At this year’s Winter Fancy Food show in San Francisco, I and two of my colleagues at Formaggio Kitchen – Kyra and Julia – were treated to a special opportunity: to taste Montgomery’s cheddar guided by an expert from Neal’s Yard Dairy and the cheese maker himself, Jamie Montgomery. The folks from Neal’s Yard, with whom we have a particularly close relationship, visit our shop on a relatively frequent basis but this particular event was a rare opportunity as Jamie only makes it States-side once a decade. In general, he prefers staying down on his Somerset farm with his herd of 200 Friesian cows and aging wheels of clothbound cheddar, to standing in front of an eagerly-attentive audience. But with a characteristic English intonation the 3rd generation cheesemaker did not disappoint. Far from it.
Jason Hinds, the Sales Director of London-based Neal’s Yard Dairy, opened the discussion. It is largely his palate and sourcing practices that Formaggio Kitchen can thank for our tremendous line-up of farmstead cheese from the UK and Ireland; a list that, among others, includes the unctuous Irish washed-rind Ardrahan, the oddly-shaped sheep milk cheese Berkswell, the past-meets-present raw-milk blue Stichelton, its forerunner Colston Bassett Stilton, and, of course, Montgomery’s farmhouse cheddar. Jason walked us through how he and his team select cheese and examine flavor profiles. He encouraged us to participate in the same manner as we tasted samples of cheddar ranging from twelve to eighteen months.
Before diving right in, however, Jason recommended that we knead the samples between our thumb and forefinger. Setting aside for the moment our mother’s displeasure for us playing with our food, we quickly realized that this act engaged all of our senses, unlocked nuanced textural contrasts between the cheeses and, in warming the samples, brought out distinct flavors and aromas. The younger cheddars were redolent of sweet pineapple while the older iterations reminded us of pleasantly toasted caramel. I encourage you to try the same next time you receive a sample from the Formaggio Kitchen cheese wall – I think you’ll find (as I did), that it’s a very different tasting experience.
Afterwards, Jamie spoke about the history of Montgomery’s cheddar, about how it’s made, and about what makes it that much better (it really is) than both its industrial and farmstead equivalent. Montgomery’s cheddar was first made in 1911 when farm-made cheeses were ubiquitous. The subsequent rise of industrial agriculture and advent of uniform and mechanized commodity cheese all but extinguished farmstead production in the UK. Nevertheless, a few courageous cheesemakers (including Jamie’s father) struggled on to make cheeses that displayed the unique and delicious characteristics of place. In their caring hands, the taste of terroir remained. In recent years, to our delight, more and more British cheesemakers have returned back to the farm to make traditional-style cheeses from the milk of animals they care for, tend, and love.
One of the characteristics that makes Monty’s cheddar (as it’s affectionately called behind our cheese counter) so unique, is that it’s milled in a traditional manner before undergoing the cheddaring process in which the curds are repeatedly stacked upon each other. This means that the collated teeth of a machine that Jamie engineered break the curd into smaller pieces and encourage a rather delicious inconsistency. The mouthfeel of the cheddar is more textured for this reason and the flavor profile more complex as the cheddar is better able to “breathe” while aging. Cheese made in this manner, with its affinity to crumbling, is not well suited for pre-packaging and thus requires skilled cheesemongers who take the time to cut and wrap to order. It also encourages the occasional natural bluing which, far from a flaw, actually adds to the complexity of the cheese. What’s more, the larding and binding with cloth that Monty’s cheddar receives encourages the development of nuanced aromas and flavor profiles that rarely exist in sharp cheddars that have been aged in vacuum sealed plastic as so many contemporary versions are.
On behalf of my colleagues, I’d like to thank Jamie and Jason for this special treat. And, I eagerly look forward to a visit from Bronwen – a cheese buyer for Neal’s Yard Dairy and another amazing member of their team – who will be coming to our Cambridge shop next week to educate staffers on the cheeses she buys, including another cheddar: Hafod.
Brad Jones is a cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge and just received a master’s degree in the Gastronomy program at Boston University.