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Cheddar still made in Somerset's cave region

By Marc F. MillonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 3, 1980

Cheddar Gorge, England

The meadows, moors, and rich pasturelands of northern Somerset extend from the Mendip Hills to the lips of Cheddar Gorge and beyond. Within this steep ravine, torn like a wound through the heart of an idyllic landscape, lie phantasmagoric caves, rich with stalactites, mites, and weird underground rivers.

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Once, more than a hundred years ago, they were used as a store for the famous cheese that bears this area's name. Today, the region around Cheddar, Wells, and Shepton Mallet continues a cheesemaking tradition hundreds of years old.

For a pocketful of farms here, and in the neighboring counties of Avon, Dorset, and Devon, are producing farmhouse Cheddars by time-honored methods, under the guidance of the Farmhouse English Cheese Scheme.

Farmhouse cheese, as opposed to factory cheese, is made on the farm by traditional methods, and with milk produced on that farm, or on neighboring farms. Under this program, farmhouse cheese is graded, marketed, and distributed throughout the world by the board's own agents.

It can be identified by a trademark depicting three cheeses, surrounded by the words "Farmhouse English cheese."

The Chewton Cheese Dairy, owned by Lord Chewton, is one such farm producing traditional cheeses. Only a few miles away from Cheddar, it is open to visitors to witness the entire cheesemaking process firsthand.

Work begins at 5 a.m., when the milk truck collects anywhere from 2,000 to 2, 500 gallons of milk from the dairy's four farms. Over the next few hours this milk will be scalded, soured, separated into curds and whey, cheddared, milled and salted, and finally pressed into more than a ton of cheese daily. Cheddaring is the strenous process of turning the curds by hand to facilitate whey drainage.

Peppy D'Ovidio, who has been learning the art of cheesemaking for over 10 years now, hopes one day to be Head Cheesemaker on the farm.

"But I'm still learning," Peppy says. "Every cheese is different, because it's a living thing. If it's slow, then we might have to 'cheddar' it for 24 hours.

Peppy explained that the cheddaring process is what really differentiates farmhouse Cheddar from factory. The slabs of curds must be cheddared until the acid level is just right. This is what gives Cheddar its distinctive taste. And the time this takes varies with each cheese.

The real test, of course, is in the taste. A good Cheddar should never crumble. Because it is pressed harder and longer than most other cheeses, it should be dense and firm, with a smooth consistency like butter.

To generalize, Cheddar should taste nutty, with a slightly sharp tang. As it matures, this bite becomes more pronounced, but it should never become so "sharp" that it burns the roof of your mouth. A good Cheddar should be flavorful without being overpoweringly "hot."

My advice is to find a brand that consistently satisfies you, then stick to it. Always check the date of prepacked cheeses. The packing should never be smeared or cloudy. Avoid Cheddar that looks either dry and craked or soft and wet.

All cheeses should be stored carefully. One way to avoid "losing" cheese is to buy small amounts that can be eaten quickly. But if you've got a large piece of Cheddar, the best way to keep it is to wrap it in a damp cloth.