Tuesday, April 01, 2014

On Location: Tasting Montgomery Cheddar with Neal's Yard Dairy

Neal's Yard Dairy Cheese Buyer Bronwen Percival and Cheesemaker Jamie
Montgomery compare notes during the dairy's monthly cheese tasting
to select wheels for retail, wholesale and export.
Just when you begin to believe you might know something about cheese after eating, breathing and writing about it for 10 years, the buyers from Neal's Yard Dairy turn up, promptly taste 30 cheeses in 60 minutes, pick out their favorites for retail, wholesale and export to the United States, and readily demonstrate that you actually know very little about your life's pursuit.

Such was my morning spent today at Manor Farm in North Cadbury, England, home to Montgomery Cheddar and the delightful, humble and generous Jamie Montgomery, owner and head cheesemaker of arguably the most famous Cheddar in the world. I traveled with the inaugural tour of Cheese Journeys, a handful of American cheesemongers led by the venerable Anna Juhl and Neal's Yard Dairy alum Chris George on an 8-day cheese tour of England. We have been privileged to spend the past two days with Jamie Montgomery, eating dinner in his 21-bedroom historic family manor, walking his 1,200-acre farm, viewing two cheese makes, and staying in the family house at North Cadbury Court, which his grandfather, Sir Archibald Langman, bought in 1911.

Brie Hurd, cheese buyer for the Concord Cheese
Shop in Massachusetts, signs the  wheel she'll be
purchasing in September when it's ripe.
This morning, however, was a once-in-a-lifetime treat to join Neal's Yard Dairy cheese buyers Bronwen Percival, Jason Hinds and Owen Baily, as we and the cheddar king himself - Jamie Montgomery - tasted about 30 different wheels of Montgomery Cheddar. Using terms such as "corky, juicy, velvety and elegant," only about 2 sample wheels from 30 different batches scored less than 4 out of 5 stars with the Neal's Yard crew. In short order, they selected two batches for the Neal's Yard retail shop, another six for wholesale, and four more for export to the United States. Between 15 and 20 of the 52-pound cheeses are in every batch, and each batch carries a distinct flavor profile for a specific audience.

As there were five American retailers in the room, we got a bit of say in which batches were exported to the United States. In fact, by about two-thirds of the way through the tasting - which by the way was probably the most educational cheese event I've ever been lucky enough to walk into - several of us could tell which batches would be selected for export. They were the wheels used with a starter culture that carried a distinctive sweet, juicy and brothy note, and Bronwen, an American herself - quickly confirmed those cheeses better suited an American palate. We agreed.

The expansive aging rooms for Montgomery Cheddar are housed on Manor Farm in North Cadbury in Somerset, England. The cheese is made seven days a week by a team of three cheesemakers - Tim, Wayne and Steve - and is one of only seven Cheddars still made in Somerset County, which like Wisconsin, was home to more than 400 cheese factories a century ago.

Cheesemaker Steve hooping Montgomery
Less than 20 wheels of Montgomery Cheddar are made each day in a 1,000 gallon open air vat. The cheese is cut, cheddared, milled, hooped and pressed all by hand, and once bandaged and larded, is put into the farm's aging rooms where it is lovingly cared for by two additional employees, who quite frankly, spend most of their time "hoovering" the cheeses with vacuums to control cheese mites, commonly associated with bandaged cheddars.

Jamie Montgomery oversees both cheese production and the family's two dairy farms. The milk from his 180-cow Friesian herd (the milking parlor is on the opposite wall of the cheesrie) is used exclusively for Montgomery Cheddar. The milk from his second 180-cow Jersey herd is used to make Ogleshield, a washed-rind Raclette-style cheese not yet available in the United States, or actually, in much of England. "You know, there are cheesemakers who can pump out a new cheese every 10 weeks," Jamie told us. "Here, it takes us a good 10 years."

Ogleshield started out as a bandage-wrapped cheese called Jersey Shield (named for both the cows who produce the milk, and for a historical bronze shield found by archaeologists on the farm's Camelot Hill), and turned into a washed-rind beauty once former Neal's Yard Dairy affineur William Oglethorpe got a hold of it. Today, Montgomery's crew is both producing and aging the "new" cheese in a brand new state-of-the-art humidity and temperature controlled aging rooms, and Ogleshield is expected to be picked up by Neal's Yard Dairy in the next 30 days. That means it may hit the U.S. market before the end of the year, and believe me, American cheese peeps, this cheese is worth waiting for. Better than Raclette, it is a perfect melting and cheese board standout. It's so good that I scarfed down the last remaining wedge, eating it like a slice of watermelon with my hands, in front of Jamie Montgomery last night before dinner. Because yes, it's that good.

The same herdsman has managed the Montgomery Jersey
herd for 30 years. These are some of the happiest, quietest
cows you'll ever meet.
Another new cheese being crafted these days at Manor Farm is Camelot, a Comte-style cheese made from full-fat Jersey milk. We tasted wheels at 17-months and it was incredible. The good news is that if you live in Devon, England, you can buy it at Bailey & Sage cheese shop. The bad news is that if you live anywhere else in the world, you can only buy it on the Montgomery website. Such is life.

When they're not busy making cheese or overseeing dairy herds, the Montgomery brothers - Archie and Jamie - actually farm their land. Of the 1,200 acres they own, about 150 acres are put into potatoes, 500 into wheat, 200 into barley, 150 into corn and another 150 into oilseed rape, which was in full yellow flower bloom during our visit. The rest of the land is pastures, of which the cows will be turned out upon next week, but until then, will continue to be fed a total mixed ration of corn, potato, wheat, distiller's grain and molasses silage to ensure a fairly consistent milk supply for cheesemaking.

One new exciting development at Manor Farm is the purchase of Ayrshire semen, of which Montgomery plans to cross with his Friesians in order to improve milk quality. "Twenty years ago, our cows were half Ayrshire, half Friesian, and the milk was different. I'm trying to get replicate that milk," he says. "I think we'll be seeing the dividends of that decision within the next three years."

No matter the breed of milk being used to craft Montgomery's Cheddar, the cheese remains, and has been, absolutely stellar since 1911, when Jamie's grandfather decided to continue the traditional cheesemaking that had taken place on the farm, even while so many others were giving it up during the World Wars. At age 53, with children aged 12 and 5, Jamie and his wife has no plans to retire anytime soon. "We're still coming up with new stuff," he says with a grin.
Montgomery Cheddar Owner Jamie Montgomery and the Cheese Geek
on Camelot Hill on Manor Farm in Somerset, England.

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