Visit to Manor Farm, Home of Montgomery's Cheddar
Those of you who caught my last blog entry will know that I was recently in Somerset, stronghold of traditional English cloth-bound cheddar. The primary reason for the visit was to attend the inaugural conference The Science of Artisan Cheese. It was a privilege to be there on many levels, and not least because the two day conference was held adjacent to Manor Farm, home of Montgomery's cheddar, acknowledged by many to be the benchmark, traditional cloth-bound cheddar.
The Montgomery family have been making cheddar at Manor Farm for over one hundred years, and the recipe has changed little during that time. Milk for production comes from the farm's own herd of Friesian cows and head cheesemaker, Steve Bridges, oversees the daily production of between twelve and fifteen wheels, all made with unpasteurized milk.
James Montgomery pays great attention to the nuances of flavor of the cheese. He meticulously researches the herd's feed in order to get the right levels of fat and protein in the milk and to get the right balance between grass, solid food such as hay or silage and starches or sugars (for example, potatoes that are grown by James' brother Archie). The fat and protein levels in the milk are carefully monitored as they have a huge effect on the texture of the cheese. Too much fat and the result is a moist cheese, which tends to have tangy, sharper flavors rather than the desired sweet, nutty meatiness that characterize Montgomery's.
Cheeses are matured on the farm for between twelve and fourteen months before release. Very occasionally, a few wheels might possess the necessary traits to mature for up to two years, but this is rare. At various stages during the maturing process, a core sample taken from one wheel within each batch is tasted, assessed and graded. Buyers such as Bronwen Percival from Neal's Yard Dairy will often attend these tasting sessions and based on the flavor profile of each batch will, in conjunction with Montgomery's, decide whether to purchase that particular day's "make" - often several months in advance of it being ready.
As you can imagine, the skill-set required to make these judgements and to determine which way the flavor of a particular cheese will evolve, takes years of experience to develop. However, in the broader picture, the flavor profile of Montgomery's cheddar often contains rich, sweet and even meaty notes accompanied with hints of fruit and walnuts. Its can be reminiscent of the caramelized edge of a Sunday roast! The texture tends to be slightly drier than some other cheddars with older cheeses tending to develop a granular, crystaline crunch.
Here are a few photos from the visit. Next time you have the chance to taste Montgomery's, you can envisage where it came from and who made it....