Tunworth – A visit to Hampshire Cheeses to see how it is made!
When I told Kathy we were going on holiday for a week, she seemed excited. And I hadn’t even told her she’d be spending a day with Hampshire Cheeses, makers of the outstanding Tunworth cheese.
From previous experience I am sure she probably knew that I would have included in the holiday a visit to a cheese producer. And a visit to Stacey Hedges and Charlotte Spruce was always going to be something special, because Tunworth soft cheese has become an icon in the British artisan cheese market.
It all started in 2004, when Stacey Hedges was tinkering with cheese-making in her own home after moving to the UK from Sydney, where she had worked as a cheesemonger. Her husband, annoyed with the constant cheesy mess in their home, told her to get serious or give up.
So off Stacey went, to visited cheesemongers across the land, asking them what they thought was missing from the British cheese marketplace. And the answer came back – an English Camembert. There were a few already on the market, but none good enough to rival the French Camembert.
So Stacey and her friend, Julie Cheyney (now maker of St Jude), set about conducting their research, which included visits to French Camembert dairies, tinkering with recipes and receiving advice from Ivan Larcher, French cheese consultant and often considered the demi-god of soft and lactic cheese. Soon enough, Hampshire Cheeses and their Camembert-style cheese, Tunworth, were born.
Tunworth was developed to have a thin undulating rind (rather than the thick white skin often found on most British Bries and Camemberts): this wrinkly rind is due to a key yeast growth – geotricum – that helps the flavour develop. Indeed at The Courtyard Dairy we ask for the Tunworths to be delivered to us as ‘wrinkly as a granny’ in order to maximise the flavour we love.
So to the first day of our holiday, which finds Kathy and I eagerly piping fresh warm milk all around the dairy into various buckets, pails, and pots. French bacteria, moulds and yeasts, and finally rennet are added to each container, and then the curd is left gently to set as the milk acidifies.
Whilst this happens we were ushered into the ageing room, where young Tunworths, developing the first glimpse of their mould rind, are turned and gently patted down to control the mould development. Even at this early stage you can see the variances in each cheese; some are definitely staring to wrinkle more than others (caused by many factors – at what stage they were ladled, where they are in the ageing room, etc.)!
The Tunworths will stay here for 2-3 weeks whilst they mature and their lovely thin rind is formed. Each Tunworth is then wrapped and boxed in the familiar Camembert box (which helps protect it and keep it in a humid environment) before being sent out. At The Courtyard Dairy, we will keep them for another 3-4 weeks until they are soft and bulging at the rinds, perfectly ripe.
Back to the ‘make-room’ and the curd is tested for the right acidity and firmness. Then, when all is in order and it feels ‘just-right’, Charlotte Spruce (head cheese-maker and Stacey’s business partner) gives the nod. A flurry of activity begins. The curd is cut, first into silky ribbons, and then horizontally so little shimmering cubes of curd are created. With arms deep in the vat, the curds are stirred (to help firm them up and draw out a little more moisture).
Then comes the ladling: the team gently hand-ladle the Tunworth curds into the moulds to drain. Interestingly, Hampshire Cheeses experimented with using a machine to carry out this stage (automatically moving the curd into moulds), they quickly found they had to return to the old ‘by-hand’ ways – the curd and cheese just wasn’t turning out the same.
To speed the drainage the cheese moulds are repeatedly flipped – heavy hardy work (definitely a job reserved for the two gentlemen in the team – Neil and Danny). I have to confess, I helped to flip a few, but then ached and moaned about it for the rest of the holiday…
The cheeses are salted the next morning, and the whole process begins again.
Hampshire cheeses have come along way since their first batches were produced (of only 20 cheeses – they now make 800 a day), and Stacey and Charlotte’s dedication to ensuring each cheese is top-quality shines through (Tunworth is one of only two cheeses to win Supreme Champion at the British Cheese Awards twice – in 2006 and 2013).
They really have created a Camembert to rival the French: soft, powerful and intense.