A little bit crumbly, a little bit creamy, wrapped in nettles – no doubt about it, Yarg cheese is a Cornish original. We go down to the dairy and meet its makers.
Every region has its own cheese, often with closely guarded recipes going back centuries. But there’s a new(ish) kid on the block. Invented in the 1980s, Yarg is a Cornish cheese made only by Lynher Dairies in Ponsanooth in the west of the county. Unusually, it’s wrapped in nettle or wild garlic leaves and has a distinctive texture and flavour that has won it several Great Taste awards. Catherine Mead, the dairy’s owner, explains what makes this award-winning cheese a true taste of the Cornish landscape.
What is Yarg?
Yarg is a semi-hard cows’ milk cheese, not dissimilar to a Caerphilly cheese. It’s matured so that it’s creamy at the rind and crumbly at the core. With wild nettle Yarg, we hand-paint nettles onto the cheese and mould-ripen it for four weeks. We also make a wild garlic Yarg which ripens differently, so they become two quite distinct cheeses.
What’s the story of the cheese?
Alan Gray was making it as a kitchen-based project, which he started in the 1980s. It’s named after him: Yarg is Gray backwards. In 1984 he sold the recipe to Michael and Margaret Horrell, who were farming near Bodmin Moor. In 1995 my husband and I moved to West Cornwall to take on the family farm and we worked together with them to bring their dairy up to capacity. We built our dairy at our farm in 2000 and now all production happens here.
What impact does the local environment have on the cheese?
All our milk comes from our immediate locality, which gives us the assurance that the terroir is the same. It’s part of the reason we moved production away from Bodmin Moor to Lynher. The cheese from there was different because the seasons were slightly different there. The grass here was slightly ahead of that on the Moor, and the weather is different. You could taste the difference in the landscape in the cheese.
How easy is it to get the combination of crumbliness and creaminess in a cheese?
The milk from our cows is fatter and the fats are softer than in other parts of the country. A fatter cheese, by its nature, has a crumbly, more open texture, so we have to work hard to keep the fat for the flavour benefits but without the softness. We get the moisture out of the curd at the critical point to get the crumbly-creamy combo spot-on.
How do you harvest the garlic and nettles?
We have a lot of wild garlic growing on the farm, but the nettles come from all over because they need more space to grow. One two-litre ice cream tub equals one kilo weight of nettle leaves – and we use 3,000 kilos. That’s a lot of nettles! Typically, we pick those that grow in a westerly direction because they are ready earlier, and we pick them from other local farms. We have a group of people who supply us with nettles. It’s foraging on a grand scale. The conditions in which nettles grow affect the way they look. We want them with a big, broad, green leaf, grown with no wind, in shade, with not too much rain. Hedgerows have the perfect conditions, as do some areas of woodland, whereas the nettles that grow in fields are the opposite. A lot of sunshine makes nettles good for fibre, but nothing else.
Why do you use nettles and wild garlic as a rind?
We sterilise each leaf with citric acid to get rid of any debris, and paint them on with a paintbrush. At this point the nettle mysteriously adheres itself to the cheese and becomes part of it. It’s a process called proteolysis and it forms a rind, which you have to cut off before you eat it. The nettles are permeable and encourage a Brie-like mould to act on the outside, which breaks down the cheese in a certain way; it makes it creamy at the rind and crumbly at the centre.
The garlic leaf, on the other hand, isn’t permeable. It’s antimicrobial and repels mould, so its impact on the cheese is different. The cheese matures differently and remains firm to become a ripe cheese. When you sample them side by side, you can’t compare them. They become two entirely different products.
What impact do the leaves have on the flavour of the cheese?
The nettles give a soft, earthy smell to the cheese, though this is very subtle; the impact of the nettle leaf is much more in the texture. You do get the flavour with the wild garlic and it permeates the cheese.
To what extent is Yarg a distinctively Cornish cheese?
Cornwall has fabulous nature, sunshine, fresh air and a great farming tradition, and to be Cornish is great. But none of that matters if the cheese isn’t up to scratch. The peripherality of Cornwall is part of its attraction for visitors, but that makes things like transport complicated, of course. We aim to be sustainable in the landscape and also commercially, because there’s a relationship between the two. We employ 30 people, who are all local, and we are committed to this part of Cornwall. In a rural area such as this there aren’t lots of employment alternatives, so we owe it to them to make the best product we can. Part of that is our green credentials, but we’re always trying to improve and move things forward so that we’re offering a future to our team and to the community we’re in as well.
What’s your favourite way to eat Yarg?
I go for simplicity. I like to use it in dishes where you can taste the cheese still and not lose it among strong ingredients. Yarg has a low melting point, so it’s great when toasted on good-quality bread, with some tomatoes, pancetta or bacon and maybe pickles, or perhaps melted on a baked potato. That’s the best thing ever, I think.
Read this article as it originally appeared on Flavourfirst