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Foodie Feature

Say Cheese

Top-notch dairy produce has a long and illustrious history in Devon. Just in time for Christmas, let's choose some local showstoppers for the festive cheeseboard.

It might make you grumpy in the summer, but when you’re tucking into your Christmas cheeseboard you’ll be grateful for the rain. Because without rain there’s no grass and without grass, well, cheese would be nothing. Geography and climate have collided in Devon to bless the county with moist, warm(ish) weather and the richest red soil in which to grow nutritious grass.

It’s the quality of Devon’s grass that makes our cheese so fine and the permanent pasture that swathes so much of the county is richly varied, meaning the cows, sheep and goats that graze it are eating not just one grass monoculture, but numerous herbs and nutritious clovers as well. The creamy milk produced by free-range herds and flocks is packed with protein, vitamins and minerals and it also has distinctive flavour – an ideal and enviable raw material from which to make cheese.

“Just as wines reflect their ‘terroir’, cheeses reflect the climate, soils and aspect of the place where they have been produced. Cheeses, made in small batches with milk from a local flock or herd have their own subtle and distinctive flavours, and each cheese can have a character of its own”, says Lawrence Wright from Middle Campscott Farm.

Adapting farmhouse cheese production methods perfected through the centuries, many of Devon’s finest artisan cheeses follow age-old recipes and are made using ancient techniques. What’s notable in artisan cheese is the critical importance of the cheese maker. These aren’t push-button cheeses, these are made by men and women who understand the variables at play – from the mix of clover and herbs eaten by the animals, to the time of year the milk was produced, the weather, temperature, profile of the starter culture and even which cheese maker is in charge of a batch.

Artisan makers rely on sense, skill and experience – as well as science – to make sure they’re getting the best from their ingredients. The fact that this can result in slightly different results at different times of the year and from cheese to cheese is considered a distinct merit. As Abby Allen from Quicke’s says: “While every Quicke’s cheese is consistent in quality, its individual flavour profile can change from grassy/brothy to caramel/buttery, you never quite know what you are going to get, that's what excites us and curd nerds around the world.”

In a world of food production enslaved by automation, the quality of artisan cheese stands testament to the dedication of its makers. “The cheese is still entirely hand-made today using centuries-old techniques including hand cutting in the vat to form the curds, and hand ladling the curds into the individual cheese moulds. All cheeses are turned by hand every day. This attention to detail and the close daily contact with the cheese means that quality is maintained to very high standards”, says Mark Sharman at Sharpham Wine & Cheese.

‘Fresh’ cheeses – those that haven’t been pressed and aged – can have the simplest and least fussy production methods, meaning the consumer gets a product that’s as pure and reflective of the raw milk as possible. At Oakdown Farm (producers of Oakdown Farm Goat’s Cheese) the simplicity of the process respects the quality of the milk. There are only a few short steps between milking the goats and spooning the finished cheese into wooden boxes, and each of those stages is done by hand. With just the addition of some salt or herbs, Devon’s best artisan cheeses have something in common: the flavour is all about the milk, the skill is all in the hands of the cheesemaker.

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