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And suddenly it’s the Easter weekend, and April again, and again – still! – sooo much uncertainty ahead of us. Which is why we need at least a sturdy cheese, one that provides that friendly nudge, tells you to keep swimming and smiling, slaps his arm around your sagging shoulders, and gives you a push, like a fresh gust of April tailwind on your morning run. Sturdy means: reliable, unfussy and yet not boring, just good – such as the Calver family’s Westcombe cheddar from the lush green pastures of Somerset, halfway from London to Cornwall..
Solid wheels of around 25 kilogram, tightly bandaged in linen that in the course of the twelve months of maturation is overgrown by a fine carpet of grey, blue and white cultures. The aroma of the soft, yet flaky yellow paste is intensely milky, almost juicy, like walking on those Somerset pastures, along a small stream with the season’s first green and life. Under the bandaged rind the smell is earthy, more serious, grown-up, of roots such as parsnips and horseradish. On the palate it’s surprisingly creamy, the characteristic cheddar acidity finely balanced by a touch of sweetness, like in a good salad dressing.
The Calvers (Richard and Tom and their respective families are a strong two generation team), together with Jamie Montgomery and George Keen are what I call the English Farmhouse Cheddar triumvirate, in spite of their somewhat different histories. When after decades of decline in the early 1980s British cheese showed the first signs of revival, the last remnants of traditional knowledge salvaged by dedicated merchants such as Randolph “Neal’s Yard Dairy’ Hodgson as well as Patrick Rance and James Alridge, the Calvers had been some way down the road to quick growth. But as Jamie Montgomery in 1998 started to market his cheeses himself and under his own name, they reconverted their production to raw milk, and Tom reorientated his professional career from London’s top kitchens to cheese, staging at Nea’s Yard Dairy. Today he’s managing production at Westcombe, and tackling many challenges head-on. Amongst them are cheese mites (something we discussed here with the Cironé a couple of months ago), little critters who love the relatively dry bandaged rinds. Unchecked they eat their way into the wheels, creating fissures then taken over by mould (though this can make for intriguing new aromas). Westcombe has not only a new temperature controlled ripening room, but also the very first vacuum robot: “Tina the Turner” turns the wheels while vacuuming the mites off.
The old and the new, the familiar and the odd stuff, the warm sun of spring and cold gusts – stay lighthearted and nimble, and enjoy the good things, my dear ones.
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