Exploring Cheddar Country


Keen's Traditional Farmhouse Cheddar

Narrow winding lanes are what this part of the English countryside is all about.

Driving from my home town of Maidenhead along the M4, we stopped off in Bath - a truly lovely city, steeped in millennia of history. The shops and high streets are still as I remember them, but the hot baths have definitely had an tourist-driven upgrade since I was there last. Very fancy.


It was after our stop in Bath, that we dove into the country roads that were to lead us to Wincanton and the nearby fields where Moorehayes Farm is located, and the Keen's Family Cheddar making creamery. I knew that things would be different from the roads of excess that one finds in the United Sates - even in my adopted city of Boston. The side roads found in neighbourhoods in the US would be sufficient for major arteries in other countries, and the roads we were driving on now would be nothing more than suitable for bicycle traffic. Glad I rented a Fiat Cinquecento!

Surprisingly after only one missed turn, we arrive at the farm, and how beautiful it is. Nestled in rolling hills and patchwork fields and blanketed by the sounds of the English countryside — quintessentially West country.


We had arranged to meet George Keen for a tour of his farm and cheesemaking facility, and thankfully he had just finished lunching in his ancient farmhouse. The farm and cheesemaking has been a multiple generational activity since 1899. George is still the head, but James, his son, returned from university to carry on the tradition.

After brief introductions we started our tour - first cheesemaking.

The walk through very much followed the passage of the milk, and it was clear that this was a well defined, organised and set process. Consistency is the word for cheesemakers, and we could tell that George was not very keen in changes. He still seemed a touch disturbed by the change in their logo which had happened over a year ago.

The milk from the milking parlour (more on that later) was actually brought to the cheesemaking facility by tanker. The distance was probably 100 m, but building some piping was clearly not on the cards. This was the way that worked, and so there was no reason for change.


The fresh, raw, tanker-delivered milk is emptied into a huge water-jacketed stainless steel tank, where the start cultures are added, the coagulum - or junkett in the UK - is set, and cut. The cheese harps, which do the cutting, dangle over the vat like some medieval torture device...


The starter cultures, like those for kombucha, and sour dough, were also a treasured part of the family. They are maintained and regenerated in the milk with each make, and kept inside their own milk urns, submerged in a 37° C bath.

After being processed into small pieces, the curd was emptied into another stainless steel vessel (by gravity) where further milling and the cheddaring process occurred, and from there the curds were gathered into moulds and placed into the very impressive cheese press.

This is where we found James and a colleague, and they reminded us of the physicality of cheesemaking. No talking occurred while they were man-handling the 50 lb cheeses like they were tea biscuits.

Knocking them out of moulds, unwrapping, re-wrapping and tossing back in the press for a press from the other direction. This performance occurred in front of the giant, horizontal hydraulic cheese press, which resembled something like Saddam Hussein's Super Gun.

Cheddar making is not for the faint of heart or slight of body.


Once pressed, the next stage of life for the cheese is in the cheese cave, although this is less a cave, and more a temperature controlled warehouse. The size and scope of the cheese that the Keen family can produce is staggering. The cheeses are cloth wrapped, and placed on wooden shelves for they ageing.

'Have you ever smelt cheese mites?' George asked.

'Not that I know of', I replied.

'Smell this', he said rubbing a patch of brown dust on the cloth of one and inhaling right up close. 'That there is cheese mites, dead and alive.'

I will save you the trouble of having to do this yourself, by telling you that if you imagine the smell of a dusty & damp basement which has been left undisturbed for years - you can imagine the smell of a cheese mite.

The mites are on all cheddars which are clothbound. I asked if they caused any issues at all, and George was clearly not too concerned as they were under control. The method of control? Scattering the powdered exoskeletons of microscopic marine diatoms on the wooden shelves.

Obviously.

After learning about his ageing process, and the difference between Cheddars due to ship to the US via either Neal's Yard Dairy or by the Fine Cheese Company (and there are a couple of differences), we moved on to meet the ladies. By which I mean the herd, of course.

In my previous life, I've used robotics and instrumentation worth millions of dollars, which dealt with the most minute volumes of liquids and tiny masses of solids. But I could not have been more impressed by the physical presence and precision of the two 'robots' that I saw in the barn.

George's herds were a mix of breeds (including Holsteins & Jerseys), and they were quite happy munching hay and silage under the cover of the large barn — even though the gate was open to the fields. It may have been the summer's heat, or maybe their desire to hang out together, but chilling was clearly the day's activities.

The first 'robot' to jump out at us was the poop-scraper. Purely a mechanical invention, but whichever genius invented the poop-scraper, he or she deserves an award. And I would also like one for our back garden — for our dogs.

Simply, a cable pulls a scraper along the floor, bringing along with it any "thing" that was in the way. Occasionally the scraper will pass a grilll, and all those "things" will disappear.

The cows watch it idly, casually stepping over the device when it gets close.

An example of Industry and Nature in step.

Next came the automatic milking machine. Which to my eyes is a modern marvel. There's not much to see until a cow walks into the enclosure (sometimes needing the encouragement of the cowman), and the machine springs into life.

A spidery long arm appears from a slot, and using laser guidance locks its milking cups onto each of the udder's teats. Sounds simple, except that masks its complexity. Not only is each cow different, but they're also moving (swinging!) around. The robot knows the shapes of each cow's udder and therefore adapts to the cow's identity as well as it's current dance to get a good grip, before starting to bring forth the milk.

But wait - that's not all. The robot is also able to check for teat damage (including mastitis), and take samples of the milk for somatic cell counts, all the while recording this data. Milkmaid and veterinarian.

Yes, it has replaced humans for the milking process, but watching the cows waddle up to it and milk - when they want to be milked - clearly shows that dairies could align with their cows, rather than making the cows align with the human time schedules.

Happy cows, great cheese.

And that's what we found at George's farm. The cows are happy, the process is in place, and they produce nothing but the best cheese, and the best Traditional West Country Farmhouse Cheddar.

Come to Boston Cheese Cellar to learn more about cheese mites, the cheddar, and to try some of this very special cheese.


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