Wookey Hole Cave Aged Cheddar
Cheddar is one of the most popular cheeses in the world—and, as you know, has a wide range of textures and flavours. Unlike cheeses such as Stilton or Taleggio, it is not a protected name; cheddar refers to a method (by which curds are cut into blocks and stacked in inverted piles, which changes the acidity of the curds and thus the flavour) more than an origin, but even then, there are many cheeses that are called cheddars that do not use that process. Some are bound in cloth and waxed (sometimes with lard)—PEI’s own Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar follows that method; others are extruded mechanically into blocks and tend to have a creamier texture (and just to show the difference, Cows’ Extra-Old Cheddar, made by the same company and cheesemaker as Avonlea Clothbound, is one such). There is a British 1966 Codex of Trading Standards that states that cheddars must be under 39% moisture, and that’s it for official standards.
However, Cheddar does have an origin—the Cheddar Gorge and the town of Cheddar in Somerset, in fact—and people are still making traditional cheddars there. There is a ‘West Country’ PDO (“Protected Designation of Origin”), ensuring protection for cheddars made in the counties of Somerset, Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall … but there are a number of artisanal cheddar producers who do not feel that the PDO has an appropriate standard, and have formed their own.
Wookey Hole is a well-known cave in Somerset, currently owned by a former ringmaster and circus owner, which was and has once more become a traditional aging and storage place for cheese some four hundred (and likely many more) years ago. The caves are the ideal temperature for maturing cheese (about 11 degrees C, with high humidity). The cheeses are made in Dorset by Ford Farm on the Ashley Chase estate (and do have the PDO), and matured in the caves for about a year. They are wrapped in cloth and brushed with lard to protect the wheels as they mature (the cloths are removed prior to transport).
The flavours are nutty and round with a slight edge characteristic of a medium-aged cheddar. Try it with a cider or an English ale. Cheddars are a great cooking cheese, of course, delicious with everything from pickled onions to apple pie.
Wensleydale Creamery, Hawes, Yorkshire, England
Usually just referred to as “Wensleydale,” true Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese is made only within the Yorkshire Dales—a splendidly beautiful region (and National Park) in West Yorkshire, just east of the Lake District. The Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes produces approximately 4000 tons of cheese annually, is a major tourism destination, and consider themselves custodians of a thousand-year tradition. (The cheese was originally made by Cistercian monks around 1100; the creamery is very pleased for the cheese to enter its second millennium with European Union geographic protection!) While probably better known as Wallace and Grommit’s favourite cheese, in my family it is ‘our’ cheese—for although my father is from North Yorkshire, one of his cousins used to be a cheesemaker at the Wensleydale Creamery, and it is a necessary cheese for certain holidays, especially Christmas. One year (long before I had a cheese stall) he ended up buying a whole wheel for Christmas … it was substantially larger than our Christmas cake, but didn’t much last longer.
Yorkshire Wensleydale is tangy, crumbly, yet moist cheese. If chalk (famously different from cheese) were delicious, it might be something like Wensleydale. In my family we eat with Christmas cake or other slightly sweet baked goods—scones with raisins, any fruit cake, Welsh bara brith, Eccles cake, or to be seasonal about it, Hot Cross Buns would all be splendid, as indeed something like apple pie or crumble. Naturally, it also goes very well on a cheese plate with dried fruit (dates, dried apricots, dried cherries). Try it with a New World Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc to match the tanginess.
Coombe Castle, England
Saxon Shires is a layered cheese bringing together five famous English cheeses (themselves named after four shires and a gorge): a white Cheddar (Somerset), Red Leicester (Leicestershire), Derby (Derbyshire), Double Gloucester (pale orange, Gloucestershire), and Lancashire (also white). While each of the individual cheeses can be tasted, overall it has the flavour and texture of a sharp cheddar. It is not primarily a cooking cheese, though one could use it in place of a cheddar in a recipe such as cauliflower cheese or pasta. It does look magnificent on a cheese plate. Try it with an English ale or a medium-bodied red wine.
Leicester (pronounced “Lester”—much simpler than it looks from its spelling!) is a city in central England. This is a traditional English cheese, made in a similar fashion to Cheddar, but coloured by annatto (a natural red dye extracted from seeds). The red (or indeed, rather orange-tangerine) interior is its most notable feature; there is no non-red Leicester.
It has a dense, smooth, and almost waxy texture, with a sweet, mellow, nutty flavour. Red Leicester is one of my favourite cheeses to eat on toast, but it is also a nice contribution to a cheese board. It would go nicely with a beer or perhaps even a cider.
Lincolnshire Wolds, England
Unlike some of the famous cheese-making counties of England, Lincolnshire is not known for either its dairies or its cheeses. Simon Jones’ farm, in the Lincolnshire Wolds not far from the sea, is an exception, with lush grass pastures over chalk. His is the fourth generation on the farm, but the first to make cheese from the herd of around 200 Holstein-Friesen cows. The farmers are dedicated to improving the natural environment of their farm for both cows and local wildlife, using windmills, traditional hedgerows, and a minimum of chemicals.
Lincolnshire Poacher is a cross between a traditional cheddar and a mountain cheese such as Comté. It is made from unpasteurized cow’s milk. It is hard, straw-coloured, and with a rind that looks somewhat like rough stone. It is aged for 14 to 16 months and has a strong upfront flavour with a lingering taste. While utterly delicious on its own, its makers comment that it is a great cooking cheese—try in place of Parmigiano on pasta or use to make a wonderful cauliflower cheese.
Try it paired with strong beer or a red wine such as Shiraz.