‘The creation of our cheddar can be put down to a lucky accident really’ says Nicholas Barber. In the days when there was no refrigeration, milk from our cows that hadn’t been drunk during the day would be left out. Overnight the milk with the right amount of bacteria in it would ‘turn’ or start the process of changing into cheese. This friendly bacteria is what starter culture is.
If you add a little of this into some fresh milk the naturally occurring bacteria in it will start to absorb nutrients from the milk, which helps them to grow. They will continue growing until the balance of bacteria is right for the cheese to be mixed with rennet and turned into curds and whey. ‘Without a starter culture you simply can’t make cheese’ says Nicholas.
‘Our starter culture is the signature of our cheese. We’re simply doing just as our ancestors did, only these days we have the technology to choose the blend of bacteria that we think makes our cheese taste the best. Our starters provide character and individuality. It’s what makes our cheddar taste so good, so more-ish. It gives it structure and flavour.
These days it’s no accident that these same ‘helpful’ bacteria continue to make Barber’s award-winning 1833 cheddar today. When Nicholas was making cheese over 30 years ago (Nicholas’ son’s now make the cheese day-to-day, ‘although I still pop my head in each day, just to make sure everything’s as it should be’ he says!) he had a decision to make. Most cheddar makers were starting to use freeze-dried starter cultures (DVI’s) – they still do today. ‘I was never convinced they could make cheese that tasted any good, let alone cheese that could be better than ours. One day a salesman came to the farm trying to sell DVI’s, so I said let’s put this to the test, go head-to-head! You make some cheese with your starter and I’ll make some with mine, then come back in a year’s time and we’ll taste them’. So that’s what we did.
I wasn’t worried. I knew what would happen. Sure enough when we tasted the two cheeses the salesman said, “you’re right. There’s no comparison”.’
So as a family we decided that traditional starter cultures needed to be protected – if they died out then proper West Country cheddar would too. So we set up a lab to keep the cultures safe and to this day the process continues. In essence, the culture starts everything off; we keep a little of the new milk and starter mixture back; which then becomes the starter for the next batch; and so it continues, every day, and hopefully for many more years, and generations of Barber’s to come.