Who moved my cheddar…I’d like to thank them

Paul's Cheddar from The Real Cheese shop in Observatory, Cape Town. (Photograph: The Real Cheese.)

FOR decades, I was hard on cheddar. In fact, it grated me enormously. I repeatedly denounced slabs of regular, store-bought cheddar as being bland, boring, chewy and, on occasion, even soapy. Certainly, the government-style cheddar prevalent in this country up until about ten years ago was, on the whole, wholly tasteless and rubbery.

Unable to provide the desired flavour and texture, insipid cheddar made it difficult to create cheese sauce worthy of spooning over gently steamed cauliflower and broccoli. Even a heaped tablespoon of paprika failed to disguise its inadequacies. And more than once, I thrust my tongue out in horror as I suffered the leathery, industrial taste and feel that cheddar of the 80s and early 90s inflicted upon my great-grandmother’s legendary macaroni cheese recipe.

“Sliced, grated or chopped into squares, cheddar,” I declared loudly and often to anyone who cared to listen, “does not cut the mustard – and I have had it in chunks.”

Indeed, I believed it deserved its derogatory tag, “mousetrap cheese”.

“Perhaps,” I ranted on, “tasteless cheddar is the reason that research shows that mice fall prey more frequently to sweet smelling and tasting bait, like chocolate or cake, than they do to cheese enticements. Cheddar is unappetising, even to vermin.”

That was then, however, when most cheddar available in South Africa was mass-produced with little, it seemed, regard for maturation and flavour. It was an ingredient, much like flour, considered necessary to add body and texture, rather than taste.

Nowadays though, with the resurgence of artisan-style cheese making and the subsequent production of ever more well matured variations, with wonderfully nutty and piquant flavours, my opinion of cheddar has changed – and I believe my great-grandmother rests easy once more.

Industry insiders say that the quality of locally produced cheese, including cheddar, has improved significantly in recent years largely because consumers have become more discerning. They believe that events like the annual South African Cheese Festival – which takes place at Bien Donné Farm between Paarl and Franschhoek from 24 to 27 April – have introduced more and more South Africans to the eating pleasure of cheese and that, accordingly, consumers have become more discriminating. (And, if you have ever braved the troops of turophiles (cheese lovers) that wedge and squeeze their way towards the platters at the Cheese Festival, you will acknowledge that, while their discernment is not immediately obvious, their numbers are immense and growing.)

On the other hand, say the experts, competitions like the South African Dairy Championships, coupled with increased competition from international cheese makers, further help advance the quality of cheese. Moreover, although twelve large, automated factories are responsible for about 65% of all cheese produced in this country, the number of small and medium sized cheeseries is increasing, as is the quality and variety of the cheese they produce, including the variations of cheddar on offer.

Cheddar is the world’s most popular cheese and makes up more than 30% of cheese sales in this country. Visit The Real Cheese shop in Observatory, Cape Town – which, says owner Valerie Elder, “sources cheese free of colourants, preservatives and artificial additives from small, quality farms throughout the country” – on any given day and you can taste cheddar from least 12 of South Africa’s best cheese farms.

“Cheddaring is the name of the procedure used for making cheddar,” explains the shop’s Claudette Saunders, as she hands me a creamy sliver of Paul’s Cheddar, which is made by Montague Cheese in the Western Cape. “It is the repeated cutting and piling of curd to allow maximum whey drainage and ultimately, a firmer and dense cheese. Farmhouse cheddars vary enormously in taste, smell and texture, which is why we stock such a variety.”

She is not exaggerating. The shop’s cheddars are almost as different as chalk and cheese. While Paul’s Cheddar has a slightly crumbly texture with a creamy taste and a light bite, the Gansvlei Vastrap cheddar from the Goukamma River Valley near Knysna has a full, rich hazelnut flavour. Healey’s cheddar from Lourensford Estate near Somerset West has even sharper overtones and remarkable depth of flavour, while the Underberger from KwaZulu-Natal, is a softer, subtler cheese. And, if you enjoy cheese made from goat’s milk, the Foxenburg Cheddar is a sharp and tangy cheddar that is distinctively… goat.

Although it is not available from The Real Cheese shop – “We try to focus on smaller producers,” says Elder – Clover’s Extra Mature Cheddar is one of the country’s foremost cheddars, having recently laid claim to the title, Best South African Cheese at the 2008 World Cheese Awards in Dublin.

“Not only was the Clover Extra Mature Cheddar awarded a gold medal by very finicky cheddar judges from the United Kingdom, but was also judged the best South African cheese on show,” crowed Clover shortly after receiving the award. “This cheese, selected from everyday production stocks, is worth every accolade which came its way. Who says big industrial cheese makers cannot make excellent cheeses?”

The problem however, arises when you try to get your hands on the winning cheese to sample. I have not yet succeeded in this regard, despite a prolonged search of the Western Cape. But, since cheddar matures well, I will not give up the search soon.

Maturity aside, many claim that cheddar is one of the oldest forms of cheese. The theory is that, in the absence of refrigeration and effective transport, the dilemma of what to do with surplus milk was solved by turning it into cheese. Farmers discovered that if they pressed and squeezed out moisture with a heavy weight, the fresh curd – in other words, the cheese ¬– lasted much longer.

This method of cheese-making, with some fine tuning along the way was, say historians, perfected in the area around the English village of Cheddar in Somerset, hence the name cheddar

Certainly, as Saunders points out, variety is a fundamental to the category. Although it is named for Cheddar, where it has been produced since at least AD 1170 – when paperwork belonging to the palace of King Henry II recorded a purchase of cheddar – the cheese is not protected by any designation of origin laws. As a result, it has been widely copied and reproduced throughout the world, primarily in former Commonwealth countries.

Only one cheddar producer operates in Cheddar these days. Owned and run by John Spencer and his wife Katherine, the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company uses unpasteurised milk from local cows to produce traditional, homemade cheddar. The fact that it is the only working cheddar dairy in Cheddar means, say the Spencers, it makes the only authentic cheddar in the world. The company even continues to mature cheddar in Gough’s Caves outside the village, as was customary in big cheese, King Henry’s days. It won two gold medals and the Best Cheddar on Show award at the 2008 World Cheese Awards.

“As a small artisan maker competing against producers from all over the world, we were all thrilled to receive this accolade,” says Spencer of the award. “The team here have worked incredibly hard to reach this standard and deserve immense praise. And it does seem fitting that the best cheddar has returned to its birthplace – Cheddar in Somerset in England.”

The good news for South Africans however, is that there are plenty of great locally produced cheddars doing the rounds in this country. There is no need then, to get cheesed off if you cannot get to Cheddar to get your cheddar.

(First published in The Weekender in March 2009.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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