Sunday, 27 November 2011


SatNav is nigh on useless at finding farms. Which means that, late, and rapidly becoming an expert in the Cheshire and Shropshire countryside, I was getting stressed. Even the locals at the post office couldn’t point me in the right direction – a shame they didn’t know that Britain’s finest Cheshire was made less than a mile away.

It’s Britain’s oldest-known cheese, said to have been made before the Roman invasion, and is even mentioned in the Doomsday book (1086). It was once more famous and wider-eaten than Cheddar; in the industrial revolution it was sent down by the shipload from Liverpool at the request of London’s gentry.

My first venture up North since returning from the promised cheese lands of France had to be to visit two of my favourite, yet vastly underrated cheeses: Cheshire and Lancashire. The French just don’t understand or appreciate the classic lactic and acidic British ‘crumbly’ that is epitomised in these cheeses.

My visit was to Appleby’s of Hawkstone; the last remaining producer of unpasteurised traditional cloth bound Cheshire. A far cry from the two-thousand-plus farms making it in 1914; the decline that was caused by draconian Milk Marketing Board regulations, and requirements to make a fast setting, drier, waxed or vac-packed cheese. This in turn gave rise to the soggy crumbly bags of factory Cheshire that give it a bad name to this day.

Yet, one farmer struggled on, in her effort to preserve Cheshire’s name and to educate the public on what it can be like. Appleby’s is clean and zesty, slightly tangy, quite moist yet crumbly and savoury, a total contrast to the other Cheshires still around. Paul and Sarah Appleby are the most recent generation, taking over the reigns handed down over three generations from when Lucy Appleby learnt her craft at the local college.

Along with the parents, Edward and Christine (who still cast a critical eye over the cheese), we watched their cheese-maker, Garry Gray. He captures the minerally saline flavour of the milk from the Cheshire salt marshes on which their cows graze.

The unpasteurised milk, and the techniques of old: long acidic maturation, traditional starters, crumbling the blocks by hand, cloth binding... all contribute to this cheese’s complex interesting flavours and textures.

If you can find it, buy some; and should you find yourself with too much (never a problem!), follow Paul Appleby’s advice – fry great slabs with bacon, or crumble it, cover with milk and sliced onions, then bake. The acidity goes really well with sweet fruits and fruitcake too.

Monday, 18 July 2011


Whey! Let’s have some meat!

Whey, Lactoserum, Petit Lait: the by-product of making cheese. What do you do with it? That’s one of the big questions in life. Sometimes a little is kept to add to the next day’s milking, to start off the coagulation (like a bread starter), and those dedicated souls who still make their own rennet use it to dissolve the veal stomach (see my Beaufort Alpage blog - coming soon).

However the majority goes down the drain, mores the pity, as its still jam-packed with protein, fats and minerals. Some entrepreneurial Italians decided to make a mighty fine cheese by reheating it and adding acid, and re-coagulating the proteins that are left to form a fragile curd called Ricotta. Some cheese-makers put the whey in a centrifuge and separate out the cream that remains, using it to make a mighty fine butter. Many farmers put it on their fields as fertiliser and some industrial firms freeze-dry it and use it to add protein to foods – such as baby food (read the ingredients…). The monks at the Abbaye de Tamié, use it to heat the abbey (by converting it, rather niftily, to methane).

But the age-old method for reusing whey was to feed it to the pigs. To do this in Britain the whey must originate and be used on the same farm, to minimize cross contamination, so it’s not that common anymore. Yet in France, that’s not a problem, and as my local pork producer offered to show me the whey (pardon the pun), I popped in for a visit (and to lend a hand, naturally).

As is typical in France, it’s a very small, not intensive, farm where Jean Claude keeps pigs and sheep. He receives the whey once a week, and feeds it to the pigs. As you can see they adore it! He says it also contributes to the flavour of the meat. All the meat he produces here he processes himself into various forms (nothing is wasted – tripe, cooked head, pigs trotter salad are all on offer) and sold on local markets. So I helped make a pigs liver terrine and, we’re in France after all, it finished with a mighty fine meal with all the family!

Great subsistence farming. If you’re in the Roanne area look out for Malème’s pork products.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Our Terroir

A quick mention to a friend of mine, Marie-Laure. Whom i lived and worked with for Mons Fromagerie in France. A passionate cheesemaker and eater she is studying all over Europe to learn about cheese. Please have a look at her blog:

Cheese Rolling Lives On!

It may have been cancelled, but the Gloucester Cheese Rolling lived on. Despite wet weather, misty conditions and a heavy police presence, at 12am today hundreds of revellers turned up to Coopers Hill. Without a hitch or major injury (though my ribs don't half hurt and I think I’ve dislocated a finger) the traditional four races happened.
Chris Anderson, again, took home the bragging rights - winning all of the mens’ races.

Did I race?
Course I did.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

AOP – a double-edged sword?

"What there’s a good cheese? And it hasn’t got an AOP? Quick give it one fast! Of course we always made it, it’s our terroir, our history, it originated here…”

When it comes to protection, the French are on their game (they’d have to be with their reputation as lovers…). They now hold 46 AOPs for cheese, of which 19 have been awarded since 1990. If they can protect it, they will. And they’ve got a reason to, after losing great names like Brie and Camembert to the world. (Although Brie de Meaux, Brie de Melun and Camembert de Normandie are now protected).

AOP protects the cheese origin, history, traditional methods, and it’s relation to the natural geography and ‘terroir’; and also help market small farmers. Sounds good. The AOP ‘police’ can control many quality factors before they will award a label, plaque or engraved straw to grace any cheese. In some cases they protect traditions to the letter – for example Beaufort d’Alpage must be made 2000m up in the mountains, and produce their own rennet and culture, and Salers Traditional must be made with the milk from the ubiquitous but unproductive Salers cow (by Darwin’s theory it should have been extinct years ago!).

The level of protection varies massively: at its lowest it seems like just basic geographical limits, but higher levels involve stringent recipes (sometimes to the letter), some must be GMO free, others not, some say it has to be pasteurised, many don’t (you can’t find an unpasteurised Bleu de Causses; and you’ll struggle to find unpasteurised versions of Bleu d’Auvergne, Fourme D’Ambert, Ossau Iraty, Epoisses, Chabichou, Langres, Chaource, Mariolles and Pont l’Eveque).

Award of an AOP can give power to producers (you can only buy an Epoisses from four producers) and often allow them to charge a higher price. Quality can also suffer, as a product sells on the AOP name and producers begin to do just what is necessary. The product will often sell anyway thanks to the reputation of an AOP; this has led to a large variance in quality within each cheese AOP.

The recognition of AOP has in some cases led to big dairies controlling the market, pushing small producers out, or making it more cost effective for farmers to concentrate on producing the milk. This has led to a loss of farmhouse dairies: farm production is less than 8% of AOP cheeses

AOPs can also stifle innovation and change, as rigid rules hold back improvements, the ability to adapt and develop.

Others have become regimented as uniformity has swept across the board. The men in the black suits, the AOP ‘police’ and experts come from Paris to make farmers follow a recipe, often using the same cultures and rennet. In doing this they lose the nuances between recipes and farms. And after the cheese is produced the products often have to stay in their region of production for affinage. This means many experienced affineurs and cheese-mongers may receive the product too late to have a major affect on the quality and maturing of the product.

So where do I stand? AOP does protect history, the link with the terroir, traditions and origins, all great principles: no matter how close to Gouda it is, Gouda made in China shouldn’t be called Dutch Gouda (or perhaps even Gouda).

Yet where protection exists there is massive variance within it, good and bad. I’ve read in many a book “look for AOP”. My advice is never buy a cheese by any symbol or a name. Look for a great cheesemaker or a great cheesemonger, and a great taste. If you can’t taste it, walk away.

The Positives

Beaufort d’Alpage
The AOP ensures Beaufort d’Alpage (d’Alpage is the key bit!) is made to very traditional methods: one herd kept above 1500m (at Alpage in the mountains), only made in summer, the cows are never fed on silage, the cheese has to be made everyday with no holding or no chilling of milk, rennet and starters are homemade on the farm, traditional copper cauldrons are used and the cheese is hand dipped and kept in wooden moulds, all from a breed of cows which produce ideal milk for cheese. These factors are a like a wish list for making the best cheese, but are rarely, if ever, found elsewhere. Enforcing and protecting them by the AOP has kept the practices that would have fallen by the wayside (for example, I don’t know of anyone else who makes their own rennet). It makes each chalet that produces Beaufort d’Alpage truly unique and linked to the terroir.

Salers Traditional
With similar protection to Beaufort (made at summer pasture in alp age, with no silage, the use of wood and traditional methods) but also the enforced use of the Salers cow (which is what makes it Salers Traditional, not just regular Salers). The Salers cow gives amazingly rich milk. Yet each cow only gives 4 litres per day (compared to 30-40 litres from Holstein Friesians); they also will only give milk when their child is present (see Blog 8).

With similar stringent controls as the other two, this cheese was awarded an AOP in 2002. Chevrotin was on the road to extinction; very few knew or were buying the cheese. The granting of an AOP halted and reversed the decline; the last few farmers gained from this nationwide recognition.

The Negatives

The success of Manchego has meant most farmers in the AOP region have now turned to producing this cheese, or can send their milk to big dairies for a good price. The small individual, interesting and unique farmhouse cheeses from this region are no longer made. Manchego is a more successful product and has pushed them out of the market.

I spoke to a Salers producer who would love to partially skim the milk a little, at the end of the summer season (the end of the cows lactation and last of the summer grass means her milk is too fatty and this produces off flavours in the cheese). Yet the AOP does not allowed skimming the milk. The large Salers producers also gain from the handmade traditional methods here: much of the AOP Salers marketing shows these small farmhouses and their traditional methods; but the industrial diaries that gain from the association are pushing smaller producers out of the market on price.

Up until 1989 Stilton could be unpasteurised. Then there was a scare with Listeria (it was later proved no relation to the cheese), and the last unpasteurised producer (Colston Bassett) was forced to pasteurise. The decree was passed in 1992 that Stilton HAD to be pasteurised, so now a producer (Stichelton) cannot call his cheese Stilton because it is unpasteurised.

Until the 70s Roquefort could be made anywhere in France, using milk from anywhere (as long as it was Lacune breed). So much for a product of the terroir; all it had to be, really, was aged in the caves for 14 days (and a further 2½ months in the region). Due to the fame of Roquefort, seven massive producers own all the production and have become a bit like a cartel, controlling the market. Also, as all the Roquefort made can be sold, they have less interest in quality (which is often why Roquefort is wet – to remove the water equals extra work and weight loss).

Monday, 25 April 2011

Who do you think brought you the AOCs, the IGPs, the PDOs and Italy’s DOC?

"The failure to protect Cheddar is perhaps the greatest mistake of trademark history” (Towt, 1911). Only 36 years after the very first trademark (Bass’ Red Triangle on their beer kegs), Cheddar makers had sprung up everywhere. The empire had grown; farmers, convicts and cheesemakers spread to the promised lands, taking with them their techniques and traditions of cheesemaking. And with them, the names of the methods and towns they originated from. Canadian Red Leicester, New Zealand Cheddar and Australian Cheshire would soon grace our shores, whilst the town of Cheddar even lost its last cheese producer.

Yet, the small town of Cheddar in Somerset lives on: it has regained a cheesemaker within the town; even now maturing his cheese in the famous Cheddar Gorge. But the name Cheddar can never again be specific to just one area, as it is ruled to have become generic. The same is true of Lancashire, Cheshire, Red Leicester, Brie, Camembert…

Luckily the UK managed to protect Stilton (retrospectively in 1966) with a trademark, so it can only be made to a traditional recipe within the counties of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire.

This trademark now is enveloped in part of the EU protection system: Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP): a red circle with a gold border and stars, (the two acronyms mean the same thing). This designation has now taken precedence over existing systems throughout Europe: the AOC of France; the DOCs of Portugal and Italy, the DO Spain and the old PDO (same symbol in blue). Although you may still find these mentioned, they are being phased out and replaced by the universal PDO symbol.

The new legislation also saw the creation of the less strict IGP symbol (guarantees the product came from an area) and the TSG symbol (guarantees the product is made to traditional methods).

The PDO structure is based on that of the Appellation d’Origine Controlée of France. France first protected its cheese in 1407, when Charles VI stated the protection of Roquefort was necessary. And in 1666 the name Roquefort became legally bound only be used on cheeses of that region that had been aged in the famous caves of Combalou.

This AOC structure was designed to protect traditions and regional foods, so that foods and wines remain with their regional association, methods, local ingredients and influences. For example an Epoisses is a testament to that area – not merely a method of manufacture (as that can be reproduced anywhere), not even local raw materials, but climate, soil, geography, treatments, animal breeds, harvesting times and local environmental factors (such as the natural moulds in Roquefort’s Combalou caves). This is all summed up in the French word ‘terroir’.

However do be wary: PDO DOES NOT guarantee quality. On the basic level it just guarantees the product is produced to a basic way in a certain area (some PDOs are very strict, others very lenient). Some people choose a PDO or AOC cheese trusting it will be a great cheese; this is a mistake because there is massive variance between the products within this protection (often with the same name). I do not think of the PDO as an indicator of quality, just as an indicator of where the product will have been produced and to what style.

The relative merits and shortcomings of PDO are discussed in my next blog.

EU Protection Symbols and Details:

The PDO legislation applies throughout EU, but not to other countries. Many other countries do, however, agree to uphold the protection of many of these names (but not on all products).

Protected Designation of Origin (PDO/AOP)

Open to products which are produced, processed and prepared within a particular geographical area, and with features and characteristics which must be due to the geographical area, e.g. Stilton, Roquefort, Comté.

Protected Geographical Indication (PGI/IGP)

Open to products, which must be produced or processed or prepared within the geographical area and have a reputation, features or certain qualities attributable to that area. Not as strictly controlled or regulated as PDO, and generally not as recognized, e.g. Tomme de Savoie.

Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG/STG)

Open to products which are traditional or have customary names and have a set of features which distinguish them from other similar products. These features must not be due to the geographical area the product is produced in, nor entirely based on technical advances in the method of production. This protects tradition rather than origin (and is in fact rarely applied for or used; although Mozzerella TSG does guarantee that it’s made in a traditional style).

Note the Swiss conform to these laws and have their own, similar symbols:

Sunday, 17 April 2011

What time? St Nectaire.

When Guerin the farmer expressed doubt that I could get in up time to make it to his farm to watch them making cheese, I knew I would make it. He even re-enforced it when he exclaimed that he has to get up that early everyday. So a 2.30 am start on a Saturday had to be achieved; especially hard, as Friday is my mountain cheese-flipping day (the 40kg pieces of Beaufort, Comté and Gruyère). Groggy-eyed I drove all the way to a little village hidden between the lakes and extinct volcanoes of the Auvergne. I arrived just in time to watch the milking finish. I was there to watch St Nectaire being made, one of the most popular AOC (Appelation D’Origine Controllée) cheeses in France (close on the heels of Comté).

Cheeses have been made there since Roman times, and the cheese itself has been renowned since the Middle Ages. Produced in the winter when there wasn’t enough milk to make the big Cantal and Salers cheeses, and aged on local rye straw, it picked up it’s name rather strangely – not from the holy Saint Nectaire (there isn’t one!) – but because of Henry de Senectère, a local baron in favour with French king Louis XIV (he won some battles or something). Henry de Senectère famously promoted and pushed the cheeses of his region, so much so that Louis XIV regularly demanded cheeses from “Senectère”, and the name gradually transformed into St Nectaire!

Poor production techniques, and a location a long way from major cities meant the cheese fell out of fashion in the 18th Century (they even began using the local milk to make Gruyère copies instead). Later, however, when the young peasants enrolled to fight in the Napoleonic wars, they probably didn’t do so to improve their cheese production skills. But that’s what happened, and after marching and fighting (not too much – they were French after all) through Holland, they returned, with their heads full of the new ideas they’d seen. Consequently the quality of the cheese improved massively; so much so a committee quickly returned to Holland to see if it could learn even more.

St Nectaire’s production methods now honed, it re-found its fame as a national treasure and farmhouse production leapt. An AOC was awarded (one of the earliest AOCs and the first one to receive a special designation for farm production) so you would think that this cheese is well protected.

Yet good St Nectaire is increasingly hard to find, even with over 250 farms still making St Nectaire Fermier. The quality is widely variable and the good ones rarely leave the region!

This is made worse by the massive amount of St Nectaire Laitier production - a very different cheese from the Fermier: it is made in very sterilised conditions, often with pasteurised milk, (with none of the wild moulds that populate the milk). Without aging in the natural caves, the rind doesn’t develop like that of Fermier, and the cheese often tastes of nothing, or milk at best. Laitier is often the St Nectaire you’ll find in supermarkets around France. It looks clean – an orange even rind with it’s square green plaque. By contrast the Fermier version (with an oval green plaque) is damn unattractive – a potholed, dusty, green-grey rind, mottled with brown, orange and yellow. Yet, as the ugly duckling of the cheese world, it shouldn’t be judged on appearance: when you find a good one, it’ll have flavours and aromas that are complex, nutty, fruity, earthy and musty. A real rustic cheese – look at the contrast in the picture above left.

These Fermier cheeses are made straight after each milking, each day, by small farms in the isolated villages, using unpasteurised milk from their herd. My early start meant I’d just caught the milking. Rennet was added and we waited, patiently staring at the vat full of milk from the 90 cows. It set relatively fast, the curds were cut and whey was drained. Then the moulding process began: we stuffed the curds into moulds, then the cheese was then gently pressed, wrapped in cloth, salted, and given it it’s official plaque “St Nectaire Fermier”. The 55 cheeses we made that day were pressed for 12 hours, then passed through a drying room before ending up in their caves.

Not many farmers affine St Nectaire themselves, instead passing it onto the many affineurs in the area. Guerin is one exception. With the help of Hervé Mons they built a small facility to start the process off. This means the cheeses can take on a bit of local character for a month before they arrive at Hervé’s caves. It would be me that then finished the process off – another month or two of turning, brushing and wiping until Hervé decides it’s ready.

In the humid natural caves the cheeses are washed three times before being left to take on the natural moulds of the region – including the infamous Mucor, hated by other cheese makers. These unique conditions produce a cheese which is a little unique – gently pressed and populated by natural moulds, yet soft supple and creamy inside.

Yet, as I said, even to find a good St Nectaire Fermier is difficult*, and if you find one like this – you might want to keep it to yourself. There aren’t that many to go around.

Read more about AOC in

my next blog.

* The difficulty in finding good St Nectaire is because of the massive variance in each production. This AOC protection may have been one of the earliest, but always be wary of the sign AOC: the St Nectaire’s documentation stipulates it must be … well not much really. A basic recipe and geographic area. That’s about all. You can milk any breed of cow, any altitude, feed them on whatever you want (top quality pasture versus hay, even silage), use unpasteurised or pasteurised milk. Even the recipe controls and stipulates very few conditions.

This leads to a massive variance – imagine a prime cow (i.e. Abondance / Salers) grazing high on the finest mountain pasture in the Auvergne mountains, producing milk which is used unpasteurised, naturally fermented, then made into cheese by a farmer who has spent years and lots of money (invested in his diary, education and consultancy) to produce a top quality product.

Now think of an intensive production system, using a cow breed that gives lots of milk (yet poor quality), such as Friesian, fed only on hay and silage, kept indoors all year. Then the milk is pasteurised, and much less care given to the production and affinage.

Unfortunately, the difference in the price between the two products is going not going to be much, with one being much easier life but giving a much better profit margin. AOC can sometimes be nothing more than basic protection, not influencing quality – although the opposite is also true in some areas, for example Beaufort – more to come on AOC in my next blog.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Le Premier Affinage

I’m doing it! I’m having a shot at it myself! Some of you may know that I’ve made cheese before myself, using drainpipes, clamps and pans. Naturally I had a shot at ageing them. Yet the outcome was dubious at best – you could put windows out with my brie, my blue was more bitter than a pint of stout, and my goats cheese so runny it would come over to meet you. In fact, my only real success was with my home-grown cheddar. And I think that was because I left it with a friend to look after! Looking back, I now think I can identify where I went wrong with each cheese. So I decided it was time to have a shot at ageing a cheese at my home in France. Thankfully I have a cellar, and so it began. I chose Tarentais to start with because I could get hold of it fresh, it’s small (so mistakes won’t be too expensive) and quite forgiving – important, as my cellar is a little warmer and drier than is ideal. I wanted to age it differently from Mons, so tried a few alternative techniques to see how it turned out. And here it is. Le Premier Affinage Tout Seul (First Ageing On My Own). Well the geotrichium I was trying to cultivate died after the first week, but I battled on! It dried up a little more than I wanted, and, tasting it after 5 weeks, it was ok in texture and taste, very different to Mons. An interesting experiment, but I’ve still a bit to learn maybe…

It's been a while

Sorry for the dry spell in blogs up here; but i've been busy slicing and dicing Stilton in my new job at The Fine Cheese Co., Bath. However I have kept up-to-date at So there is some there to catch up on!