29 Apr 2012

Mr Moyden: 'My life has been taken over by cheese'

Martin Moyden started out life as a Shropshire dairy farmer, but a sideline in cheesemaking soon became a full-blown obsession to the extent that he and his wife Beth gave up farming altogether to focus solely on cheese.

“Cheese-making has taken over my life and I felt I was stretching myself too far between the farm and the cheese-making,” Martin told me last year, adding that it was a “heart-wrenching decision” to leave farming.

It’s a good job for cheese lovers that he did make the move because Mr Moyden’s Handmade Cheese is now able to produce much greater quantities and is starting to gain recognition beyond the wild West Midlands.

Based at an enterprise centre in Shropshire, the company sources unpasteurised cows’ milk from local farms and makes four main cheeses all named after local places: Blue Wrekin, White Wrekin, Newport and smoked Newport 1665.

The company is experimenting with a brie and a washed rind cheese, and has just launched a new Caerphilly-style cheese called Caer Caradoc after a nearby hill, where the cows that provide the milk graze (above). Admittedly it’s not a match for the mighty Gorwydd Caerphilly at this early stage, but it has a pleasant crumbly texture and lemony tang.

Their best cheese (in the Cheese Chap’s humble opinion) is Wrekin Blue. It’s quite spicy with mineral notes, but it’s all wrapped up in a big blanket of creaminess.

Mr Moyden is definitely a name to look out for in the future.

Where to buy:

20 Apr 2012

A Neal's Yard tasting: save the cheeses!

It's not just whales that need saving. Certain cheeses are on the brink of extinction and risk being lost forever if we aren't careful. That was the premise of Neal's Yard's Endangered Cheese Traditions event last month, which was billed as a cheese tasting, but was also a lesson in how cultural, economic and social changes are threatening to wipe out some traditional cheeses. There was even a discussion about transhumant lifestyles.

Don't worry, I had no idea what a transhumant lifestyle was either until our host Andrew Nielsen explained it to us (more on that later). Nielsen is a great bear of an Australian, who gave up a career in advertising several years ago to become a student of the 'fermentative arts'.

He first became a cheesemonger at Neal's Yard, before moving to Burgundy to set up his own vineyard called Le Grappin. He's also an amateur brewer and dabbler in cider. “Anything a little bit funky,” is how he put it.

Nielsen picked a good company at the start of his 'funky' odyssey. Neal's Yard Dairy is one of Britain's great cheesemongers, specialising in British and Irish cheeses and working closely with small farmhouse producers. Set up by Randolph Hodgson in 1979, the company has two shops, one in Covent Garden and one in Borough Market.

The Borough shop is housed in a lovely high-ceilinged, glazed-brick building on the edge of the market, which long ago was a stables for horses bringing Kentish hops to the huge breweries that used to line the Thames. The tasting was held upstairs in what would have been the hay loft. 

The cheeses (starting at 12 o'clock on the plate) were:
Cotherstone – a pasteurised cows' milk cheese made by Joan Cross in County Durham
Sparkenhoe Red Leicester – an unpasteurised cow's milk made by David and Jo Clarke near Upton in Leicestershire
Abbaye de Tamie – made in the Haute Savoie, France, with unpasteurised cows' milk and matured by Herve Mons.
Beaufort d'Alpage – an unpasteurised cow's milk made by Robert Peret in the Haut Savoie
Salers du Burons – an unpasteurised cows' milk cheese made by Marcel Paille in the Auvergne, France
Pecorino di Fossa – an unpasteurised ewes' milk cheese made by Walter Facchini in Umbria
Bleu de Termignon – made by Catherine Richard in the Haut Savoie from unpasteurised cows' milk
Stichelton – Made by Joe Schneider at the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire to a Stilton recipe, but using unpasteurised milk (so it's not allowed to be called Stilton.
The lethal drinks combo, from left to right, was: Saison Dupont Belgian beer, Asturian Llagar Herminio cider, Arenae Malvasia de Colares wine from Portugal, and Kernel Brewery porter.

All the cheeses and the drinks are on the brink of extinction with just a handful of producers still making them. You might argue that there are loads of companies making Red Leicester in the UK, but Nielsen's definition of a 'real' cheese is one made in a traditional farmhouse way (eg, by small producers with their own herd using raw milk). Taking that definition, real Red Leicester actually became extinct during the second world war when farms were forced to sell their milk to the government and large-scale factory production took over. That was until it was revived in 1995 when Sparkenhoe was set up.

Other cheeses are on the edge because they are such hard work to make. The Salers du Burons requires the cheesemaker to live high in the mountain for months on end as the cows move further up the slopes. This is the transhumant lifetsyle, I mentioned earlier, but people just don't want to live that way any more. “If you're an 18 year old French boy, you want to be going to discos, not living up a mountain with a load of cows,” said Nielsen.

The cheese itself was full-on with an earthy almost musky flavour. You could see why it has waned in popularity as tastes have changed. As the chap next to me said, “You have to wonder whether this one really is worth saving.”

The Pecorino de Fossa is struggling for similar reasons. It had a lot of meaty flavours going on and quite an acidic bite. The cheese has been made up in the hills around Umbria for centuries where it is covered in herbs and buried it in hay for several months. It's such back-breaking, labour intensive work that there are only two producers left.

Some of this might sound a bit worthy, but the evening was actually great fun mainly because Nielsen was such a knowledgeable and entertaining speaker. For most of the night he was a blur of energy, scribbling on flip charts and holding up photos, only stopping to take a few sips of beer. Like all true curd nerds, he got particularly excited explaining the science of coagulation (look at the love in this picture).

The next morning, I tried to work out which cheeses I would personally fight to save. The world would be a poorer place without Cotherstone, Sparkenhoe and Stichelton. I also liked the Beaufort and Abbaye de Tamie (which is very similar to Reblochon), but I could definitely live without the Pecorino, Salers and Bleu de Termignon. They were just too 'funky' for me. Sometimes cheeses go to the great monger in the sky for a good reason.

Endangered Cheese Traditions is one of many different tastings run by Neal's Yard. They all last about two hours and cost £50.

12 Apr 2012

IJ Mellis: Scotland's answer to Neal's Yard

Iain Mellis looks rather stern in the photo that is emailed to me just before I interview him. But when I speak to Scotland's best known cheese-monger, he turns out to be much more personable than his portrait would suggest, happily chatting in a self-deprecating way about how he has built up his business.

He launched his first IJ Mellis shop in Edinburgh in 1993 and has since opened five more across Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and St Andrews. While Neal's Yard and Paxton & Whitfield fight it out in London, IJ Mellis has Scotland pretty much sewn up.

Mellis' cheese career stretches back to 1979 when he left school and became a lab technician working for the North of Scotland Milk Marketing Board in Inverness. From there he ended up as a cheesemaker producing cheddar all over Scotland, before making regional cheeses for Joseph Heler in Cheshire.

“I think you need to be quite an insular person with an eye for detail to make good cheese. I was a dreadful cheesemaker, I must say,” he says. “I would end up drifting away and talking. I would lose concentration and make howling mistakes. I really enjoyed it, but I was never going to make a great cheesemaker.”

Mellis flirted with the idea of opening a restaurant and becoming a chef, but “my ambition had overreached my talent”, he admits. Instead, he took inspiration from the fromageries he had visited  in France, and from British mongers such as Neal’s Yard in London and The Cheese Shop in Chester, and opened his first shop in Edinburgh's Victoria Street with his wife Karen.

“All our shops have that old fashioned way of trading as traditional grocers. I was influenced by old pictures of Sainsbury's shops at the turn of the century - the excitement of big piles of cheese and wheels upon wheels that are cut open. It was something that people had experienced in Britain decades ago before it all went prepacked and into fridges.”

These beautiful mountains of fromage include Continental classics imported directly from producers in France, Spain and Italy, plus a wide range of farmhouse English, Welsh and Irish cheeses, from Keens cheddar to Cashel Blue. But Scottish cheeses more than hold their own against these heavyweights of the curd world. Mellis recommends the washed rind Criffel from Loch Arthur, Isle of Mull cheddar and the new Corra Linn Manchego-style cheese from HJ Errington as the country's stand-out cheeses at the moment.

Most cheeses spend some time in one of Mellis' six temperature-controlled maturing rooms at the warehouse in Edinburgh, where they are matured to just the right point before being sold. Cheese maturing, also known as 'affinage', requires close co-operation with the cheesemakers to make sure cheeses are delivered at the right time and in the right condition for maturation.

“It's particularly important for softer cheeses. Not only do they have to be well made, but they can easily be ruined by people not handling them correctly with the wrong temperature or humidity,” says Mellis. “Everyone has to be attuned to that and it's important that we give information back to the cheesemaker about how the cheeses are maturing and tasting.”

Three more Scottish cheeses to try: 

Anster: A crumbly, citrusy cheese from the green pastures of north east Fife. Made from unpasteurised cow's milk; it’s a bit iike a Wensleydale.

Lanark Blue: Scotland’s answer to Roquefort, this sheep’s milk blue is made be Selina Cairns and has a creamy mellow flavour.

Cambus O’May: Made in Royal Deeside, this raw cows’ milk cheese was launched in 2009 and has won plaudits for its rich nutty flavour.

* A different version of this article first appeared in the April 2012 issue of Fine Food Digest