When someone shows a particular affinity for, or skill in a chosen hobby or trade, they are often said to have it ‘in their blood’, especially if the same interest can be traced back through their recent ancestry. We have all known of artists, musicians, writers, sportsmen and even politicians who are adept at their chosen art as a result of genes passed down through the generations. Family elders might watch a youngster play the piano or kick a football and sagely comment ‘it’s in his blood you know’. And though it’s common comment for many professions and activities, there are times when the saying just sounds odd. For example to say that George Streatfeild, of Denhay Farms in West Dorset, has cheese in his blood might be a bit of a conversation stopper, but in one sense it is true.
If you go back into the history of cheesemaking at Denhay you will find that ancestral hands were at work long before the current family business was set up by Commander Streatfeild (‘the Commander’) and Alexander Hood in 1952.
In 1927 Major Davies of Leigh House, Chard, the Commander’s father-in-law, started making cheddar and joined the newly formed English Cheddar Cheesemakers’ Federation (ECCF). He made 50 gallons a day into cheddar and was paid 118 shillings a cwt for it at three months of age. This was sold to Sainsburys, who were buying around 30 tons a month at the time.
When in 1952 Streatfeild Hood and Co. sought to set up a farming business, the farm was 250 acres of corn, beef and sheep but mainly bogs, brambles and rabbits. Recognising that West Dorset grows good grass for dairying, three herds of cows were soon up and running and they expanded into Farmhouse Cheddar production, with pigs being kept to use whey, the by-product. It was very much a traditional West Country farming cycle.
Two prefabricated bungalows were bought from London, together with a coal fired boiler. One bungalow was the cheese room and the other the store. All the equipment was found second-hand from around the West Country, and Ken Corbin, their first cheese maker, was employed. Production started on 12th June 1959 with 120 gallons of milk – the whey being fed to the sows outside in arks. Once under way, they made 400 gallons a day, seven days a week. The milk was collected in churns from Denhay’s three herds, together with four neighbouring farms’ milk.
George Streatfield explains how the business was run. “The cheesemaking day was a long one” he says. “Someone – usually the farm student – had to get up at 2.30am to light the coal boiler in order to get the steam ready for Ken Corbin when he arrived at 4.30am. The churns were then tipped into a balance tank before being pumped direct into the vat. Initially there was no pasteurisation. We used the same starter culture (bacteria) every day called Ethel. Ethel would perform well for 6 months. Then she would die – this was caused by a small microbe called a phage. The Commander would have to get into the Landrover and beg, borrow and steal starter of all types from other cheese makers such as Coombe Farm and Horlicks. After a week of this, Ethel would come to life and things returned to normal for another six months.” By-products of the cheese were Farmhouse butter and clotted cream. George says “These were sold locally to shops and caravan sites in and around Bridport, delivered by my mother in the back of her Austin A30 van.”
As the business grew, more herds of cows were started, more pigs fattened to drink the whey and more cheese sold. The Commander died in 1977 and his role was replaced by Philip Crawford, who had already been at Denhay for twelve years, and was previously the pre-college student who lit the boiler at 2.30am! George and his wife Amanda joined the business and he became Philip’s assistant. “1983 was a very poor year for the cheddar market” remembers George. And although Denhay then found itself the largest maker of Traditional Cheese in a shrinking market, the business, now known as Denhay Farms Ltd, has won a raft of awards over the years and become synonymous with the true flavour of Farmhouse Cheddar cheese.
However that is a flavour that George and Amanda Streatfeild, along with many other traditional farmhouse cheddar makers, feel is under threat. As George explains, “Cheddar making has been traced back to 1170. However the father of modern cheddar making was Somerset dairy farmer, Joseph Harding. In 1864 he described the ideal quality of Cheddar as ‘close and firm in texture, yet mellow in character or quality; it is rich with a tendency to melt in the mouth, the flavour full and fine, approaching to that of a hazelnut’.” Expanding on the description George says, “Cheddar, made in the classical way, tends to have a sharp, pungent flavour, often slightly earthy. Its texture is firm, with farmhouse traditional Cheddar being slightly crumbly. Real Cheddar is never ‘soapy’, in texture or mouth-feel.”
George is aware that over the last 30 years there has been a shift in the recipe used by the majority of cheddar makers (large factories); they have included new Helveticus strains of starters. He points out that it has been convenient for large scale creameries to make a different sort of cheddar with distinct flavour notes. Also, these cheeses are softer and more pliable, allowing for efficient cutting and accurate weighing of fixed weight blocks. The result is an instant flavour sometimes called ‘sweet’ and often described as burnt caramel.
It’s a subtle change that is not noticed by all cheese eaters. Using words such as ‘strong’ and ‘vintage’ the average cheese buyer’s palette is being slowly retrained to adapt to a different flavour – a flavour with an instant hit. And although the majority of cheese eaters may not care either way, some prefer and miss the traditional savoury flavour of true cheddar – the slow development in the mouth and the long lingering creamy flavour. “They have not the time to hunt out on the shelf what is what, and are confused by all the claims made on the packaging about provenance and flavour” says George. “They give up and just pick up what easily comes to hand – usually what is on promotion.”
The result is that there is a real danger that we are losing the uniqueness of British Cheddars with their traditional flavours. The remaining makers will either stop production (as did Tower Farms in 2009) or make the same flavour change themselves, to fall in line with new consumer expectations.
However, to try to combat this and create awareness of the subtle differences of flavour and production a group of makers has banded together to launch a brand stamp to help consumers make a more educated choice. They hope to highlight the differences between this classic taste and the modern style of cheddars. Both are good, but the classic style has a savoury emphasis compared to the modern sweeter taste.
Until now, consumers have not had any information as to which style of cheddar they are purchasing and therefore no way of consistently buying the style and flavour they prefer. With the launch of “Protecting the Authentic Taste of Cheddar” stamp, it will be easier to chose between the authentic savoury flavour and the modern style by looking for the stamp or reading the makers’ labels. Other cheese makers that are supporting the stamp are: Bakers of Haselbury Plucknett, Brue Valley Farm, Montgomery’s Cheddar, Westcombe Dairy, Parkham Farms, Quickes’ Traditional, WH Longman and Son (Vale of Camelot) and Farmhouse Cheesemakers Ltd.
It’s early days yet and it may be a while before the stamp has filtered out to packaging, but the concept that the original flavour of an artisan product is being eroded from public consciousness is not new. Neither is the concept of a group of producers gathering together to protect their product. Like his ancestor before him who joined the English Cheddar Cheesemakers’ Federation, George Streatfeild is standing up for a piece of his industry’s history.
To find out about protecting the flavour of farmhouse cheddar visit www.authenticcheddar.co.uk.