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Montgomery's Cheddar

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My Christmas article will show you how the best cheddar since King Arthur is made in Somerset, including a 4 minutes video.

In August I went to visit a few of the best cheesemakers in England. For my last article in 2008, I'll take you for a visit of the farm and a tasting of the product.

Click above for a video of my tasting Montgomery's 18-month-old Cheddar (with some help from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who wrote Lord of the Mites) or download Flash Player if needed or click for HD version.

Gourmets looking for proper cheese in England should steer clear of the tourist trap town of Cheddar and drive on South ...

... until they reach North Cadbury. Stop at Manor Farm, the home of Montgomery's Cheddar.

For James Montgomery might well make the best cheddar since King Arthur. With his neighor Keen's, his farm is the best of only 9 farmhouse cheddar makers left in Britain. All the rest is industrial crap, the sort of cheese you use to patch some holes in your tires. But Montgomery, oh, he is serious about his cheese. His family has been working this farm for the last century and all his cheese is from unpasteurized milk from the farm's own herd, which grazes over what scholars consider the most likely location for King Arthur's castle Camelot - the fort of South Cadbury.

 Interactive 360° panorama
 See the huge 1000 gallons vat where the milk is quietly simmering while the lactic ferments work their magic.

As I entered the farm, the milk was already in the vats with the two electrical stirrers slowly moving back and forth and back and forth. A deliciously sweet milk smell filled the room. I just had time to shoot a panoramic picture before the cheesemakers came back.

Pulling a drawbridge, cheesemaker Steven emptied a thousand gallons of curdled milk into the lower vat...

... while his younger colleague made sure all the curdle went down.

The lower vat slowly fills up, while the whey is filtered ...

... and drips furiously into a separate system.

After a while, the beautiful yellowish curds start to emerge ...

... as the cheesemakers quickly set out to work the curds.

The curds coagulate into a solid mass and need to be cut in slabs ...

... which are piled up to drain them of the whey.

Steven takes a sample of whey ...

... and tests its acidity.

Steven has been making cheese for 29 years, the last 14 at Montgomery's. He lives in Glastonbury, which sounds like a thrilling place, but he is not thrilled. In Glasbtonbury, every decent shop over the years has been replaced by some dress-as-Merlin or be-a-sorcerer shop where you can buy all sorts of gadgets to play Lord of the Rings. For the locals that's not so good. We get all sorts of tourists, some of them come to Glastonbury because they think the end of the world has come or that they can be witches. Many are on the dole.

Go into the shredder and leave as cheddarized curds while the second cheesemaker uses his pitchfork to toss the curds.

Steven sprinkles a copious amount of salt over the curds ...

... and the curds are tossed a final time to ensure even distribution...

... while I watch in awe those century-old gestures.

Steven shovels curds into each of the molds, which are garnished with a cloth.

The molds are covered with a plastic disc for the pressing... 

... and Steven carts them to the next room for the final stage. 

Steven turns on the hydraulic press ...

... and watches the few drops of whey remaing in the cheese ooze out, thinking about his work day about to finish.

Before leaving the workshop, the cheesemakers give the place a thourough scrub.

For cheesemaking is a craft bound to scrupulous hygiene. I never saw these guys eat anything while in the room, and every single time they left both cheesemakers and myself scrupulously washed our boots in disinfectant and our hands with a medical soap. Unlike in a restaurant, in cheesemaking sloppy hygiene is not a slow killer.

Montgomery has no website, no email and doesn't advertise. But he sells all the cheddar he makes - no problem. The farm produces 7000 24kg cheeses a year as well as 1200 2kg cheeses. He sells half his production to Neal's Yard, a fine cheese wholesaler and retailer with shops in the UK and USA. In the office, Nick the secretary showed me a big board with their list of customers. That's our rationing board - we get more orders than we have cheeses available, so unfortunately we have to limit the number of cheese wheels each customer gets. Even so more that we get tons of orders over Christmas for our small cheddars, so we have to save them during the rest of the year to have enough to go by at Christmas. They don't export themselves although Neal's Yard sends about 400 heads of cheese a year to its US shops. But with such a cheese, the world has beaten a path to their doorstep. He doesn't really sell to the supermarkets although Fortnum and Maso