Keen on Flavour

Let’s talk a bit about cheddars.

Like most of us, I did not grow up with artisan or farmhouse cheeses gracing my palate. Rather, shiny yellow slices of “cheddar” product and (if I was lucky), my favorite factory orange-alert tinted “munster” were the fromage de rigeur of the Lawler household. And if the holidays called for a certain refinement, a black waxed rectangle of cheddar, limburger and an unknown quantity of soft orange “cheese” beneath a coating of nuts was the cheeseboard. Until just over a year ago, these cheese memories led me to largely write off cheddars as anything but a bit of grilled cheese nostalgia, nothing to really consider seriously as say, any of the host of great Pecorinos.

And then I tried Keen’s Cheddar, and my whole world was rocked. First the nose was rapt by its lightly pleasant barnyard aroma. Then my palate said something like, and I quote, “Holy horseradish, and just plain radishes…oh hold a moment there, it’s getting sweet, hints of glorious apple, and did someone just hit me with some licorice. Sweet curd love, now this is @#$%^* cheese! I want more. ” Thus I met my match with cheese, and no cheese since has enthralled my senses more.

So recently whilst visiting relatives in London I jumped on the chance (thank you DiBruno Bros.) to make a “southwest run” with Neal’s Yard Dairy to Keen’s terroir of origin, Somerset in southwest England. After finding my jeg-lagged way from Hackney to their Borough Market store at 6 am, I met with Chris George (a Neal’s Yard veteran in charge of their tasting events, among other duties) and we left London for greener pastures. This “southwest run” was nothing irregular for Neal’s Yard, a fact that alone greatly impressed me. That Neal’s Yard Dairy takes the trouble to regularly visit their producers (in this case an over 3 hour drive), not just to pick up product for the city but to engage the farmers on their issues and give them feedback, is singularly remarkable. But I digress….

As soon as we pulled in at the Moorhayes farm I took in wafts of barnyard aroma that took me to the memories of every wheel of Keen’s I’d cut back home – a good sign no doubt. Moorhayes is home of the Tudor era farmhouse where the Keen family, Stephen and his wife Jennie, and his brother George with his wife Sue, and their sons Nick and James, respectively, carry on the tradition of cloth bound, raw milk cheddar from 250 or so Friesians Holsteins they pasture raise. When we arrived the family were busy working on the only other product they make, butter. I’m a huge fan of Amish butter and the Irish Kerrygold butter, but the Keen’s butter blew either of those away in fatty depth and complexity. This was a butter that was more satisfying and earthy than a third of the cheeses in our soft case (sorry Delice) and I suggest anyone visiting London slather it on bread while they can.

But back to the curd, we also had the fine timing to arrive just after the morning’s milk had been renneted. It was at this step that George Keen, a man clearly immensely knowledgeable and serious about his cheese, started touring us through his facility.

Now for those unfamiliar, rennet is a starter integral to the cheese making process that develops lactic acid in the milk (think lemon drops in a glass of milk). In cheesemaking, starters act as a signature, setting the flavour profile for cheese as well as affecting texture and moisture content. Unsurprisingly, Keen’s starter is a very special one indeed. I learned that George uses a high-maintenance live “pint starter” dating from whey sampled in the 1930s. Less than a dozen operations use such a starter, and they include James Montgomery’s mesmerizing cheddar down the road.

tour culminated in the Keen’s large storeroom, where hundreds of cheddar truckles are watched over, carefully tested and periodically turned as they age, usually no more than 14 months (though Keen’s preferred vintage is a year).It was truly a sight to behold, thousands of pounds of Keen’s in different states of maturation, from the freshly larded and cloth wrapped to riper older wheels just waiting to yield their grassly complexity to you, our customers. You can actually witness this aging process live online at through the West Country Cheesemakers website.

Which brings me to some end points: the West Country Cheesemakers are a kind of union of small scale cheddar makers designated with esteemed PDO (protected designation of origin) status that guarantees you a traditional product. Within this group, an elite three comprise those who were granted Slow Food’s prestigious Presidia protection for the extraordinary measures they take with their cheese, guess who two of those were? Montgomery’s and Keen’s Cheddar. In a market awash wash in gaudy imitators (artisan cheddar accounts for less than 5% of the global market), these are truly rare cheddars that I am proud to present at DiBrunos.

Enjoy Keen’s best with a fine hard cider such as Clos Normande, a nice ice wine, deep, bitter ale or a barley-wine style brew. Or comment below and tell me how you like you cheddar best, I welcome your pairings/recipes, and any unknown cheddar lore.

– Paul “Keen on Keen’s” Lawler