The Cheeseboard – Cave Aged Cheddar

foodbasket-cheeseboardTHERE’s something afoot in the world of cheddar. Not the discovery that the Witch of Wookey Hole is real; but something with far greater implications.

This year sees the British Cheese Awards taking place within the Bath and West show. Both events have been behemoths of the British Cheese scene – Bath and West specialising in the Cheddars for which its region is justly famed (although all-comers are welcome), and the British Cheese Awards particularly championing the artisan producers that have sprung up in the past 20 years or so.

The merger of the events has clearly been a challenge for both parties, but I understand that give and take has worked to deliver the best of both. I’m judging there on Tuesday 27th May, so will be able to see for myself.

One area that is of particular interest to me is how cheddars are to be judged. Cheddar is made in two forms – Trad. and Block. The description “Trad.” relates not to the way in which the cheese is made, but its shape – a cylindrical truckle. Block is the oblong shape that portions easily for supermarkets. One award that is a fixture of cheese competitions in Agricultural shows is the dressing of a Trad – a class that the British Cheese Awards will embrace for the first time this year.

It’s the creation of a “Modern” Cheddar class that is likely to provoke most debate. A couple of years ago Ford Farm’s Wookey Hole Cave Aged Cheddar walked away with the BCA’s Best Cheddar crown, causing mumblings in the coterie of old school cheddar fans. We’re not talking Sir Alex or Jose Mourinho type strops, but a certain sense of unease about the award. Why?

Quite simply, Cave Aged Cheddar uses an additional starter culture from the cheddars of yesteryear. Starter culture is the magic mix, a microbiological culture which performs fermentation. Cave Aged, amongst others, uses Lactobacillus Helveticus in its starter culture mix, which delivers a sweeter flavour, slightly reminiscent of the alpine cheeses. There’s still the glorious cheddar tang in there, but the sweetness it gives is perceived to be more popular with the modern palate, particularly in the USA. Traditionalists agree that the cheeses taste good, but as one maker said to me: “It’s good, but not really cheddar.”

The West Country Farmhouse PDO, which protects the provenance of our most famous dairy product, doesn’t outlaw the sweeter varieties, but this year it seems that the BCA will be putting the Helveticus cheeses into a different “Modern Cheddar’ category.

I’ll let you know what transpires after the judging!

Justin Tunstall, Town Mill Cheesemonger, Lyme Regis