Gerry Cottle, once the ringmaster and owner of Britain’s leading circus and now owner of historic Wookey Hole Caves near Wells in Somerset, is reviving one of the site’s oldest traditions.
He’s bringing cheese back to Wookey Hole, to mature in the cave’s ideal conditions. Four hundred years ago there was no refrigeration and the caves were the ideal place to mature cheeses. The temperature is a constant 11°C all year round, and the high humidity is also ideal to stop the cheese drying out during its maturation storage.
Mr Cottle enthuses:
“I am absolutely thrilled that one of Britain’s leading cheesemakers has chosen Wookey Hole Caves to mature their cheeses in.
It beautifully complements everything else we’re doing here to create historically accurate family entertainment. I’m assured the cheeses won’t give off any unpleasant pongs, and will be delicious when they’re fully mature.”
Cheddar Cheese has been made by the same methods ever since, and Ford Farm, down on the Ashley Chase Estate in Dorset is one of the few farms where authentic handmade cheese is still produced.
Dorset is one of only four counties where West Country Farmhouse Cheddar can officially be made and gain eligibility to carry the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) logo.
The cheese was launched in Sainsbury’s during August 2006 and is now on sale at Wookey Hole Caves.
Cave Aged Cheddar: The facts
“Cave Aged West Country Farmhouse Cheddar” from the Ashley Chase Estate near Abbotsbury in Dorset.
1. Farmhouse Cheddar Cheese has been made in the West Country since the 16th Century. Most of the cheese in the cave is approximately a year old.
2. Farmhouse Cheddar Cheese was stored in the caves on the Mendips 400 years ago as it was the ideal temperature at 11°C and also the ideal humidity at around 100 %. The high humidity stops the cheese losing too much weight during ageing. This is the first time that Cheddar has been stored like this in its original form since then.
A spokesman for Ford Farm explains
“Tests have been going on in various caves for two years, and Wookey Hole has proved perfect, giving the flavour and the texture we desire.
At present the caves can hold up to ten tons at a time. placed in a cavern running close to the public walkway, behind a large barred cellar door, allowing the public to see the cheese as it ages.“
3. The cheese is wrapped in a cloth and coated in lard to protect it. This is how it was done in those early days when they didn’t have vacuum packing machines to seal the cheese in plastic bags.
4. The cheese takes some of its flavour from the production process and some from the surroundings it’s stored in. If you put an onion in the fridge and put some cheese next to it, after one day the cheese will pick up the flavour of the onion. The same happens when you store cheese in the cave – the cheese picks up a distinct flavour from the cave………….. You will have to buy some to find out for yourself and see what you think!
5. Traditional West Country Farmhouse Cheddar is only made in small amounts these days – probably only 1500 tonnes per year. This sounds a lot, but in comparison to the Cheddar business in the UK this is a very small percentage. There are only 5-6 farms left in the UK making it and Ford Farm is the only one at present storing it in the Caves.
6. PDO – This stands for Protected Designation of Origin, and only applies to cheese made by farms that use their own milk, make the cheese in the traditional way and are based in Somerset, Dorset, Devon, or Cornwall. You can see that it is PDO Cheddar by the yellow and blue sign displayed on the Farmhouse Cheddar packs.
7.Bats, rats and mice are not in this part of the cave. We have health and environmental strategies in place to prevent any problems as in any food premises.
8. The mould you see on the cheese is on the cloth that protects it. Before the cheese is packed the cloth is removed and the mould stays with the cloth revealing the cheese you see and buy in the supermarket.