Small-Batch Bandaged Cheddars of the Midwest

The long hot month of August can be a slow time in the world of specialty cheese retail, so we cheesemongers spend extra time thinking of clever ways to encourage customers to keep buying cheese. That’s why one day last week, the cheese counter at Metcalfe’s Market-Hilldale turned into an impromptu Battle of the Bandaged Cheddars, after a customer asked to try several to see which she liked best.

In an exquisite stroke of good timing, cheesemaker Willi Lehner had just that morning arrived with two wheels of his Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar. The wheels were placed in the walk-in next to two new truckles of the elusive Fayette Creamery Avondale Truckle. And, because all good things come in threes, one of our favorite distributors the day before had delivered two long-awaited Flory’s Truckles from the same batch that in July won a blue ribbon at the American Cheese Society competition.

The stars had aligned, creating a trifecta of Midwestern bandaged cheddar goodness. We started stripping wheels of their larded linen and cutting wedges to taste and sell.

From left: Flory’s Truckle, Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar, Avondale Truckle.
Photo by Uriah Carpenter

 A quick break for a public service announcement on bandaged cheddars: while it is undisputed that cheddar was born in the middle ages in the town of Cheddar in Somerset, England, the origin of bandaged cheddar is a bit murkier. Read this column from Culture Magazine for the scoop. In any case, all cheddar, regardless of aging style, starts in the same way. After starter culture is added to the milk, and rennet separates curds from whey, the curd is cut and the whey drained off. The mass of curds left behind are then cheddared, milled, hooped and pressed into forms. After the cheese has set, wheels are coated in lard and wrapped in cotton cloth. Each cheesemaker generally has a signature way of wrapping his or her cheddar. Wheels are then placed in a cool, humidity-controlled aging room for six months to two years, depending on the desired flavor profile. By the time the aging process is complete, bacteria has completely consumed the lard coating, leaving a mottled, aromatic rind in its place once the cloth is removed. Bandaged cheddar has a drier, crumblier texture than a waxed or plastic-wrapped cheddar. But what it lacks in body, it makes up for with a more complex flavor profile of caramel, fruity and earthy notes, which trend toward grassy and earthy flavors closer to the rind.

In England, a handful of cheesemakers still make traditional, clothbound cheddar. You can read about three of them in these posts from my 2014 cheddar journey to Somerset County: Montgomery’s Cheddar, Quicke’s Cheddar, Westcombe Cheddar. In the U.S., some of the most awarded and well-known cheeses are bandaged cheddars, including Cabot Clothbound in Vermont and Fiscalini Bandaged Cheddar in California.

But I digress. Back to our Battle of Bandaged Cheddars at the Metcalfe’s specialty cheese counter.

The undisputed winner (according to the customer, whom we all know is always right): Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar. Cheesemaker Willi Lehner gets a lot of good press, all of it deserved, and is considered by many to be a living legend when it comes to making artisan cheese. With no cheese factory of his own, he makes cheese at four different factories, and then ages it in an underground cheese cave he built on his farm near Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, in 2007. In 2013, his Bandaged Cheddar took runner-up Best in Show at the American Cheese Society competition. The rind is delightfully musty and cave-y, and once cracked open, emits aromas of earth and pineapple. The cool thing about most bandaged cheddars is they taste nothing like how their rind smells – a good bandaged cheddar is nutty, with hints of fruit on the finish, with calcium lactate crystals dotting the paste. Blue Mont Bandaged Cheddar is one of the best. The wheel we tasted was about 18 months old and perfect.

Tied for first runner up: Fayette Creamery Avondale Truckle. The Avondale Truckle is absolutely a beautiful cheese. Fayette Creamery (also known as Brunkow Cheese) is owned by Karl and Mary Geissbuhler near Darlington, Wisconsin. In 2007, the pair, along with cheesemaker and marketer Joe Burns, worked with a world-renowned consultant to create the recipe and a special mold for this elegant, extra tall, drum-shaped cheese. The cloth-wrapped cheddar is aged in Brunkow’s hand-dug cellar for 6 to 18 months and is made from milk sourced from Lafayette County dairy farms. Round and buttery in its youth, Avondale Truckle develops a full, layered flavor and wild, earthy aromas as it matures. The bandage had been removed on the truckles we received, so it was hard to get a gauge of the cheese’s age, but I would guess it’s on the younger side, because fruity and floral notes shine through. Most Avondale Truckles are sold in the Chicago market, so we are super lucky to get a taste of this elusive cheese in Madison.

Tied for first runner up: Flory’s Truckle. At this point, you’re probably asking yourself: “what the hell is a truckle and why don’t I have one?” In old English, a truckle means cylinder shape. Flory’s version is shorter than Fayette Creamery’s truckle, and is produced on a dairy farm near Jamesport, Missouri by Tim and Jennifer Flory. The couple has ten children and 30 Jersey cows. After aging 60 days on the farm, Flory’s truckles move to Milton Creamery in Iowa, where they spend the next 10 months being turned three times a week. Similar to Bleu Mont’s Bandaged Cheddar, this cheese is exceptionally creamy and fruity with just-the-right-amount of earthy notes creeping in from the rind. This is another cheese that’s hard to find, so to have it on the shelf next to Avondale and Bleu Mont is a cheesemonger’s dream come true.

Cesar’s Bandaged Cheddar
Photo by Uriah Carpenter

Of course, no post on small-batch bandaged cheddars would be complete without mentioning Cesar’s new Bandaged Cheddar. You may be familiar with Cesar Luis’ World Champion hand-stretched Queso Oaxaca that he and wife Heydi cut into sticks for us Americans to eat as string cheese. The Wisconsin pair of licensed cheesemakers recently branched out to harder cheeses, including bandaged cheddar. Cesar’s creamy cheddar lacks the fruity and floral notes one might expect of a bandaged wheel, but replaces them with brothy, herbal and earthy notes, highlighting the aroma of the rind. We sampled it one day last week for a few hours at Metcalfe’s and promptly sold half of the 25-pound wheel. Only a few wheels of this unicorn cheese exist, but Cesar says he will be making more. Stay tuned.

Why Cheddar Here Tastes Different

In his book, Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese, California author Gordon Edgar argues Wisconsinites take cheese for granted. With hundreds of cheese factories, thousands of dairy farms, and daily proximity to fresh cheese curds, we are spoiled with an abundance of good cheese.

There’s no doubt he’s right. All one needs to do is listen to someone from Arizona complain about living in a “cheese desert” to make us natives better appreciate living in America’s Dairyland. Of Wisconsin’s 600 types, styles and varieties, no cheese better defines Wisconsin better than Cheddar. After all, of the 129 cheese factories in the state, almost half make Cheddar. That’s 561 million pounds of just one type of cheese every single year.

Not only do Wisconsin cheesemakers produce a boatload of cheddar, they make it in a variety of ways. Some mass-produce florescent orange 640-pound blocks and sell it to storage houses, where it is cured in mammoth wooden boxes from floor to ceiling, and then cut and shrink-wrapped into 8-oz bars and labeled for grocery store shelves as mild and medium Cheddar.

Others, such as Land O’ Lakes in Kiel, Wis., make award-winning Cheddar in 40-pound blocks, sell it to brokers and distributors, who contract the aging of the cheese, and at the right time, sell it to grocery stores under a variety of private companies as sharp cheddar.

And yet others, such as the folks at Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point, Wis., craft 40-pound blocks of both orange and white Cheddar, age it in below-ground cold rooms for up to 20 years, and proudly sell it under their own name. Other artisans, like Willi Lehner, at Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mounds, Wis., craft Cheddar in 12-pound wheels, and then bandage and lard each wheel before aging it a year in an underground cave.

Wisconsin cheesemaker Willi Lehner. Photo by Becca Dilley.

In short, Cheddar in Wisconsin comes in every size, shape and age imaginable. But the difference in the taste of that Cheddar can be significant, and is attributable not only to the forms used or aging techniques, but to the region in which it was made. Ask any old timer with Cheddar still stuck in his teeth, and he’ll tell you how Cheddar used to taste different from one factory to the next, in just a 10-mile radius. Today, thanks to modern science and curious minds, distinct flavor differences are being recorded between Cheddar made in western Wisconsin’s Driftless Region and in eastern Wisconsin’s glaciated region.

The soils in the Driftless region are ancient – dominated by red clays and thousands of years of prairie grass roots that have decomposed into a thick rich mass, with soil type names such as Fayette and Dubuque. Dr. Jerry Tyler, Emeritus Professor of Soil Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that in the 1800s, the first European settlers likely had between 20 and 30 years of “free” nitrogen built into the soil, resulting in decades of above-average wheat farming before fertilizer was even available. “It would have taken a pretty awful farmer to fail in those days,” says Tyler.

Compare this to the glaciated, eastern part of the state, which is dominated by flat plains, rolling hills, and a nearly 1,000-mile-long cliff that begins in east-central Wisconsin and ends at Niagara Falls. While the soils in the Driftless Region are millions of years old, the state’s eastern soils are only 12,000 years old and filled with till, left behind by debris-rich glacier ice. These soils carry names such as Miami, Dodge and Casco, and the soil’s chemistry is vastly different from the red clays to the west. Different soil chemistry results in different grasses grown in each region. And different grass produces different milk. Because, after all, in time, grass becomes milk. The only thing standing in between is the cow.

Photo courtesy of Bert Paris, PastueLand Cooperative

Bert Paris is a dairy farmer near Belleville, Wis., in the Driftless Region of the state. His cows are pasture grazed, and he spends much time cultivating his pastures so cows have the best grasses to eat, as his milk is made into yogurt, cheese and butter for PastureLand. He is convinced that the quality of grass is directly tied to the quality of milk, and that the quality of grass comes from the quality of the soil, groundwater and climate.

“I plant primarily orchard and brome grass with some red and white clover,” Paris says. “We plant these because they are persistent and manageable in our area. My pastures are old enough that we have native forages and grasses mixed in to create a salad bar of sorts. Cows enjoy this mixture more so than a monoculture of one or two grasses.”

Compare Paris’ pasture to the pastures at Saxon Homestead Farm, on the eastern part of the state near Cleveland, Wis. Brothers Robert and Karl Klessig pasture their herd, and their milk is made into cheese for Saxon Creamery. Like Paris, they plant orchard and brome grass, but also mix in perennial rye grass, timothy, reed canary, meadow fescue, and others.

Cows on pasture at Saxon Homestead Farm. Photo by Becca Dilley.

“Our pastures consist of a very diverse mix of both cool season grasses – both wild and improved, as well as legumes,” Robert says. “Lake Michigan plays a role in our environment. The summertime cool, east winds and morning dew have an impact on the vegetation and cattle.”

The different climates, soils and grasses from each region produce slightly different milk, farmers say, which in turn, cheesemakers argue, creates slightly different cheese. For example, Cheesemaker Tony Hook, who has made cheese in western Wisconsin since 1970, has had the same farmer patrons for 40 years. That means the same farmers – all of whom pasture their cows — have sent him milk for four decades. Grass-fed milk is literally all Tony has ever known.

“I’m a big believer that our sweet soils and limestone water make a difference in the pastures and the quality of the milk we get,” Hook says. In fact, Hook says his favorite months of the year to make cheese are in May and June, when cows are put on fresh grass for the first time, and then again in November, when cows are in the barn, but eating the best hay made from dried grass and legumes of the season.

Compare Hook’s experiences with Chris Gentine, owner of The Artisan Cheese Exchange in Sheboygan, Wis., who hand selects 40-pound blocks made at Land O’ Lakes in Kiel for his Double AA Grade Cheddar program sold under his Deer Creek label.

“I’ve always liked cheddars made in the Kiel region,” Gentine says. “The micro climate of Lake Michigan, combined with the pastures between Port Washington and Kewaunee are something special. The soil is more rocky versus the black earth of southwest Wisconsin. I’m convinced that if you made Deer Creek Cheddar in Green County, it would be a different piece of cheese.”

More science is needed to identify specific flavor components of Cheddar made in eastern and western Wisconsin. For now, consumers have the distinct pleasure of trying to discern that difference for themselves.

If you’re interested in tasting the difference between a variety of cheddars made in Wisconsin, please join me for the first class in a new Spring series I’ll be teaching at Metcalfe’s West Café in Madison. My special guest will be Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills, owner of Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee, and Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain. Bob’s been telling me for years there’s a difference in cheddar across the state. Here’s the class description:

April 19: Why Cheddar Here Tastes Different
Ask any old timer with Cheddar still stuck in his teeth, and he’ll tell you Cheddar used to taste different from one local factory to the next. Today, thanks to modern science, distinct flavor differences are being recorded between Cheddar made in western Wisconsin’s Driftless Region and in eastern Wisconsin’s glaciated region. Discover four different Wisconsin Cheddars, from aged block Cheddar, to Bandaged Cheddar to Cheddar made in 22-pound “daisy” wheels, to Cheddar Blue.

We’ll meet in the cafe at Metcalfe’s West Towne at 7455 Mineral Point Road. Arrive at 6:45 pm to order your complimentary drink and get settled by 7 p.m. Class is limited to 20 attendees and costs $22. Purchase in advance at: www.WisconsinCheeseOriginals.com

New Cheese Classes Announced in Madison

Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board

Looking for a fun way to taste and learn about artisan cheese? Bummed because most of the Wisconsin Cheese Originals cheese classes at the Firefly Coffeehouse in Oregon are sold out for 2016? Fear not! I’ve just announced a new spring cheese class series at Metcalfe’s West Café in Madison.

Each of the spring classes will be held on Tuesday nights and each revolves around a specific topic, including why Cheddar tastes different in Wisconsin, a look at the science and art of cheese rinds, and the terroir of Alpine style cheeses. You’ll enjoy a tasting and storytelling of four artisan cheeses, as well as a complimentary blended drink, coffee or beverage made by the fine folks at Metcalfe’s West Café.

We’ll meet in the spacious new cafe area at Metcalfe’s West Towne at 7455 Mineral Point Road. Be sure to arrive at 6:45 pm to order your drink and get settled by 7 p.m. Classes are limited to 20 attendees. Each class costs $22 and seats must be reserved in advance at www.WisconsinCheeseOriginals.com

Here’s the line-up: 

April 19
Why Cheddar Here Tastes Different

Cheddar in Wisconsin comes in every size and age imaginable. But the difference in taste can be significant, and is attributable not only to the forms used or aging techniques, but to the region in which it was made. Ask any old timer with Cheddar still stuck in his teeth, and he’ll tell you Cheddar used to taste different from one local factory to the next. Today, thanks to modern science, distinct flavor differences are being recorded between Cheddar made in western Wisconsin’s Driftless Region and in eastern Wisconsin’s glaciated region. Discover four different Wisconsin Cheddars, from aged block Cheddar, to Bandaged Cheddar to Cheddar made in 22-pound “daisy” wheels, to Cheddar Blue.

May 17
Relishing the Rind

To eat or not to eat? ‘Tis the age-old question of cheese rinds. In this class, we’ll explore different types of cheese rinds: from bloomy mold on Brie, to ash on surface ripened cheeses, to natural rinds on Alpine-style and washed rinds on stinky cheese. And of course, we’ll taste exquisite examples of each. Learn more about the science and art that cheesemakers must undertake to create a beautiful and edible rind.

June 21
Alpine Style Cheeses: The Taste of Terroir

Why do cheeses made in the mountains of France and Switzerland taste different than cheeses made elsewhere? Is it the alpage grasses, the techniques of making cheese, or hundreds of years of experience? We’ll taste two European Alpine cheeses and two Wisconsin Alpine-style cheeses and compare to see if cheesemakers in America’s Dairyland can match the terroir – or taste of place – of the Alps.

Thousands Descend Upon Festival of Cheese in Providence

With more than 1,400 cheeses to try at last night’s Festival of Cheese – the annual culmination of the American Cheese Society conference and competition – cheese lovers from around the world descended upon dozens of tables filled with cheeses sorted by category: flavored, fresh, farmstead, smoked, washed-rind, blues, international style, American originals, Italian-style, soft-ripened, cheddar and more, all in a quest to taste every cheese possible.

Some succeeded. Many failed. The rest of us are still in a cheese coma.

For me, one of the best parts of the annual Festival of Cheese is volunteering to prep the event. As usual, my husband and I were in charge of the cheddar table. Our mission: sort, cut, prep and tray 119 cheddar cheeses of every shape, color, variety and size, onto only seven tables. With one of the best volunteer crews ever assembled, we did it in just over six hours.

Here’s a look at the process:

8 AM: Uriah and I pose for a selfie to remember how energetic we looked before shepherding hundreds of cheeses from cooler truck to speed rack to cutting tables to plating:

9 AM: three of my awesome volunteers starting to cut and plate cheddar. I always encourage my team to get creative in cutting and traying the cheeses, because after all, how often are we encouraged to play with our food?

10 AM: beginning to sort where the cheeses will land:

NOON: Here’s a portion of our table, about halfway through the process. Time for lunch:

2:30 PM: We are almost done – just have to fluff up the tables with crackers, flowers and fruit. Time to take a team photo:

4 PM: And, it’s showtime. Here’s a glimpse of just a portion of our magnificent cheddar tables, with my hand-carved “cheddar mountains”. Gosh, playing with cheese is fun:

Of course, the main perk of attending the Festival of Cheese is getting to try all the winning cheeses, including the Best of Show winners. Here they are, in all their glory:

It’s also fun people-watching – here’s a shot of U.S. Champion Cheesemaker Cecylia Szewczyk taking a photo of one of her many award-winning cheeses before the crowds arrive. The girl just keeps racking up the cheese awards:

Every year, I try to find the most unusual cheese at the event, and this year was no exception. This creative cheesemaker decided to insert a lemon into the middle of his cheese. Not surprisingly, the cheese was lemony in flavor:

If you missed this year’s Festival of Cheese, fear not! The event will be repeated again next year, this time in Des Moines, Iowa. I look forward to seeing you there in 2016!

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

Hooks Donate $40,000 from 20-Year Cheddar

During the next few days, you’re going to hear a lot about Hook’s 20-year Cheddar.

You’re going to hear about how it debuted at a fancy dinner at L’Etoile in downtown Madison, where three James Beard award-winning chefs prepared a seven-course dinner for 70 people.

You’re going to hear about how expensive it is – $209 a pound – and how there’s very little to be had, because most of it is pre-sold or already reserved.

You’re going to hear about how surprisingly creamy it is for a 20-year piece of Cheddar, and how the calcium lactate crystals crunch in your mouth like pop rocks. And guess what? All of these things are true.

What you’re likely to hear less about, is that tonight, Tony and Julie Hook donated $40,000 – half of all proceeds from their 20-year cheddar — to the new Babcock Hall/Center for Dairy Research Building Fund at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“I said when we started this, that if I got a cheddar to make it to 20 years, I’d donate half the money to the Center for Dairy Research,” Tony said. “Well, I meant it. We’re proud of the work they’re doing and looking forward to a new facility.”

Ground is expected to be broken this summer on the new Babcock Hall, which will be a state-of-the-art facility at UW-Madison with 20,000 square feet dedicated to a new Center for Dairy Research and dairy processing space with specialty ripening rooms to manufacture and experiment with mold and surface ripened cheeses. The building is expected to be finished in 2018.

Many, many thanks to the Hook’s team for making such an amazing cheese and for their generosity to the the industry. And a big thank you to chefs Tory Miller, Justin Aprahamian and Justin Carlisle for a fabulous dinner with seven courses featuring Hook’s Cheddar from young to old.

First off, all three chefs each created a cheese curd dish: top right with Kimchi by Miller, bottom with pesto and pickled rhubarb by Aprahamian, and left with truffles, Buddha’s hand and koshu from Carlisle.

Next, Miller created a 2-year Hook’s Cheddar “nacho” with chorizo, picled jalapeno and cilantro.

The first official course (the previous were bonus starter courses) was charred asparagus, rhubarb-hickory nut salumera and shaved 5-year Hook’s Cheddar from Miller.

Second course was one of my top 10 favorite dishes ever: Hook’s 10-Year Cheddar soup, with pepper, beer vinegar, popcorn wafers and chives by Carlisle.

Third course: 15-year Hook’s Cheddar with roasted veal breast, apricot and turnip by Aprahamian. One of our table mates had to stop mid-chew because he was “having a moment” and never wanted this dish to end.

Cheese course: Hook’s 20-year Cheddar. The dining room applauded after the first taste (and Wisconsin Foodie recorded our reactions).

Dessert: curd cheesecake with rhubarb, meringue, basil and delicious mystery pink ice by Carlisle.

Many, many thanks to all three chefs, L’Etoile, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and the Hook’s Cheese team for making tonight’s dinner happen. Wisconsin salutes you!

On Location: Fighting Cheese Mites at Quickes Dairy

Quickes Dairy Sales Manager Tom Chatfield demos the
Mite Buster for us. Tom is just
about the nicest, most efficient
and one of the youngest sales managers in the business. I kept
wanting to feed him a cookie.

Ever since hearing stories from Wisconsin cheesemaker Bruce Workman about the fun of shrink wrapping random objects in a cheese cryovac machine, my husband has always dreamed of having his very own. Here’s a typical conversation — Me: what do we need a cryovac machine for? Husband: Who doesn’t need a cryovac machine?

Well today, I’ve found a new random object to covet that would make anyone jealous: Mary Quicke’s Amazing Mite Buster.

What is a Mite Buster, you ask? Well, for those of you not in the cheese mite know, it is a handy dandy plastic hut big enough to hold a pallet of 50-pound wheels of bandaged cheddar. The cheddar is sprayed with a wand of high pressured air, blowing off pesky cheese mites, which tend to populate, settle in and eat the mold on bandaged cheeeses. The super duper hut is hooked up to a vacuum contraption, which sucks up the mites and leads to their untimely death. It’s genius. Sheer genius.

“Cheesemakers used to use a gas to get rid of the mites, but it was banned by the E.U. in 2009 because it was damaging the ozone layer,” Quickes Dariy Sales Manager Tom Chatfield told us. “We scrambled for a new solution until Mary came up with the Mite Buster. She even sent the schematics to all of the UK bandaged cheddar makers, but no one else adopted it.”

Why they didn’t is a really good question, because after watching employees vacuuming bandaged cheddars for hours at other cheese “stores” – I finally figured out this is the English term for a cheese aging facility; what we call a store in the US is called a shop in the UK – I find it fairly sad that it took me four days to get this straight – the Mite Buster seems pretty freaking efficient. It’s simply one example of the innovative Mary Quicke revolutionizing the cheddar community in England.

Mary Quicke with a salad she handpicked from her garden
this morning especially for us at lunch at her dairy. Yum!

We met Mary today at Quickes Traditional Artisan Cheddars in Devon County, England for a tour of the cheese plant and dairy farm. Mary is the 14th generation of Quickes to farm land that’s been in her family for 450 years. She oversees an operation that includes 1,200 acres and 450 milking cows.

Fifteen years ago, she made two controversial decisions for what was then basically the good old boys club of southwest England: she decided to develop the Quicke’s cow: a mixture of Kiwi Friesian, Swedish Red and Montbeliarde, because she believed the cross-breed would be hardy, fertile, long-lived, and produce the kind of milk she wanted for cheesemaking. She went a step further and put all of her cows out to pasture 10 months a year, using a method similar to the Wisconsin version of intensive managed grazing. Today, her freestall barns stand empty except for the harshest months of winter: January and February.

The result, says lead cheesemaker Malcolm Mitchell, has been dramatic. “We’ve always made good cheese,” he told us today. “But we haven’t always made good cheese consistently. The breeding and grazing practices Mary implemented has changed all that.”

The “cheese store” at Quickes Dairy. I’m slowly figuring out English lingo.

Malcolm would know. He’s worked as a cheesemaker at Quickes Dairy for 31 years. He and his staff, like most every other English bandaged cheddar maker, use bulk starter cultures and five different starter strains to avoid bacteriaphage, which can destroy the heritage starter cultures that have been collected, propagated and used in Somerset and Devon counties for more than a century.

All cheeses at Quickes Dairy are pasteurized. Cheesemakers uses four, 1,000 gallon vats and three cheddaring tables to make cheddar five days a week. The dairy is perhaps best known for its Quickes Mature Cheddar, which at one year old, is rich and buttery, much creamier than other English bandaged cheddars. Mary talks about her goal of creating what she calls a 10 mile cheddar: “Drive 10 miles and you can still taste it,” she says.

The cheddaring process at Quickes Dairy.

Quickes Dairy also makes several other cheddars, including its Quickes Buttery, a 3-month cheddar that’s twice taken Best Cheddar and beaten cheeses twice its age at the British Cheese Awards since 2009. There’s also Extra Mature cheddar, which is 18 months old, Vintage Cheddar – two years old, and Oak Smoked Cheddar, which is cold smoked for 18 hours. The Quickes also buy goat and sheep’s milk from local farmers, and make hard goat and sheep milk cheeses, as well as whey butter.

In good news, you may already be eating Quickes Cheddar without even knowing it. I’ll let you in on a little secret: if you’ve ever purchased Borough Market Cheddar at Whole Foods, you’re actually eating Quickes Cheddar, thanks to Neal’s Yard Dairy, who purchases it and then exports it to Whole Foods in the United States using the Borough Market label. You’ll also find it under the Quickes label at specialty cheese stores buying it direct from Neal’s Yard Dairy in London.

Thanks so much to Mary, Tom and niece Lucy Quicke – the 15th generation of Quicke farmers – for hosting us today and showing off your tremendous cheese operation. We can’t wait to eat it back in the U.S.!

The Cheese Geek demonstrates her strength by hoisting
a fake 50-pound wheel of Quickes Cheddar.

On Location: Duckett’s Aged Caerphilly at Westcombe Dairy

Westcombe Cheesemaker Tom Calver stands in the
doorway to the family’s underground Caerphilly aging
cellar in Somerset County, England.

Perhaps without even realizing it, a maverick, next generation cheesemaker at Westcombe Dairy is rapidly changing the face of Old World cheesemaking in Somerset, England, bringing a fresh perspective and energy to the region’s traditional cheeses.

While cheesemaker Tom Calver may be best known for making Westcombe Traditional Farmhouse Cheddar – one of only three unpasteruized farmhouse cheddars left in England – today, he also crafts the amazing Duckett’s Aged Caerphilly. The cheese is named for the late cheesemaker Chris Duckett, who taught Calver how to make the cheese before passing away in 2009. Just a year before, Calver, a trained chef, had fulfilled the role of prodigal son and returned to his family’s dairy after an apprenticeship at Neal’s Yard Dairy. He’s since become the dairy’s well-known lead cheesemaker, changing up the family’s signature cheeses and creating new traditions.

While Duckett’s Aged Caerphilly was always good, Tom’s taken what is historically a Welsh cheese to a new level by converting one of the historic family home’s cellars into a dedicated Caerphilly aging room and diverting a spring through it to create the perfect temperature and humidity for the cheese’s maturation.

Contrary to much of the horrible plastic Caerphilly cheese that we get in the United States, this real deal Caerphilly is rich with a clean lactic tang and flavors of fresh mushroom and citrus. Tasting it here in England has made me finally understand what all the fuss is about with this English cheese. The folks at Neal’s Yard Dairy know this, too: “It’s a tricky cheese to get right, but when everything comes together in concert, the result is magnificent, and this cheese stands among the finest in the world.”

Duckett’s Caerphilly, perfected by Tom Calver.

Of course when you point out this high praise to Tom, he generally looks fairly sheepish, shrugs his shoulders and contests he doesn’t know what all the fuss is about. He’d rather spend time thinking up new ways to make old recipes better than take credit for what he’s already done right.

Case in point: while few would argue it’s hard to improve upon the family’s traditional Westcombe Cheddar, a bandaged 50-pound drum of pure beauty, Calver is executing steps to take the cheese to the next level. He’s using less starter culture and slowing down the make time, letting the milk and curd speak to him, rather than following a strict timing schedule that traditional Cheddar makers have adhered to for years.

During our visit today, he also unveiled a complicated scheme to change the way the curd for Westcombe Traditional Farmhouse Cheddar is cheddared, which involves a series of wooden plates and cheese cloths somehow pressed down on the slabs of curd. After attempting to demonstrate this new technique, he was basically greeted with a general look of WTF? from his American visitors. Of course, Calver was not phased by our skepticism even a tiny bit.

“My number one goal is to create a better texture, which will lead to a better flavor,” he said. “My perfect texture is one that is al dente and a bit bitey. I’m going to do whatever it takes to get the cheese just right.”

The current aging cellars for Westcombe Traditional
Farmhouse Cheddar.

Getting cheese just right is something Westcombe Dairy has been succeeding with for years. The company was launched in 1890 by Edith Cannon, whose traditional Cheddar was legendary in the region. In the early 1900s, records show a “Mr. and Mrs. Brickell” took over the farm and dairy, continuing to make cheddar. The second generation of Brickells grew the business in the 20th Century to include several neighboring farms and ramped up production.

Even the World Wars could not stop Westcombe Cheddar. The cheese not only survived the wars, it flourished in the decades of austerity that followed. During the 1960s, Richard Calver, Tom’s father, joined the business as a partner, and to compete in the rapidly expanding industrial age, transitioned the company into making block cheddar and modernized the cheese factory. It wasn’t until the artisan cheese renaissance of the late 1990s that the family reverted back to traditional bandaged big wheels. Today, Tom Calver continues the family quest to make superb, unpasteurized, bandaged cheddar wheels rivaled only by his counterparts, Jamie Montgomery and Keen’s Farmhouse Cheddar. I would say he is succeeding.

And in further news, father and son Calver are contemplating expanding the dairy by building a 100-foot tunnel into the hill behind their cheesrie that will house an American “Jasper Hill-esque” type of aging facility. The expansion would allow the family to produce more cheese and expand further into the American export market.

“The excitement of the Americans towards cheese is infectious,” Tom told us today. “You’re looking for more flavor and more aged cheese, and we want to send more of that type of cheese your way.” 

Bring it on, Tom!