms in the Netherlands and sells products including butter, yoghurts, custards, milk powder and other ingredients used in the food and pharmaceutical industries. Each year, FrieslandCampina  processes 8.5 billion kilos of milk and, in 2010, sales amounted to nearly nine billion euros.

If they are making the best cheese in the world, then I'm a Dutchman.

8 Mar 2012

Like Tunworth? Try St.Jude

Fans of Tunworth - Britain's gorgeously creamy answer to Camembert - might know the name Julie Cheyney. She founded the company that makes the gooey soft cheese with Stacey Hedges in 2004 and has now struck out on her own with a new unpasteurised cows' milk cheese called St.Jude.

Her new company, White Wood Dairy, will begin production of the Saint Marcellin-style cheese this month. “There is no other cheese like St.Jude being made from cows' milk in Britain at the moment and I aim to make her delicious. One that can be eaten at a week old, young and fresh, or a month old, more broken down, unctuous and stronger,” said Cheyney.
Saint Marcellin is made in the Rhône-Alpes region of France in small wheels that are so delicate they are often packed in terracotta pots. The cheese typically has a creamy consistency and mushroomy aroma thanks to the bloomy white mould on the rind.

Cheyney's new cheese is made with unpasteurised milk sourced from local farmer Sam Martin of Wallop's Wood Farm, Droxford, who rears cows that are a cross between Holstein, Friesian, Swedish Red and Jersey breeds. 

Drawing on dairy farming techniques from New Zealand, the herd grazes outdoors for as long as possible, with the cows only brought in for a few months of each year. Cheyney learned about the farm when Sam Martin's wife, Anna, attended one of her cheese courses at the School of Artisan Food.

Julie Cheyney, far left, also teaches at the School of Artisan Food

As well as teaching at the School of Artisan Food, Cheyney has also worked as a consultant with Neal's Yard Dairy since she left Hampshire Cheeses (the company that makes Tunworth). “Throughout my transition from being one half of Hampshire Cheeses to now I have been supported by Neal's Yard Dairy. I have worked there the last two autumns in the run up to Christmas. Owen Bailey, the head affineur, has been my boss and I have learned so much about ripening,” she said.

The cheesemonger and wholesaler will mature the St.Jude cheeses at its head quarters in Bermondsey with initial batches sold at its Maltby Street store, before being rolled out to its Borough and Covent Garden shops. “I have no plans for other cheeses,” said Cheyney. "I plan to keep my eye very much on St.Jude. It's been a long pregnancy for the birth of this baby. I want to nurture her and look after her!”