The first Milk Workshop of Cheese 2013 was focused on this year’s guest of honor – the cheeses of the British Isles, and the wide-reaching influence they have had around the world over the centuries.
The panel of cheesemakers, cheese experts and cheese sellers from the UK, Ireland, the United States and Italy at “Cheese from the British Isles: A Tradition to Rediscover” discussed the rise of industrial cheesemaking in the 19th and 20th centuries followed by the development of the artisanal cheese movement in recent decades, the challenges of PDOs and the power of Presidia, and the importance of consumers making their voices heard in order to make small-scale, artisanal cheese more widely available.
One of the most interesting threads running through the informal debate concerned the significance of names. It’s a topic of particular relevance to James Montgomery, a cheesemaker and member of the Artisan Somerset Cheddar Presidium. The cheddaring process, during which the curds are repeatedly cut, pressed into slabs and stacked, gives the cheese its distinctive texture. The process proved easy to automate, and as food production became industrialized in the 19th century, Cheddar became the mass-produced cheese known around the world. Today, over 2 million tons are produced globally.
“It’s a cross we have to bear,” said Montgomery about Cheddar’s popularity. “People say, ‘That’s what Cheddar is,’ and we’re fighting all the time to say, ‘No, it’s not, Cheddar is what the three of us are still making.’” Just three Presidium producers are still making traditional, cloth-wrapped Cheddar. The cheese’s image as a bland, industrial, plastic-wrapped block does them no favors. “Friends say, ‘What are you doing still using the Cheddar name?’” he said. “But I can’t sell out the name. I have to be a thorn in the side of the biggest cheesemakers who claim they’re making really good Cheddar.”
He mentioned two British producers who are making Cheddar, but marketing it under different names: Hafod (from Wales) and Winterdale (from Kent). “I think the use of those names is brilliant,” said Jeff Roberts of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese. He said there was a movement in the United States to encourage artisan cheesemakers to come up with their own unique names for their cheeses. “A lot of people in the States make Gouda,” he said. “But it’s nothing to do with Dutch Gouda. If you use a known name, consumers expect it to have a specific aroma, shape, flavor and texture. If you use a new name, they can focus on the quality of the cheese and not that it’s supposed to be Gouda or Cheddar. Plus cheesemakers are not competing with everyone else making the same style of cheese.”
Jeffa Gill, a cheesemaker and one of the coordinators of the Irish Raw Milk Cheese Presidium, talked about how for many centuries Ireland had little traditional cheese culture, as the English colonizers encouraged butter production rather than cheesemaking. Since the 1970s, however, there has been a renaissance of raw-milk farmhouse cheeses. These new cheeses are generally given geographical names. “Gubbeen, Durrus, Cashel: nearly every cheese made in Ireland is named after a place,” said Gill. “It’s the proper thing to do with new cheeses. People say, ‘What kind of cheese is that?’ Well, it’s a Durrus, it’s a Cashel, it’s an Ardrahan.”
Montgomery, whose Cheddar is made 20 kilometers from the Somerset town of Cheddar, approves: “Cheese represents a terroir.” The name should represent this too.