Why do farmhouse cheeses vary so much?

An excerpt from a recent Neals Yard Dairy newsletter.

One of the joys of farmhouse cheese is that it varies from batch to batch. It’s what keeps it interesting. There are many reasons why this takes place from the composition of the milk to temperatures, humidities and acidities during the make and maturing conditions. Here are just some of the factors that can make a difference. .


Depending on what the animal has eaten, what breed it is and how far into its lactation, the composition of the milk can vary hugely. When it has just given birth, the animal produces milk with high fats and proteins, by the middle of the lactation, less so but at the end of the lactation just before it dries off, the solids will be high again. For cheesemaking, the ratio of fat to protein is key and by feed, breeding and management of the lactation farmers try to keep the variability to a minimum. Jamie Montgomery (Montgomery’s Cheddar) feeds his herd a mix of maize silage, wheat, beans, molasses, soya, a little yeast and waste potatoes in addition to grass or grass silage. The carbohydrate in their diets helps the cows produce protein in the milk. His aim is around 4.1% fat and 3.6% protein, of which 80% is casein. Some dairy farmers choose to breed cows like Ayrshires or Swedish Reds which naturally produce milk with higher solids.


Different starter cultures produce different flavours. Cheddar makers often use a different starter each day of the week. This prevents a build up the same types of bacteria which would lay them open to attack from a virus called bacteriophage, which can ruin an entire make.. We sell different flavour profiles of Montgomery’s cheddar for our wholesale and shops, which are made using different starters. Our wholesale cheeses, which are quite bright & fruity, are at their best around 14 months. The cheeses we sell in our shops, which are best around 18 months are savoury, rich and nutty and are often made using a starter called Flora Daniker. Other factors affect the starter, whether it works actively, how many strains of bacteria there are and how long they are revived before the make begins but that is a whole topic in itself.


Maturing conditions make a difference to how cheese develops. Different moulds grow at different temperatures and their speed of growth can be controlled by temperature.. Even breakdown is achieved by controlling the rind growth so that the cheese can soften slowly and this is done largely by temperature control. In our cheese store railway arches in Bermondsey, we have 4 cold rooms each set to a different temperature and humidity. These are used to first dry out young cheeses and encourage the different types of mould to grow.


The way a Stilton or Stichelton matures is a combination of 3 factors. The rusty brown brevibacterium linens and other moulds on the rind begin to break down the cheese from the outside in. Before piercing, the cheese is left to develop for a few weeks, while enzymes released by the starter bacteria begin to break down the fats and proteins of the young cheese. Finally the cheese is pierced and as the blue mould forms not only does it add its own flavour but more enzymes are released from the blue veins, softening the young cheese and making the flavours more complex.

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