The joy of cheese

When your consumption of cheese is restricted, as it is for both of us, it makes you appreciate it all the more. If you have no problems, you take it for granted that you can hit into a chunk of Cheddar every day, bake a Camembert for a showy dinner party or grate clouds of Parmesan over your pasta.

If gall stones or other problems limit your intake, it makes you think about what you are eating, and value and enjoy it all the more. And the more you know about cheese, the more fascinating it is. This is, of course, true of almost anything, from beer to free jazz – the more you know, the more you understand, the more you discover, the greater the benefit, enjoyment, knowledge and experience you gain.

Cheese is very much on my mind at present, because, with cider, it is at the heart of Somerset food and drink, and indeed could be called the heart of Somerset. We are working on our third book, Deepest Somerset, and every day are discovering fascinating places, people, history, and food and drink.

Somerset and Cheddar cheese are synonymous. The hard cow’s milk cheese that takes its name from the village at the end of the world-famous Cheddar gorge is now made all round the world, but the finest and the most authentic Cheddar still comes from Somerset. I had been writing about cheese in general and Cheddar in particular for years, as I had about many aspects of local food and drink. But when we started work on Deepest Somerset, I realised that I knew almost nothing about making cheese. I would bandy the word “cheddaring” about, without really knowing what it meant. So I needed a crash course in Cheddar cheese-making, and where better to go than one of the greatest cheese-makers, just a couple of miles from where we live, Keen’s of Moorhayes Farm near Wincanton.

You can’t learn to make cheese in a morning, but you can learn how it is made, watch the process, admire the strength, technique and skill of the cheese-maker and begin to understand enough of the artistry and alchemy involved to be able to write about it without making too many howling mistakes. Any experienced cheese-maker – whether making a traditional farmhouse Cheddar, a brie or camembert-style soft cheese or a tangy washed rind cheese – will tell you that you never stop learning. There are so many imponderables, unpredictables and variables – the time of year, the weather, the state of the pasture, the quality of the grain or other fodder the cattle eat when they are inside during the winter.

When you spend time with really skilled craftsmen and artisans – whether they are making glass or cheese, fine furniture or gourmet chocolate – you are taken to a different place, one where corners are not cut, where the bottom line is the quality not the price, where time is an essential ingredient not something to be squeezed to death.

We are fortunate in Somerset, and in the West Country in general, to have many skilled artisan makers and craft food and drink producers, creating products that give deep pleasure to the user. But these makers need to be supported by customers, and those customers need to know that they are there.

The barrage of messages that pour out from the marketing machines of global corporations and the double speak of ambitious and often unscrupulous politicians has left many people completely confused about almost every aspect of life. We are told we have more choice, for example, in selecting the electricity or water company to supply our homes, but who has the time to do all the comparisons to make the most effective, affordable and sustainable choice?

We are told that farmers have a heavy responsibility for climate change because of the methane produced by cattle, and undoubtedly the environmentally damaging practices of industrial factory farms in the US, Brazil or China are major contributors, but it’s only half the story. The other story is of the environmental and health benefits of properly produced food, including meat, from real dairy and livestock farmers, smallholders, family farms, peasants and indigenous peoples, whose systems are welfare-friendly, with animals spending most or all of their lives on properly managed pasture. In more affluent areas farmers are increasingly looking to install anaerobic digesters to turn the methane into power and thus contribute to the volume of renewable energy rather than greenhouse gases.

We are sold half-truths, often reinforced by lazy journalism repeating scientific, medical or nutritional “facts” purveyed by PR agencies on behalf of their corporate clients, so that it is almost impossible to know what to believe. This cynical behaviour, further reinforced by the conspiracy theorists, fanatics and evangelists on social media, has led to a situation in which many people no longer believe anything they hear from the media or politicians.

If there is any good to come out of the coronavirus epidemic it may be that the short-term problems will force communities to look at their own facilities, services and abilities, and perhaps restore some faith in public health officials, at least in this country.

It will hopefully build resilience in communities where people will need to look out for their neighbours, and will keep their travelling to a minimum, turning to local shops and businesses, supporting local farmers and producers – helping to keep the truckles turning!