We Made It: Cheesemaker James Montgomery

James Montgomery is a difficult man to pin down. When I first call to arrange an interview he’s too busy to talk. I call back only to find he’s in the middle of fixing a broken bailing machine, and when the interview finally takes place it’s to a backdrop of exasperated lowing: “I’ve moved six calves in the time I’ve been talking to you,” he says.

Running Manor Farm, near North Cadbury in Somerset, sounds like a full time job in itself, yet somehow Montgomery manages it and still finds time to produce two of Britain’s finest cheeses. The farm has been making Ogleshield, a washed-rind cheese made with Jersey milk, for around a decade, supplying delis and cheese shops around the country and winning widespread acclaim. But Montgomery and his team are best known for producing Montgomery’s Cheddar, one of only three truly traditional cheddars still being made in the UK and the recipient of so many awards that Montgomery was once named Champion Cheesemaker of the World. 

With a complexity and depth of flavour far beyond the reach of your average supermarket cheddar, Montgomery’s is sweet, nutty, beefy and rich, with bright, acidic top notes – a difficult cheese to describe, particularly as part of its appeal is subtle variation from batch to batch.

“The standout one is the odd fruity one,” he explains. “The richer, nutty flavour is something that we'd like to think is always there to some degree. Last week [specialist cheese sellers] Neal's Yard were down selecting and I said: ‘there's a bit of fruit on that one, it reminds me of mangos’. Some of them are really citrus and you get a proper lemony flavour… And sometimes you get a blue vein around the outside. I take that to tastings and people love it.

Every time I've taken on board something new-fangled that's going to 'revolutionise' everything it's made it worse!

“Most of our customers celebrate the variation,” he adds, and it keeps the shopkeepers who sell the cheese enthusiastic too. “Somebody said to me a long time ago, whenever they get a new batch of our cheese in, everybody gathers round for the opening of it. They're excited, ‘Ooh it's a new Monty's, what’s it like?’. I love that because it's something that inspires the staff.”

Explaining where all that flavour comes from is difficult. “The simple answer is unpasteurised milk and a cloth bandage [which allows the cheese to breath as it matures],” says Montgomery, “but to put it down to one or two things is pointless. There are lots of little things that are different in the way we do it compared to the big players, like having our own spring water [for the cows to drink] and to wash everything down with. It's all our own milk so we can feed the cows particularly carefully,” he adds, before reeling off a string of intricacies.

There’s the fact that the morning milk goes straight into the cheese-making vat at blood heat, without any cooling or storing, and the characteristics of the starter culture used to “ripen” it,  helping with the separation of curds and whey. “We use cultures that were harvested from small cheese makers all through the 1950s,” Montgomery explains. “They're related to the very old style of bacteria originally on farms. They’re hard to control but they give a lot of character because there's so many different strains in them.” By contrast industrial makers use super-reliable single-strain cultures: “It’s incredibly dull but it ticks the box for them because they don't want variation.”

Then there’s the way in which the curds are milled before the salt is mixed in and they’re packed into moulds ready to be pressed, wrapped in muslin and matured for a minimum of 12 months. For this Montgomery uses an old peg mill. “It’s quite a slow, rough method of breaking it up but it gives us a more interesting texture… I think mouth-feel is an underrated part of what eating is about. If something's really soapy as a cheese you notice it immediately and the soapiness affects how you feel about the flavour.”

Many such processes date back to the days of Montgomery’s grandfather, Sir Archibald Langman, who bought the farm in 1911 and began making cheese shortly afterwards. The creamery still uses animal rennet, for instance. “That means purist vegetarians will choose not to buy our cheese but it's what my grandfather did,” says Montgomery. “I wouldn't necessarily always do just what my grandfather did for no particular reason, but we discovered the animal rennet gives us a better flavour… Every time I've taken on board something new-fangled that's going to 'revolutionise' everything it's made it worse!”

But while Montgomery’s has stayed true to its roots, the industry has changed beyond recognition since Langman’s day. There were once around 400 traditional cheesemakers in Somerset, where cheese was an essential means of preserving, storing and transporting milk. “If you had that much of milk that far away from the market what else are you going to do? Everybody had to make cheese.”

Production was halted during the Second World War, and afterwards, Langman was one of the few who started up again. “[In 1933] the Milk Marketing Board was set up for getting all the milk picked up from the farms and centrally made into cheese, so there was no reason for a dairy farm to go back into it. You didn't have to. Only the ones who really loved doing it started up again after the war. Grandpa just liked the idea of making cheese.”

After Langman’s death, cheese-making responsibilities passed to Montgomery’s mother, Elizabeth, before he took over in the late 1980s, when the inexorable rise of supermarkets threatened to put a stop to the production of traditional, unpasteurised cheeses altogether. “My friends were worried about me," Montgomery recalls, “they thought I’d go under.” But now business is booming, thanks to a trend for artisan produce fuelled by the UK’s burgeoning restaurant scene, the rise of food markets and the support of organisations like the Specialist Cheesemakers Association, which Montgomery used to chair. “There are so many nice people involved,” he says. “You’ve got to be a bit bonkers to make cheese and a lot of them are fairly bonkers!”

European initiative Slow Food has been similarly supportive, working with Montgomery and with representatives from Keen’s and Westcombe (the last of the traditional makers) to establish a "presidium" for Artisan Somerset Cheddar. “There's only three of us left in Somerset,” says Montgomery ”it’s a county where it all started so it's been a good fit for Slow Food to get behind us.” All of which is helping to spread the word, attracting new customers and even bringing a few old ones – former cheddar-lovers sworn off the cheese after too many disappointing industrial imitations – back to the fold.

“I was at a cheese tasting event in Covent Garden,” Montgomery recalls, “and I was getting most people [to taste some]. But there was this chap, he must have been in his 80s, who turned me down. ‘I haven’t eaten cheddar for 20 years’, he said. So then I had to make him try it! I could tell that he was picturing something as he was tasting the cheese... I like finding customers who loved a cheese from long ago and found that they couldn't get hold of it anymore. They recognise that memory when they try ours and that’s very exciting.”

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