Cheese is up there with coffee and wine. If you know what you are doing. For Mark Pitts-Tucker – official cheese taster at Davidstow – you can never have too much of a good thing. In a busy week, he tastes up to 700 samples at work and one of his favourite things is to go home and eat more.
Having got into the business of cheese grading “by accident” he is now responsible for the entire stock at Davidstow: an eye-watering £150 million of it.
The Davidstow Creamery is a silver behemoth that squats on the horizon just north of Bodmin moor: unashamedly industrial and self-consciously artisanal.
The mere presence of Mark in a place that processes in excess of one million litres of milk a day, 10,000 litres of which make up one tonne of cheese and from which 9,000 litres of whey are produced, makes Davidstow one of the best quality (and admittedly more expensive) Cheddars on the market. If you want the value version, go for Cathedral City, also made by Davidstow Creamery.
“In the last decade,” Mark explains, “there has been a real resurgence in artisanal cheeses and consumers have become more adventurous which has helped the domestic market.”
The market has seen a growth in vintage and extra mature Cheddars that leave the gums tingling and the tongue burning, predominantly led by men.
According to Mark, successful Cheddar will have an intensity of flavour that is far more complex than strength. A Davidstow Cheddar has ‘length’, ‘depth’ and ‘width’ which should leave a long aftertaste into the throat and a tingling behind the eyes. Poor quality equivalents are described as ‘narrow’. He continues, “Most consumers don’t realise what goes into making the cheese on their table; the nurturing of the product is a significant part of bringing the best to the consumer.”
Part of this is Mark’s ability to ‘grade’ the cheese. Milk is a product based on variables which alter the fat to protein ratio and therefore the taste. Factors such as sunshine, the time of year, whether the cows are eating maize or silage, all affect the final product and it’s Mark’s job to ensure some consistency.
Not only is he playing cheese ‘god’ but he has to keep up with consumer trends. At one end of the market, Cheddars are sweeter and creamier than they used to be and at the other, they show the potential to challenge the roof of your mouth. The Cornish Cruncher is one such example: a two-year-old bestseller made for M&S using Mark’s recipe. The Davidstow three-year-old, served at Nathan Outlaw’s St Enodoc, is another very rare Cheddar, characterised by white crystals of calcium lactate and a Davidstow showpiece.
Grading involves the eye (shiny? Does it snap or bend?), a grading iron, the nose, and then the mouth. At three months, the cheese is first graded, then again at eight months when it is sold as Cornish Creamy. At 13 months the cheese is labelled Mature Classic (in comparison, most supermarket mature equivalents will only be 9 – 10 months old).
The Davidstow Extra Mature is 18 months old (the equivalent of 13 – 14 months in cheaper versions). This is when the cheese finds a longer flavour and when it really “gets you behind the eyes.” The very rare three-year-old is even more complex and Mark references notes of dark chocolate developing and growing in the mouth.
To get started on the road to cheese grading, the expert’s advice is to try and identify where in the mouth the taste is and what you are enjoying about it. I have yet to identify caramel and chocolate, but I can do buttery, behind the eyes and flinty.
More and more these days I find my hand moving over to grab a packet of Davidstow rather than supermarket own brands. Consumers are still reeling from horses hiding in lasagne and any guarantee of provenance, skill and artisanship in an inevitably industrialised industry has preference (and respect) in my basket.
Mark’s professional tips on storing cheese:
– If it comes in good re-sealable packaging, use it.
– Take your cheese out 15 – 20 minutes before you want to eat it
– Wrap hard cheese in greaseproof paper to store for one week, if you want to keep it for longer, then add an extra layer of foil.
– Make sure your fridge temperature is at 2 or 3 degrees
– If cheese is exposed to air it will go mouldy, just cut the mould off and the rest will be fine to eat.
For more on Davidstow products and provenance go to davidstowcheddar.co.uk