Eight years have passed since I wrote about Sharpham Rustic in the San Francisco Chronicle, and I have hardly seen this lovely cheese since. Why it isn’t more popular eludes me. The price has not budged on this English farmstead beauty. I paid $22.99 a pound then, which probably seemed like a lot, and $22.99 a pound recently, which now seems like a bargain.
Sharpham is a 500-acre farm and vineyard in South Devon. Like Shelburne Farms in Vermont, Sharpham is owned by a charitable trust that promotes sustainability. The estate’s wines, cheeses and visitor activities provide income, and my guess is that the cheeses outclass the wine.
Jersey cows provide the rich milk for Sharpham Rustic. In 2007, when I initially wrote about the cheese, the milk was raw and certified organic. But organic feed became too expensive, says Mark Sharman, the managing director. The farm has dropped its certification but continues to farm with minimal inputs, Sharman told me via e-mail. And the milk is heat treated (thermized) now, so it’s neither raw nor fully pasteurized.
In the image above, you can note a few of this cheese’s distinctive qualities. It’s rare to find the white Penicillium candidum bloom on hard cheese; most bloomy-rind cheeses are soft or semisoft, like Camembert. The wheel’s flying-saucer shape is also peculiar, the result of draining in a half-dome mold. The draining curd is flipped partway through to make the finished wheel roughly symmetrical. Berkswell, an English sheep’s milk cheese, has the same shape.
Matured for six to eight weeks at the creamery, then for another month or so in transit, the four-pound cheese ripens gradually from the outside in. You can see that half-inch band of creamy paste just under the rind. But unlike Brie and Camembert, Sharpham Rustic will never get fully supple. The center will remain dryish and crumbly, even brittle. While the part near the rind develops a mushroom aroma, the interior retains a lactic, milky fragrance and tart taste. I love that duality.
Most cheeses intended for aging are pressed to expel whey. But when Sharpham Rustic was created almost 25 years ago, the creamery did not have room for the pressing equipment, so the cheesemaker cooked the curd instead—another means of eliminating whey. These hybrid methods—bloomy rind, cooked curd—explain why Sharpham Rustic develops as it does.
Pictured above is Sharpham Rustic with Chives and Garlic, a variation on the original, plain wheel. I’m not usually keen on flavored cheeses, but Sharpham nails it. The herbaceous, oniony aromas are inviting and not overdone, and the salt is just right.
Look for Sharpham Rustic with Chives and Garlic at the Pasta Shop in Oakland and Berkeley and at Sunshine Foods in St. Helena. Or nudge your retailer; the importer is Fine Cheese Company and the Bay Area distributor is Fresca Italia. The cheese is also part of the U.K. Cheese Collection at Williams-Sonoma. I couldn’t find that collection on the chain’s website, although I’m told it will return in a few days. You can order the plain Sharpham Rustic from www.artisanalcheese.com.