Monday, April 16, 2007

There is, believe it or not, an association of Specialist Cheese makers. Well, of course there is. There is an association of everything these days. Who the hell are specialist cheese makers to think they can be so damn different? They are going to have an association whether they like it or not. Even, if they are a bit useless.

And, useless they were. Particularly when I tried to get in touch with their office in the leafy suburbs of Clerkenwell. You would have thought I had offered to come around there and molest their grandmothers rather than write about some of their membership. Ho hum.

In the end, I decided just to pick up the phone and speak to the cheese makers direct. Always the best way because the people making the food always get EAT MY GLOBE immediately.

Fortunately for me, the person on the other end of the phone was Sarah Furno who, with her husband Sergio, is now the driving force behind J&L Grub, the makers of Cashel Blue and she was more than happy to have me pay a visit.

While both Farmhouse cheeses, there are entire light years between Mileen and Cashel Blue. Where Mileen is the daily labour of one young man, Cashel Blue is the combined efforts of up to nineteen people including two full time cheese makers. Where Milleen clings firmly onto its home grown status, Cashel Blue is a cheese with aspirations. Where Quinlan Steele uses instinctive methods of cheese making, Sarah Furno uses regular tasting and assiduous notation, taken from her years in the wine business, to compare batches. Where Milleen is making about ten tonnes a year with little capacity to make more, Cashel Blue is currently topping out at around two hundred and seventy tonnes a year with ambitions to double that in a new state of the art unit.

While very different, what they do have in common though is the passion to make great cheese. Different methodology, the same end result, a fabulous product.

The hundred and fifty acre farm that houses Cashel Blue is a bit of a bugger to find and it took a couple of phone calls to guide me in. But, finally, I made my way up the sun dappled drive past a few bullocks grazing contentedly on pasture and made my way to the small portakabin that forms Cashel Blue HQ.

EAT MY GLOBE, it appears, is going to see me appear in a wide variety of overalls, Wellington boots and hair nets. Damn the EU and all their rules. I knew the moment that Sarah appeared in her outfit that I was going to have to don the silly garb. The things I do to live the dream. I trust you appreciate it?

Still, I realise that this is a serious business in an area where entire herds were wiped out and the economy devastated in recent years. So, when feet needed dipping in cleansing solution, I dipped like a good boy.

First, the tour. Four 500 gallon vats of milk with the rennet and starter sit while being given the loving attention of the two cheese makers. Once the curds and whey begin to separate the whey is drained off for pig feed and the curds drained futher and set into moulds.

Much of the equipment at Cashel Blue is state of the art and specially designed by Sarah’s father who founded the business. Being a child at heart, I was particularly beguiled by a wonderful machine that turns crates of cheese moulds like a wheel of fortune at a Victorian fairground.

Unlike hard cheeses, the moulds are not pressed and the weight of the cheese is the only thing which drains the water out.

After a few days, the cheese is then dipped in a brine solution and pricked to allow natural flora to create the blue which gives that unmistakeable tangy taste.

And, that’s it.

But, of course, it isn’t.

I had imagined that, once the cheese was made and put away to store it would get little attention, being sent out in batch order as required with some random sampling for quality control.

How wrong can one fat boy be in a lifetime?

In fact, it is only once the cheese is made, that Sarah and Sergio’s hard work really begins.

Every cheese is referenced. Not just by which on which day it was made, but by which of the four vats it was in, who made it, which milk was used and the temperature at which the milk was heated.

After a welcome cup of tea in the farmhouse kitchen, Sarah took me to a small counter in the packing room and produced a large red book in which detailed notes had been written. Sergio appeared with a number of more mature cheeses that were destined for Neal’s yard Dairy and we began to taste them to see which were up to snuff for that most exacting of partners.

First, a visual appraisal for the colour of the rind, then using the cheese tryer to pull out a small plug from the paste, for the spread of blue. Next, obviously, the taste. High acidity is a standard in blue cheeses but it should remain fresh to the tongue and produce a mouth watering effect.

Then, there is the creaminess which depends on the amount of fat in the milk on the day the cheese was made.

I don’t know why I should have been so surprised that a crafted product like this should vary so much from cheese to cheese, but I was and it is down to the skills of Sarah and Sergio and the cheese makers at Cashel to choose the right wheels for the right customers. For Neals Yard, more full on cheese with a good spread of blue. For the supermarkets, younger cheeses that are not so filled with blue and which will mature more slowly to allow for the shelf life the supermarkets demand.

After sampling the mature cheeses, I was put to work loading up some containers. (Hey, I am happy to earn my corn.) before we moved on to tasting some younger cheeses so Sarah could show me the difference in colour, taste and texture which is remarkable. Again, her note taking was extensive and every batch was graded and earmarked for particular customers.

By now, Sarah had, quite rightly had enough of me and had to spend the afternoon with her small son. Me? I had to go and find my B&B for the night. So, I said my farewells and headed off back to Cashel

A few days later, I walked down to Borough Market and to Neal’s Yard to try some of the cheeses I had seen being made. The Cashel Blue was slightly grainy, with a wide spread of blue, a high acidity and low fat feel in the mouth.

Perhaps I should send Sarah some tasting notes?

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