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Quicke's Slow Food Cheddar

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My visit of Quicke's Dairy in Devonshire, the largest of the nine remaining producers of real farmhouse cheddar, or how to produce world class traditional cheddar on a large scale.

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Many people in France and Switzerland assume that there is no cheese worth of the name made in England. That is very unfair, as the English make dozens of extraordinary cheeses, some of which like Cheddar or Stilton with thousand-year-old traditions. But let's face it - most of the cheddar produced nowadays is of the rubber tyre sort. There are only nine dairies in England who still make cheddar by hand using proper milk. How do you make traditional cheddar? where are these dairies and what do they look like? How good is the cheese? To find out, follow me on my visit of two traditional cheddar-making dairies in the South West of England. First stop is Quicke's farm - the largest of the nine.

This article contains seven 360° panoramas: Washing the vats, Cheddaring, Milling, Milling 2, Maturing, Maturing 2, Maturing 3 - just click on the picture when it says «panorama» or open them right now.

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If you're serious about cheddar, don't bother with the tourist traps at Cheddar in Somerset. The scenic gorge is designed to suck tourist up, empty their pockets and spit them back on the pavement a mile down the road. There is just nothing for the foodie there. Aim for Newton St Cyres in Devon and go visit Quicke's. Only nine dairies make farmhouse cheddar nowadays in England, and Quicke's is the biggest. You could be forgiven for thinking this is an industrial operation given the brand new stainless-steel equipment and large buildings. But most of the work is done by hand. It is traditional cheddar on a large scale. This results in a superior product much comparable to my beloved swiss fromage d'alpage.

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Stewart Dowle, 30 years on the job at Quicke's, took me on a behind-the-scenes tour of the farm and dairy.

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All of Quicke's cheese is made from the farm's own 300-cows-strong herd, which grazes in neighboring fields where Mary Quicke's family has been farming for 450 years.

Let's move inside and see what's cooking.

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The milk is pumped from the cows' tits into a tank, then into this pasteurising machine where it is heated at 73°C/163°F for 17 seconds to reduce the number of potentially dangerous micro-organisms. They also do an upasteurised cheddar on the farm but most milk goes through pasteurization.

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A yogurt-like starter culture is then added. This gets mixed with the pasteurised milk and left for 15 minutes at 31°C/89°F. The bacteria in the starter start multiplying and converting the milk's natural sugar into lactic acid. During the whole cheesemaking process, the concentration of lactic acid will be measured. As soon as it is acid enough, the cheesemaker goes to the next stage, never before.

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Rennet is added and the milk is left to curdle for 50 minutes, breaking it into the liquid whey and hard witish chunks of curdle. The curds are broken down into pea-sized pieces by giant blades that turn slowly across each of the four thousand-gallon vats. Hot steam circulates in a double wall all around the vat to increase the temperature to 41°C/103°F to boost bacterial activity and cook the curds for 60 minutes, then the curds are stirred for another 60 minutes. If you do the math, from time the milk goes into the vat to the start of the cheese making itself (here below), that's 4:15 hours.

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Our first 360° panorama shows the 1000-gallon-vats just emptied of their of curdled milk being washed with a fireman-sized hose.

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The curdled milk is emptied on a sister vat on the lower ground floor of the workshop...

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... where it will slowly drain off to try and get the cheese out of the whey.

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As the whey makes way for the curds, they are pushed aside by the dairy workers under the expert direction of Malcolm Mitchell's, the head cheesemaker.

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Jo didn't like to have his picture taken but had much fun sticking his tongue out for my pictures!

Shovelling cheddar curds is hard work. Most of the guys on Malcolm's crew were formerly with Her Majesty's armed forces, some of them submariners, as you may have guessed from the tattoed arms. Hard-working people. Whether they are quicke-tempered, I can't say, but they certainly are passionate about the cheese.

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Cheddaring (360° panorama) is one of the key operations that give the cheese its structure. The curds are sliced, then those slices are piled up to drain even more of the remaining liquid. After a little while, the curds develop a unique strand-filled flesh much like chicken breasts or mozzarella. POn the pictures you see a vat of regular cheddar and another of Double Gloucester, a cheese with natural yellow-coloring.

During the cheddaring the whey continues to drain through a filter and into a pipe system. I'll show you what happens to it in another article.

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The large slices of still coarse curds are first separated to let the whey trickle down, then after a few minutes turned upside down for further draining.

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Finally the now much thinner and harder slices are piled up by threes, then by five...

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...until you can pull a piece of curds like you would a strand of chicken breast flesh.

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Now the solids curd slabs must be milled into hazelnut-sized pieces to get the proper texture for the finished cheese. You could wonder about the whys of such a mysterious process, but all you need to do is consider the extraordinary diversity of cheeses all produced from the same ingredients - milk, rennet and salt. Tiny changes of temperature and manipulation of curds results in great differences in appearance and taste.

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Panorama: Milling 1
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Panorama: Milling 2

The slabs of curds are fed one by one into a close cousin of the wood chipper, a small machine that can be moved all across the vats.

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