A visit to Hampshire cheeses

I’ve been a bit absent lately. It’s been hectic finishing up work and packing up our life in London. But, before leaving, I got the chance to visit Hampshire Cheeses.

It still surprises me that in the space of 45 minutes, you can can go from the stop-start mess of south-west London traffic to the crisp winter green of the countryside, in this case, the village of Herriard.

Herriard is the home of Hampshire Cheeses, a small artisan cheese company that produces Tunworth, a soft white mould, Camembert-style cheese. Started by Stacey Hodges, it has grown from a home-based beginnings to a much larger, purpose-built facility. Still a small operation, a team of 5 do everything by hand: the cheese-making, salting, turning, packaging and…the extensive and essential cleaning.

When I arrived at around 9.30am, work had already been underway for a few hours, with yesterday’s cheeses removed from their moulds, salted and placed into the drying room. Today’s milk had also been collected from a nearby farm, warmed and cultured and was ready to be pumped into the waiting troughs and renneted.

Once the rennet was added, the waiting began. So as the curds set over a number of hours, the focus shifted to wrapping and packaging cheeses made a few weeks before. Boxing cheeses sounds simple enough but I definitely fail on efficiency (I think I was probably boxing 3 cheeses compared to 10).

Back in the cheese-making room, once the curds had a clean break it was time for cutting, stirring and moulding. It was so different to see this on a real scale (my 5 litre pot in the kitchen doesn’t even compare) and so much more physical. With clean arms, I was able to reach into the warm whey and separate the small pieces curds, breaking up the larger chunks and ensuring movement.

Hundreds of molds were piled up and as fast as the curds are poured in, they drop, expelling why into the waiting trays and drains. Once they are all full, they sit and settle, before being flipped over the drain evenly. They’ll stay this way overnight, waiting for the process to begin again.

Seeing cheese production on a real scale was a great and I want to say thank you to Stacey, Charlotte, Neil, Sharon and Danny for letting me try to help and answering my many questions. It makes me realise how far my cheese-making has to go.

An English and Welsh cheese tasting

I tend to talk about cheese at work. A lot. So, having made everyone listen to me and having inflicted the smells of my various purchases, I tried to make up for it by holding a tasting night.

We worked out way through eight cheeses from England and Wales (the 9th piece above was one of my Camemberts), starting with a fresh English goats cheese from the Cotswolds called Cerney. Ash-coated and only a week old, this was fresh, lightly lemony and mild

The soft-cheese representative was one of my favourite cheeses of 2011: Tunworth. A full,meaty camembert style cheese – it is creamy, slightly firm and leaves an almost cabbagy flavour in your mouth. It was met with almost universal love from my colleagues.

We moved onto some semi-hard and hard cheeses next. We started with Gorwydd Caerphilly, with its layers of texture and taste from the fresh and firm centre through to the smoother paste edges and the rind. This was followed by Sparkenhoe Red Leicester, which was mellow and nutty  and Pendragon, a firm buffalo-milk cheese made in Somerset that has a clean and mild taste. Wanting to offer something a bit sharper, we  ended the hard cheeses with a Montgomery Cheddar.

Oxford Isis was next up. I first tasted this cheese at this year’s British Cheese Awards and, as often occurs with washed-rind cheeses, the smell is enough to put some people off, but once you pass through, it becomes a much milder, with an earthy bite with just a touch of bitterness.

The final cheese of the night was Beenleigh blue. This ewes milk cheese can look quite white and may be missing the strong vein-lines you see in many other blues but don’t let this mislead you. It is salty, tangy and crumbly but almost sticky at the same time.

So what was the verdict from the night?

Overall favourites: Beenleigh Blue and Tunworth

Best matches: Beenleigh Blue and dessert wine

The room splitters: Oxford Isis, Pendragon

Tunworth

I’ve been trying to make a camembert-style cheese this weekend. The lovely rind and flavour found in this kind of cheese comes from a white mould produced by the  fungus penicillium candidum. This fungus can be obtained in a freeze-dried format from cheesemaking supply shops, or, as I decided to try, from the rind of another good camembert-style cheese.

I’ll write more about the cheese-making itself later as what I want to write about now is the cheese I used as the inoculent.

I had a possibly irrational desire for an English cheese, so chose Tunworth. This cheese is made  by Hampshire cheeses and won Supreme Champion  at the British Cheese Awards in 2006, as well as a gold at the World Cheese Awards 2007; it seemed like it might be a good mother-cheese.

Produced from unpasteurised cows milk, it has a strong, grassy, almost farmyard (in a good way) aroma. The smell alone made me want to eat it although some of my work colleagues were slightly less enthusiastic when I kept in in the fridge for the last few hours of Friday.

The texture is gooey, sticking to the knife and the back of my teeth. I’m still working on how to describe the taste of cheese but it is rich – with an earthy, almost sour, kick. I would be really happy if my cheese comes any where close to this.