That subtle salty note of a Cheshire cheese has always been a staple on the traditional British cheeseboard. But how is it made? Who makes it? And what makes it have that renowned subtle salty taste? Angus D. Birditt visits one of the British Isles' most renowned Cheshire cheesemakers, Appleby's Cheese to find out how they make their Cheshire cheese - recently awarded a gold in the 'World Cheese Awards'.
Hawkstone Abbey Farm is home to Paul and Sarah Appleby, third generation farmers and award-winning cheesemakers. I am here to meet both, but also Garry, Anna and Dave, the Appleby’s team of cheesemakers, to see how they make their famous Cheshire cheese. I arrive at the farm in the early hours of the morning, just after Paul had taken the last of the morning milk and piped it through to Garry in the cheesemaking room. The air was already thick with the smell of warm sour milk. I cross the forecourt of the farm and enter the porch of the cheesemaking room, where Garry, Anna and Dave were already working away. Garry – the chief cheesemaker at Appleby's – sees me first and immediately tells me to don my food hygiene kit of a white coat, white hat and matching wellies, before entering into the room. Once appropriately dressed and inside, I see the white silky milk pouring into what Garry tells me is a ‘steam jacket’, a large metal tank that will heat the milk. After a brief meet and greet with the cheesemakers, Garry begins narrating the scene in front of us. He tells me that once the steam jacket is full of milk – 4000 litres of the stuff –, it will gradually heat the milk to around 30C, all the while being stirred by two large steel arms hanging from the ceiling.
Once the milk is at the correct temperature and sufficiently stirred, Garry states that we are going to be making Appleby's coloured Cheshire today, exactly the same as their white Cheshire cheese except for the addition of annatto. Annatto is a deep auburn colouring agent originated from the seeds of the achiote tree, and grown in parts of Central and Southern America that turns the milk into a rich golden colour. After the annatto, the starter is added, a concentrated mix of powdered milk and water that has been sitting in a heated milk churn overnight. Lastly, the rennet is added into the mix. Taken from the calf’s abomasum, or fourth stomach, rennet includes enzymes like chymosin and pepsin that both aid in milk coagulation. Garry pours around a pint of the rennet into the tank and waits for the curdling of the milk to begin.
The milk at Appleby’s is raw, so unpasteurized. Any surplus raw milk they don't use is sold to other local cheesemakers or sold direct from the farm’s ‘Milkbot’ - aka a vending machine - in wonderful traditional glass bottles. Garry recites that any raw milk – officially referred to as Raw Drinking Milk ‘RDM’ – can only be sold direct from a registered farm due to today’s strict governmental controls on food. He tells me the milk is regularly taken morning and evening from their breed of Holstein-Friesians.
The traditional ‘Cheshire cheese’, as the name suggests, originates its long history in the county of Cheshire; however, neighbouring counties like Shropshire – where Appleby’s are based - and Staffordshire, among others, also make the cheese. It is thought that a true Cheshire cheese is made with the milk that has been taken from cows that have solely grazed on the grass that grows within the Cheshire basin, an ancient landform dating back to the Triassic period that crosses these counties. During that period, millions of years ago, the basin was an area flooded by saltwater that slowly evaporated, leaving behind a labyrinth of saltmarshes. It is these ancient saltmarshes – on which the cows now graze upon – that many believe gives the region’s milk, and thus cheese, its subtle salty flavour.
A little under an hour later, the tank of once golden milk is now a watery pool of yellow whey, with the curds now apparently sunken to the bottom of the jacket. Garry takes to the side of the tank and starts draining the whey via a pipe that will be channelled to the awaiting Neil, Appleby's butter maker in the next room, where it will be made into their unique whey butter. Back in the cheesemaking room, what is left in the bottom of the tank looks like the largest rice crispy cake you'll ever see. Eight metres long and two metres wide, the now exposed curd is light golden and swollen thick. The curd cake is then cut into bite-sized chunks and hand-mulched to drain off any excess whey. The remaining residual whey is then tested for its level of acidity, the higher the acidity the finer the curd needs to be mulched.
With the curd mulched and lightly salted, it is further minced and then poured into moulds lined with a fine perforated material. Around forty moulds are filled with curd. They are then wheeled over to some impressive iron-made presses - all embossed with local ironworks of W.H. Smith & Co and Birchall Bros in Whitchurch - to be lidded and gently squeezed overnight.
The next day, the moulds will be removed from the presses and relieved of its innards. What is left is the compressed cheese truckle or wheel that will then be wrapped in calico and taken to the maturing room to age for around twelve weeks. Over the course of the aging process, the cheesemakers will have to wipe each truckle for their white bloom of mould that forms whilst ageing, a bloom that resembles something similar to that of a white fur Cossack hat. After the twelve weeks is up, the cheeses will then be collected and delivered across the country.