The meadows, moors and pasturelands of northern Someset extend from the Mendip Hills to the lips of Cheddar Gorge and beyond. Within this ravine lie phantasmagoric caves, rich with stalactites and underground rivers.
Once, more than 100 years ago, they were used as a store for the famous cheese that bears this area's name. Today, the region around Cheddar, Wells and Shepton Mallet continues a cheesemaking tradition hundreds of years old.
A handful of farms here and in the neighboring countries of Avon, Dorset and Devon are producing farmhouse Cheddars by time-honored methods, under the guidance of the Farmhouse English Cheese Scheme.
Farmhouse cheese as opposed to factory cheese is made on the farm by traditional methods, and with milk produced on that farm, or on neighboring farms. Under this program, farmhouse cheese is graded, marketed and distributed throughout the world by the board's own agents.
It can be identified by a trademark depicting three cheeses, surrounded by the words "Farmhouse English Cheese."
The Chewton Cheese Diary, owned by Lord Chewton, is one such farm producing traditional cheeses. Only a few miles away from Cheddar, it is open to visitors to witness the entire cheesemaking process firsthand.
Work begins at 5 a.m., when the milk truck collects milk from the dairy's four farms. Over the next few hours this milk will be scaled, soured, separated into curds and whey, cheddared, milled and salted, and finally pressed into cheese. Cheddaring is the process of turning the curds by hand to facilitate whey drainage.
Peppy D'Ovidio, who has been learning the art of cheesemaking for over 10 years now, hopes one day to be head cheesemaker on the farm.
"But I'm still learning," Peppy says. "Every cheese is different, because it's a living thing. If it's slow, then we might have to 'cheddar" it for 24 hours."
Peppy explained that the cheddaring process is really what differentiates farmhouse Cheddar from factory. The slabs of curds must be cheddared until the acid level is just right. This is what gives Cheddar its distinctive taste. And the time this takes varies with each cheese.
The real test of course, is in the taste. A good Cheddar never should crumble. Because it is pressed harder and longer than most other cheeses, it should be dense and firm, with a smooth consistency like butter.
To generalize, Cheddar should taste nutty, with a slightly sharp tang. As it matures, this bite becomes more pronounced, but it never should become so "sharp" that it burns the roof of your mouth. A good Cheddar should be flavorful without being overpoweringly "hot."
Heat changes the texture and flavor of cheese, so when cooking with cheese, handle with care. A hard chese like Cheddar cooks best if it first is grated. Stir in one direction only to ensure smoothness and good blending. WELSH RAREBIT 2 tablespoons butter 1/2 pound Cheddar cheese (grated) 1/4 teaspoon dry English mustard Dash of Worcestershire sauce 2 or 3 tablespoons milk Salt and peper Pinch of cayenne, optional 4 large slices of toast
Melt butter over low heat and stir in remaining ingredients, except toast. Heat gently, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens. Be careful not to overcook or cheese will become tough and stringly.
Spread mixture over hot plain toast and put under a broiler for 2 to 3 minutes until golden. Serve immediately. CHEESE SOUP 2 tablespoons butter 2 small onions, finely chopped 1 carrot, peeled, grated or finely chopped 1 clove garlic, finely chopped 2 slices bacon 1 pint chicken stock 4 ounces Cheddar, grated 1 tablespoon flour Salt and freshly ground black pepper Paprika
Melt butter in a saucepan. Add onion and garlic and saute until soft and transparent. Add bacon and carrot and continue frying until they begin to turn color.
Stir in flour and cook 1 minute. Gradually stir in stock and bring to a boil. Season well with salt, pepper and paprika.
Cover and simmer gently about 20 minutes. Gradually stir in most of the grated cheese. Readjust the seasoning.
Pour soup into individual warmed soup bowls. Top with remaining cheese and serve with crusty bread. CHEESE AND APPLE CRUMBLE 1 1/2 cups flour 6 tablespoons butter 6 tablespoons superfine or caster sugar 1 cup grated Cheddar 1 1/2 pounds cooking apples, peeled, cored and sliced 1 cup soft brown sugar 4 tablespoons sultanas or raisins 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg Finely grated rind, and juice of 1/2 lemon
To prepare topping, sift flour into a mixing bowl. Add the butter in pieces and rub into flour until mixture resembles fine bread crumbs. Mix in sugar.
Put apples in a deep pie dish and stir in remaining ingredients.
Sprinkle prepared topping over apple mixture. Bake in hot oven (400 degrees) about 25 minutes. Remove and scatter Cheddar on top. Return to oven for 10 minutes, or until topping is golden brown and apples are soft.
Serve hot with fresh cream.