The Maker of Gloucester
Somehow, when it comes to English cheeses, we all know of 'Double Gloucester' – it goes with the territory, along with Cheddar, Stilton and, of course, with recent assistance from Wallace and Gromit, Wensleydale. But doesn't the name somehow imply a junior partner – if double, then surely there is also a 'single'? Indeed there is. And there are differences between the two - Single Gloucester is made from full cream milk from the morning milking, and skimmed milk from the evening milking. Double Gloucester is made from full cream milk from both the morning and evening milkings, with annatto (a traditional dye). All the milk is unpasteurised, and vegeterian rennet is used. The single cheese is aged for at least three weeks, the double for a minimum of six months. The Single was once thought of as the poor relation, a way of ensuring that once the cream was skimmed, all the milk was used up. Today, the Single is as valued as the Double and indeed the version made by the Smart family won the prize in 2011 for best traditional British cheese at the annual British Cheese Awards. The Smarts make their cheese on a farm that is secreted well off any main road among the pastures of the rural Gloucestershire vale, in the lee of May Hill surmounted by its distinctive top-knot of trees. The farm itself has the charm of an illustration from a child's book – dogs, chickens and geese frolic and strut freely among bales and old bits of machinery. In the distance, cows idly swing their tails in the last of the summer sunshine that gleams with a hint of a golden autumn. The herd consists of sixty-six cows, a mixture of traditional Gloucester, Holstein, Brown Swiss and Meuse Rhine Issel. Each cow has its own name, according to character and ancestry.
Cheese-making has something of the magic about it: it is a process of transformation from something white, liquid and youthful – milk - into a hard yellow wheel of substantial maturity. The making of cheese is both fundamental and sophisticated, one of those things that makes you wonder how the discovery of the reaction of milk with rennet and bacteria was made in the first place. The final product is the result of several procedures, the main purposes of which are to turn milk into a coagulate and then to free it from the whey, the unwanted liquid. There is stirring and separating and combing and pressing and a lot of waiting, all of which takes place in a single room on the farm dominated by a vat and an array of ancient specialist devices. The moulded cheeses are then left to mature in a room next door, a pantry of delight for anyone that exults in the aromas of the dairy and the sense of anticipation that comes at the sight of shelves filled with a fresh food ripening into something even better, like edible valuable antiques.
The farm also produces their own unique cheese, the delightfully named Harefield, which is a mature Single Gloucester, something like a Parmesan, which, I am proudly informed, has been given the seal of approval by an Italian who claimed it was an improvement on the more famous cheese from Parma. It has, in the words of The Real Cheese Companion, "a hard, dry texture and a tang as salty/sharp but grassier and without the smoky tones of Parmesan". Before the creation of the Harefield, it was said that to successfully mature a Single Gloucester beyond a certain period was impossible. Then again, the normal Single Gloucester is rare enough these days and Smart's are one of only five authentic producers in the world.
It is a source of wonder to see the manufacture of these various cheeses and to remember how close we have come to losing the expertise and passion that goes with it.
Should anyone like to see authentic cheese-making at work, please contact Cotswold Journeys and we will arrange for a visit on a cheese-making day as part of your holiday.