Cheddar still made in Somerset's cave region

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.

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.

Cheddar can be stored in the vegetable compartment of the refrigerator. Take it out at least a half hour before eating to allow it to reach room temperature; otherwise you will miss its full flavor.

Remember: Heat changes the texture and flavor of cheese, so when cooking with cheese, handle with care. A hard cheese like Cheddar cooks best if it is first grated. Stir in one direction only to ensure smoothness and good blending. Welsh Rarebit 1 ounce butter 1/2 pound Cheddar cheese (grated) 1/4 teaspoon dry English mustard Dash of Worcestershire sauce 2 to 3 tablespoon milk Salt and pepper Pinch of cayenne, optional 4 large slices of toast

Melt butter over low heat and stir in remaining ingredients, except toast. Heat gently, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens. Be careful not to overcook or cheese will become tough and stringy.

Spread mixture over hot plain toast and put under a broiler for 2 to 3 minutes until golden.

serve immediately.

Simple, hearty fare from the West country, a Ploughman's Lunch is easy to prepare, or take with you to work. Ploughman's Lunch Chunk of Cheddar cheese Fresh crusty bread Butter Pickles, relish, chutney, or celery Lettuce leaves TOmato

Arrange these on a simple wooden platter and tuck in.

Our neighbor gave us her recipe for these delightful party snacks. Use a mature Cheddar with a lot of taste, and be careful not to overcook. They should melt in your mouth, not crumble. Monica's Cheese Straws 3 ounces butter 3 ounces Cheddar, finely grated 4 ounces plain flour Pinch of salt Pinch of dry mustard Pinch of paprika

Cream butter and cheese until soft and gradually work in flour with a wooden spoon. work dough into a ball and knead lightly until smooth.

On a floured board, roll 1/4-inch thickness and cut into 3-inch-long "straws." Bake in the top of a hot oven, 400 degrees F., for 7 to 10 minutes. allow to cool, and serve. Cheese Soup 1 ounce butter 2 onions, peeled, finely chopped 1 carrot, peeled, grated or finely chopped 1 clove, garlic, peeled, finely chopped 2 bacon rashers 1 pint chicken stock 4 ounces "tasty" Cheddar, grated 1/2 ounce flour salt and freshly ground black pepper Paprika

Melt butter in a saucepan. Add onion and garlic and saute until soft and transparent. Add bacon and carrot, and continue frying until they begin to turn color.

Stir in flour and cook 1 minute. Gradually stir in stock and bring to the boil. Season well with salt, pepper, and paprika.

Cover and simmer gently about 20 minutes. Gradually stir in most of the grated cheese. Readjust the seasoning.

Pour soup into individual warmed soup bowls. Top with remaining cheese and serve with crusty bread. Cheese and Apple Crumble 6 ounces flour 3 ounces butter 3 ounces superfine or caster sugar 4 ounces grated Cheddar 1 1/2 pounds cooking apples, peeled, cored, and sliced 4 ounces soft brown sugar 4 tablespoons sultanas or raisins 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg Finely grated rind, and juice of 1/2 lemon

To prepare topping, sift flour into a mixing bowl. add the butter in pieces and rub into flour until mixture resembles fine bread crumbs. Mix in sugar.

Put apples in a deep pie dish and stir in remaining ingredients.

Sprinkle prepared topping over apple mixture. Bake in a hot oven, 400 degrees F., about 25 minutes. Remove and scatted Cheddar on top. Return to oven for 10 minutes, or until toppings is golden brown and apples are soft.

Serve hot with fresh cream.

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