The artisan goat's cheese challenging Somerset's reputation as 'cheddar country'
PUBLISHED: 11:34 11 June 2019 | UPDATED: 11:34 11 June 2019
It may be renowned for its cheddar, but Somerset is also something of an artisan goat's cheese powerhouse, discovers Chris Allsop
Cheddar and Somerset are entwined in the popular imagination, and rightly so. The Romans may have introduced a cheddar-like precursor to British shores, but it's in the South West where this versatile and delicious hard cheese was shaped into the world-conquering dairy it is today.
But when you drive through Cheddar Gorge and see the feral goats lurking on the rocks, it's emblematic of the fact that Somerset is not a one-cheese county. Goats arrived in England around the time of Stonehenge, and although their cheese-production history has been overshadowed by the abundance of cheddar, it's probably a fair guess that goat's curds were nourishing the hairy locals long before the arrival of the Holstein-Friesian.
Artisan goat's cheese regained a foothold in the county with the arrival of Mary Holbrook at Sleight Farm in Timsbury. There's been plenty written about Holbrook in the national press, usually accompanied by the words 'pioneer', 'trailblazer', and 'guru'. Towards the end of the 70s, the former archaeologist and a few other creative cheesemakers began to lay the foundations for the revival of British artisan cheese. She travelled the continent with the British Sheep Dairy Association, making trips to different countries and picking up tips from French and Spanish cheese-makers.
"Incidentally, we'd see a few goats," she says dryly, adding as an afterthought, "ate very well."
Today, she makes a number of cheeses from the milk of an over 100-strong goat herd. Tymsboro, a handsome, blue-grey pyramidal cheese made after the style of French Valençay, is probably the most famous, with its bright acidity when turning complex and punchy as it ages. But more intriguing is Cardo. As all cheese-lovers know, the addition of rennet to milk separates the curd and the whey. A lot of cheeses today continue to use animal rennet or a microbial vegetarian rennet, but on Cardo Holbrook employs a rennet derived from cardoon; it's a technique popular in Spain, Portugal, and Italy where the cardoon grows wild. While this may not sound overly life-changing, understand that every element of cheese-making can impact the flavour, and that's absolutely the case with the rennet. Cardo is also a washed rind cheese, so these choices lead to quite a unique British goat's cheese, with a moist pinkish rind and glossy paste imbued with a floral flavour and a chalkier, curdier core.
Rounding off her repertoire is the fresh Sleightlett and Old Ford - the latter a hard goat's cheese that she makes irregularly. Hard goat's cheeses have enjoyed something of a recent vogue, with fine examples springing up around the country. Beside Old Ford, Somerset is also home to Ford Farm's Cave Aged Goat's Cheese. Another hard variety, its producer - better known for its cave-aged cheddar - has won a bevy of awards for the cheese, including Best British Cheese at the World Cheese Awards in 2016 and a Gold at the British Cheese Awards the following year. The Somerset Cheese Company also produces a storied hard goat's cheese in the form of Pennard Vale, among a range of other goat's milk products including a goaty take on a Red Leicester.
But when it comes to variety, it's hard to beat White Lake Cheese. This cheese producer's star is currently in the ascendant thanks to back-to-back Supreme Champion wins at the British Cheese Awards with (inconveniently for this article) two different sheep's milk cheeses.
But goat's milk was where it all began for Roger Longman and Pete Humphries, the team behind White Lake. Based on the Longman family's Bagborough Farm, they opened their doors in 2005 with a 700-strong mixed goat herd. Since then, they've branched out and now produce 28 cheeses (about 100 tonnes a year), but for many of their customers - a network that includes the US, Europe and Australia - it's their goat's cheese range that embodies what White Lake does best.
The goat's cheeses vary from fresh to mature, from washed to knobbly geotrichum-rinded, from heart-shaped to vine-wrapped. Out of this madding crowd of deliciousness, it's probably the cheese Rachel that stands up as a bona fide modern classic.
Winner of Best Goat's Cheese in the World at last year's World Cheese Awards, Rachel was created by accident when Humphries used brine to wash undesirable mould off of a hard goat's cheese. The semi-soft cheese Rachel with a dusky orange rind - the product of the essential brine wash - has a mellow, sweet flavour with a slightly nutty quality.
When asked whether he thinks there's something new they're doing that's led to this recent back-to-back win, Humphries says: "We're always trying to make the cheese better.
"Even when you have a recipe to work to, you're always trying to look for ways to improve. I don't think any cheese is ever fully developed."
While an artisan goat's cheese tradition has bedded in nicely, we can also expect to see more sheep's milk producers and buffalo milk cheeses emerging to further challenge Somerset's reputation as cheddar country
A Somerset goat cheeseboard
Cardo, Mary Holbrook
This cardoon-rennet, washed rind cheese has a semi-soft glossy interior that imparts floral flavours before giving way to a chalkier core.
Rachel, White Lake
Rachel has a supple, ivory interior and a dusky orange rind thanks to its signature brine wash. Its flavour is sweet and slightly nutty (sharing the same qualities, apparently, as a friend of Pete Humphries), with minimal goatiness.
Cave Aged Goat's Cheese, Ford Farm
A cheddar-style cheese using goat's milk, Cave Aged Goat (pictured) offers a mild and savoury cheddar-alternative with some earthiness imbued by the maturing in Wookey Hole Caves.
Pennard Ridge Red Goat's Cheese
Red Leicester meets goat's milk. Sweet and nutty with a sharp finish.