It is a sign of how deep into the digital age we now are that the phrase 'broke the internet' has become something of a cliché. But the announcement that Mathew Carver's Cheese Truck would be setting up a bricks-and-mortar site in Camden in April – The Cheese bar – while not quite routing the routers, certainly sent Twitter and Facebook into metaphorical meltdown.
I take it as a compliment that not one, but 23 of my friends tagged me beneath its viral video: my determination to make everything in life about cheese has not gone unnoticed. But what made me even more excited about this impending orgy of grilling and grating, melting and frying, was the rumour that its menu was going to include both curds and whey.
Now I'm no Little Miss Muffet, and nor am I Mary Quicke, a Devonshire cheesemaker who insists that junket – the official name for the curds and whey dish of nursery rhyme fame – is "delicious." Traditionally made from fresh milk, slightly warmed and set by rennet, it is "like panna cotta in texture," she continues, "but why make panna cotta when you can have this?"
Served in a bowl with a sprinkle of nutmeg, it is – or was – the farmer's equivalent of nicking a spoon of cake mixture before putting it in the oven: that mixture is the first part of the cheesemaking process, so eating it now means less butter, and less cheese.
"You just couldn't help yourself," she recalls, laughing as she tries to persuade me of the virtues of this jelly-like mixture which, as soon as you stir your spoon through it, becomes a lumpy, watery mess. The liquid is whey; the lumps the curds, which, once drained and aged, become cheese. But if there are any forms of whey and curds I can totally, fully and whole-stomachedly get on board with, it is the Cheese Truck's grilled anglum (a salty, halloumi-like cheese made with whey) and the classic Canadian curd dish poutine.
Both of these are on the Cheese Bar menu – but it is not here that I first discover the culinary potential of curds and whey in their own right. I'd been ogling butter in Neal's Yard Dairy in Borough Market when I saw the label 'whey butter'. I was intrigued. From what I knew about cheese, whey was a byproduct; a problem, largely, to be disposed of via agriculture, turned into whey powder, or in some cases just thrown down the drain.
Whey was sometimes simply thrown down the drain
I'd met cheesemaker Bill Oglethorpe before and, from what I understood, his whey went to London's city farms for pig feed. Was this a new creation? I asked Martin Tkalez, the manager of Neal's Yard Dairy. The answer, as with all things dairy, was far from straightforward.
"It's been around a while," he explains. "We've always stocked a couple of whey butters alongside our cream butters, from Keens and Abbey Farm as well as Kappacasein." Though Ogelthorpe only started making whey butter around 2014, using the whey squeezed from curds going into his signature cheese, Bermondsey Hard Pressed, whey butter itself is ancient – so much so it is entered on Slow Food UK's website as a 'forgotten food'.
"Unlike ordinary British butter, produced using fresh milk, the butterfat within whey butter undergoes the initial processes of cheesemaking," says the entry. The cream of the whey is extracted, slightly soured by the addition of culture, and churned to produce a butter that's lighter and more flavoursome than that churned straight from milk cream.
It's deemed 'forgotten' because "producers of whey butter are rare due to production methods being time-consuming, labour intensive and requiring specific skills only known by a limited number of dairymen," it continues. Oglethorpe is one such man, having cut his milk teeth in the Swiss Alps with veteran cheese producers; Stephen Keene and Mary Quicke are, too, hailing from ancient dairy farming families.
"You need people who value the cheesy, nutty flavour," says Quicke. "You can use it like any butter, but there is a complexity" – one which customers not just of Neal's Yard Dairy, but of such illustrious establishments as The Ledbury, Portland and Pitt Cue are learning to appreciate.
We haven't always done so. "We had margarine in my household growing up," laughs Tkalez. "Now I sell several different types of artisanal butter. People are interested." Taking the time to learn about the butters, label them clearly and taste them has put their butter sales up about 40% year on year. To some extent this is a natural consequence of the growing demand for good cheese. "I think raw ingredients are the main driving force here. You don't have butter mongers or whey mongers. These are byproducts, made and sold by people making cheese on an artisanal rather than industrial scale."
Whey has been a headache for cheesemakers ever since the demise of mixed-economy farming. The proximity of Melton Mowbray, of pork pie fame, to the village of Stilton is no coincidence; the abundance of stilton producers in the region made pig food easy to come by. But as monoculture took hold and cheese production grew bigger and more centralised, simply carting industrial quantities of whey down to the nearest pig farm became unfeasible – nor could it be spread over fields at such levels without harm.
"I think people tend to romanticise it; they talk about parma ham pigs feeding on the whey of parmesan, of stilton and pork pies – but you get loads of whey when you're making cheese," he points out. "It's basically ten to one by volume."
Dishes that use curds and whey – in pictures:
Artisanal producers with a smaller turnover, as well as being better able to feed pigs and land (Oglethorpe still sends some to the farms, I learn; there's only so much butter you can make and sell), are both more able and more incentivised to find ways of profiting from their whey and any spare curds. "They're a cash crop," Tkalez says. While the mainstay – the cheeses – are maturing, whey and fresh curds can be sold rapidly: the curds as they come, the whey as butter, straight whey for a range of culinary uses, whey ricotta or even, in a complete surprise entry, vodka.
I track it down – it seems the only sensible option – and discover its name is Black Cow Vodka, and the maker is a dairy farmer based in west Dorset, Jason Barber. He describes how he got there: "I'm a farmer, so I've time to think, and if I drink it has to be something that doesn't stop me from getting up at 5am the next morning." The holy grail, he said, was clean vodka – so when he thought about returning to a previous home-brewing hobby, brewing vodka seemed obvious.
"I knew the Mongols had brewed spirits from mare's milk, so I thought I could do it – and lactose of course is a sugar: one of the cleanest on the planet." Even before you start brewing the sugar has already been filtered, having gone through the four stomachs of a cow.
"There's no woody alcohol, as you'd get from rye, wheat or potatoes, so it's clean to taste" – with, he says, a slightly creamy element which makes it great in espresso martinis. Indeed, so pure is this vodka – distilled, blended, triple-filtered – it is 'mineral-hungry', making it a great accompaniment to cheese.
Procuring cheese, for Barber, is no issue; it's all part of the process, during which he takes his milk to his cousins who make Barber's 1833 vintage cheddar with the curds and extract the whey cream to make butter. The remaining whey goes back with him to his still "It is a waste product," he says.
"But you find things to do with it." It's this shift in perspective – from whey as waste to whey as promise – that seems to define whey's growing presence in farm shops, restaurant menus and most recently, bars.
Whey is a waste product, but you find things to use it in
If, like me, you are still dreaming of the halloumi-style cheese I mentioned at the start – apologies. It's easy to get sidetracked when it comes to milk's mercuriality. This cheese, served at the Cheese Bar, hails from north London, though its origins lie about 2,000 miles and hundreds of years away. Anthony Heard is the founder of Kupros Dairy. He draws upon his own Cypriot heritage to produce a cheese cooked, brined and seasoned in its own whey, much in the manner of halloumi.
"The high temperature denatures the properties in the curd, resulting in a cheese you can fry without it melting," he explains. It'll grill and fry like halloumi – but he can't call it that thanks to EU legislation, so look for anglum at the Cheese Bar. Look out for his anari, too – not content with using the whey of the anglum to brine the anglum curds, Heard has gone yet another step further: reusing the whey from the brining process, adding more raw fresh sheep's milk, and collecting the solids as they rise to create a soft, citrusy whey cheese similar to ricotta.
Fans of Gourmet Goat's roast vegetable salad last year will recall what Nadia Stokes of GG describes as "a lovely balance of acidity, sweetness and creaminess." In fact, it goes particularly well with another so-called waste product of the dairy industry sold by Gourmet Goat: rose veal.
The Cypriots' thrift is by no means unwarranted. In a land not blessed with great wealth, no drop of precious sheep's milk could be squandered. Whey was used in bread making, the proteins were hung, salted and dried to be grated, or they were eaten fresh. In Cyprus, Heard tells me, anari is affectionately known as the 'bastard' cheese.
The demand from Michelin-starred chefs – Lyles' James Lowe; US chef Dan Barber, whose wastED residency at Selfridges was a huge hit – for whey is of course not borne of necessity. They run restaurants for well-heeled customers in London and Manhattan. But it is driven by a desire to reduce their waste, and to illustrate to their customers exactly what so-called 'waste' products can do.
Savoury sauces; salad dressings; tenderising meat and fish; cocktails; bread; and a form of dulce de leche, made by reducing the whey down to a caramel consistency. Where there's a will there's a whey, it seems, for both Barber and Lowe, who buys it by the bucket load each week from Blackwoods dairy and loves its "outrageous funky flavours with notes of cow and cheese.
"Initially they weren't going to charge us for it. But we wanted to pay them, because we want to support those farmers and producers who are operating on a smaller scale," Lowe continues. "They make great things – and they're responsive, too" he explains. The personal relationship that can form between producers like Dave Holton of Blackwoods and chefs like Lowe means they can cater to their whims, supplying whey in two litre bottles, or keeping back some curd from hitting the cheese room.
Nowhere is this more in evidence than with poutine's progress in London, from leftfield Canadian specialty to cult dish with a loyal lunchtime following. Toronto-born Paul Dunits was one of the first to really establish this mess of gravy, curds and chips in London, and tells me his curds producer is a cheddar maker who now sets aside a large proportion of his curds for poutine. He found him through Neal's Yard Dairy.
"I'm not telling you who," he grins over the thick, treacly vats of beef gravy and deep fat fryers at his stall, The Poutinerie. Good poutine, he says, is like Italian food: "There's only three ingredients. There's nothing to hide behind, so they all need to be high quality." The producer is currently in the process of installing a freezer so his curds are as squeaky as possible. "Back home they are squeakier, because you don't have to refrigerate them so much as you do unpasteurised curds – but they are also often mass-produced."
Cheddar curds have long been a thing back in Canada: fried, fresh, on chips, "they're a point-of-sale snack, especially in Quebec," Dunits explains. "The story goes that a truck driver asked for gravy on top of his curds and chips to keep it warm while he drove, and the lady serving it protested it would make a mess – 'faire une poutine!'" The hurdle over here was that the word curd, to the Brits, conjured up weird textures: "School dinners, I was often told."
He got round this by stressing to all who asked that the curds would melt on contact with the hot gravy so it was more stringy, like mozzarella. "It's our piss-up food, at home," he grins, "hence coming here", he gestures around him. We're in the garden of The Gunners Pub in Islington, on the morning of an Arsenal match and while the smell of fatalism hangs in the air, the umami aroma of chips and beef lends the proceedings at least a glimmer of hope.
Come late June and July, Martin Tkalez anticipates being swamped with requests for curd: "It's the 150th anniversary of Canada's birthday, so to speak, and Canadians keep warning us. We'll have to be sandbagged with it, I reckon," he says. For their cheesemakers, however, it is excellent news: "It's cheaper for my supplier to do this," Dunits points out. "He doesn't have to press and age it into cheddar, which can take 18 months." He also values the feedback. "When I came back from Canada he asked me how the curds were, and I said, 'to tell you the truth, mate, yours are better.'"
No Insta-meal is complete without a snap of a goat's curd dish
"We've great dairy in this country," Lowe enthuses. The difference unpasturised milk makes to dairy products like curds, whey and cheese is one he himself admits to taking for granted much of the time – but which, when guest chefs come over from Canada, the US or Australia, does not go unnoticed. "Sometimes they're tasting it for the first time, and they're like 'Holy crap, this is phenomenal, what is this?" he laughs. "You forget how special it is."
Is whey the way forward? Could curd really be the future? It's certainly modish, if the prevalence of curd on starter and dessert menus is are anything to go by. No Insta-meal is complete without a snap of goats' curd mixed with beetroot or stuffed into courgette flowers these days. "In general we find that people are thinking less about using meats, and using more Ottolenghi-inspired ingredients," says Tkalez – for of course, where there's a food trend in town, there's the beaming Yotam Ottolenghi somewhere behind it. "The appeal, I think, is that you can be quite diverse with it. It's also less calorific by volume so is seen as a 'healthier alternative' to hard cheese."
As for whey, despite Dan Barber's much-fêted efforts at wastED (think broccoli stems with whey béchamel and a dry-aged beef end crumble), Tkalez sincerely doubts that's it's the next sriracha or tahini. "It's an absolutely amazing substance, you can do so much with it, and it's an incredible source of different kinds of active microbes – but it is always going to be niche." Remember when kefir was being touted a few years ago as the next big thing? "It's still obscure. Whey is equally as good a probiotic, and far tastier, but it's not graspable for customers. You can't sample it out as you can curd." Experiment by all means – there are plenty recipes for whey online, and curds make an excellent cheesecake – but don't worry if, like me, you'd rather celebrate our endlessly enterprising, flourishing artisanal cheese industry by booking a table at Lyle's or heading to the Cheese Bar and joining the queue.