The farm is much like many you’ll see scattered across our countryside – handsome old stone buildings coexisting with modern barns and sheds. Cattle will graze for as much of the year as the weather allows, usually from mid-April to November, to take advantage of the excellent pasture. These days the farm makes about 15 truckles of cheddar a day, increasing up to 18 from January to March when the milk is at its most plentiful.
To enter the ageing barn is to step back a century in time: a huge space, shelves neatly stacked with some 6,000 truckles – a year’s worth. It’s a striking sight. The one anomaly is the bright red figure of a Henry vacuum cleaner sitting on top of a very tall ladder where it serves as pest control to any potential cheese mites on the rind.
The stacking of truckles is a job much like the painting of the Golden Gate bridge – as soon as the last one is done, the first one begins again.
Now, protecting the starter is one of the most important tasks on the farm. They keep seven strains of the bacteria alive –one for each day of the week. Shelves carry Monday cheeses, Tuesday cheeses and so on; all are distinctively Montgomery but each will have a subtly different flavour profile. Some customers even have a preference. ‘Most of my role is tasting and grading cheeses and selecting for particular customers. I get to see a pattern that nobody else sees and that’s constantly fascinating’, he says.
‘There was already cheesemaking here before my grandfather arrived in 1911, as there would have been on every dairy farm,’ says Jamie. ‘The grass is good around here – you didn’t have to have many cows before you had too much milk and had to find a way of storing it.’
Jamie has spent his life making cheese in the same way as his grandfather, using the same materials and probably very similar bacteria. The starter bacteria were bred by the 400 or so cheesemakers in Somerset in the 1950s. ‘In the old days, they didn’t know that viruses in the air, known as ‘phages’, could kill the crucial bacteria. They just knew that if they used it for a long time, it would eventually stop working. So when they bred a good one, they’d share it with all the local farms. Then they’d know that if theirs died, they could go to another farm and ask for some of it back.’ It made the ethos of cheesemaking different from every other kind of farming: more ‘we’re in this together’ than ‘you’re on your own’. As a member of the Special Cheesemaking Association, Jamie feels that same camaraderie today.
Protecting the starter bacteria is one of the most important tasks on the farm. They keep seven strains of it alive – one for each day of the week. Shelves carry Monday cheeses, Tuesday cheeses and so on; all are distinctively Montgomery, but each will have a subtly different flavour profile. Some customers even have a preference. ‘Most of my role is tasting and grading cheeses and selecting for customers. I get to see a pattern that nobody else sees and that’s constantly fascinating,’ he saysJamie is regularly invited to America to talk to cheesemakers – or rather to share his secrets. ‘They always ask: what’s the one thing they can do that makes the magic? But the truth is, I don’t know.’ It’s in the air of a hundred-year-old barn, it’s in the grass and the rich, sweet balance of the unpasteurised milk. That’s a secret Jamie can’t share if he wanted to.