The art of smoking cheese told by a european pioneer
Anyone who decides to venture into the european competitive circuit, will sooner or later get to know Roger Sanderson. Roger is a polite person, kind and helpful, never larger then life, as well as a highly experienced KCBS judge, now in smell of promotion to Master Judge. If you happen to meet him along your barbecue trails around Europe, sooner or later you will certainly also have the opportunity to taste the result of one of his passions, the cheese that he smokes by himself in his Smokehouse in England. It is an experience that you will remember, I guarantee.
In view of Christmas, it came up to my mind, before trying to put some wheels in the smoker, to have a chat with someone who knows the art of smoking cheese and I thought you might be interested in.
BBQ enthusiast, experienced KCBS judge. Who exactly is Roger Sanderson and when did barbecue come into his life?
Well, who said I was a BBQ enthusiast? I like food, well prepared and just as importantly, well served – and in unusual places.
I spent twenty five years of my life working in the hedonistic world of Hot-Air Ballooning. If things went well, after an early morning flight, we’d cook a Full English Breakfast on the propane burners – just the pilot lights, the main burners would have blasted the frying pan and it’s contents into the next county! On special occasions, I’d serve champagne, caviar and smoked salmon sandwiches in flight.
In the mid ‘80’s, I decided to go for my Commercial Pilots License, I needed to fund it and a friend I knew was starting up a Corporate Hospitality business based around three ex-London double-decker busses, tastefully converted to catering units with a bar and galley downstairs and a cocktail area upstairs. A 4m awning fitted all the way around the bus and carpets were laid, We’d drive into a field – a racing circuit or similar, and four hours later there’d be a restaurant seating seventy five guests.
The food was prepared according to the season by highly professional chefs – they taught me nothing, but I learned so much more from them! At the end of the day, everything was packed away and yours truly had the job of driving the bus back to base, often arriving in the yard in the early hours of the morning. Seeing the BBQ competition site filling up and empty again is so reminiscent of my time ‘on the busses’!
Shortly after getting my license, I was offered a job out in Ontario and became the pilot of one of the largest balloons in Canada – quite a steep learning curve. I rented a room in the home of a talented Ontarian chef, Dave Onciul, and in exchange for cooking him English pub food, he showed me the Canadian style of cuisine. He also showed me the difference between grilling and BBQ – quite an eye opener.
I returned to the UK (via Namibia, Egypt and Kenya) and contented myself with flying passengers over the rolling countryside of the English Midlands, drinking champagne twice as day, cooking hearty breakfasts for my hardworking ground crew, and playing with a small WSM during the quiet days
In 2001, Foot & Mouth disease struck the UK and effectively killed off the balloon trade. Using my past experience in catering, I enrolled at a local catering college and retrained as a chef.
I had a couple of restaurant jobs but quickly realised that I had ‘employment claustrophobia’, I’ve been my own master for too long!
I struck out on my own doing catering for pheasant and duck shoots with the occasional funeral thrown in for good measure – I even worked as a cook and major domo in a private house for a few months.
About ten years ago, after giving an after-dinner speech at a Rotary evening I got ‘volunteered’ to be a judge at a Young Chef contest the following week. I’ve been doing this ever since (it’s a winter program owing to the academic exam schedule), and it’s really good to see the enthusiasm of young people (11 – 16), some of whom will go into the industry.
When I discovered that judges were in demand for BBQ events I took a judging course in the UK and did a few events for a couple of seasons. Finding it very restricting, I was delighted to discover KCBS and jumped over the fence (and the Channel) and have been happily tramping my way around Europe, rekindling the atmosphere of hot-aye balloon meets coupled with days spent as at mobile restaurateur – I came, I saw, I fitted in!
In the very colourful and noisy competition barbecue background, your meek and reserved attitude stands out. How do you live with the barbecue system?
Hmmm, I never knew I was meek!
As a Judge, whatever the event – BBQ or Young Chef, I have to maintain a slight distance from the competitors – if I have to give a low mark, I give a low mark regardless of who has produced the entry. Likewise, high marks are never awarded because I know the entrant has a nice dog!
I really like the blind judging system. Whenever I get asked “How did the judging go?” usually be a team member, my stock reply is “Interesting” – I’m not giving anything away and judges shouldn’t really be asked that question in the first place.
After the judging has finished, if I can I’ll stay around for the awards, but more often than not, I have a ferry to catch so I’m on the road as soon as I can – my job is done.
Anyone who has taken part in a competition in Europe knows of your smoked cheeses for sure. How was this passion born and when?
I‘ve never really planned my life, it just kind of happens.
I saw a cold smoking matrix advertised and bought one. I read the instructions and did a trial run. I wasn’t too impressed with the result so I re-read the instructions. The next run was better, and I just built it up from there – it’s something that I can do, so I do it.
I am a trained printer and still have contacts in the reprographic trade. Presentation is important to me, hence the waxing and labels. I have different coloured wax for each wood I use which makes stock control a lot easier.
It’s also something different I can take to the event – if I were judging a Cheese competition, I would probably turn up with ribs!
Which tools do you use for smoking cheese?
I have a couple of ProQ cold smoke matrices and an Artisan which I use most of the time now as I usually smoke off cheeses 10kg at a time.
I bought a redundant Smeg Fab fridge (‘50’s retro look) and ripped out the refrigeration unit, drilled a few holes at the base and one in the top. This is the mainstay of my cold smoking now, I could fit in 20kg if I had to, but would rather do it in two lots of ten.
A Handee wire cheese cutter is essential.
How long does the production take, from purchase of the cheese to the finished product?
I buy my cheese in as and when I need it from my local cash & carry wholesaler which is only ten minutes away from me. I usually smoke overnight when it’s cooler and give the cheese 12 to 15 hours, depending of the wood dust I am using. Some people think this is a lot, but Cheddar can take it.
I wrap it up and leave it to mature for at least two weeks. I then weigh, wax and label it, usually working in the evening, which is why I’m not seen very often in the local bars!
How many types of Cheese do you smoke and do you have a favourite one?
My mainstay is English Cheddar from the West Country. I can buy it confident in the consistency in taste a texture.
I have added hard Mozzarella to my repertoire; I prefer to leave Edam, Emmental, Gouda and Gruyere to the smokers of those countries – unless of course someone was to ask me to smoke some?
Fresh cheeses, seasoned, stringy, blue ones; there are many types of cheese. Do you find that some are more suitable than others to smoke?
I prefer hard cheeses as I’m familiar with the handling characteristics
The smoky note of your cheese is always very balanced, never intrusive. Is there an essence that you think is more suitable?
Here’s where I blow my cred completely out of the water – I just don’t know. I cut the cheese up; put it in the smoker, light the wood dust then shut the door. The following morning I go and have a look to see what’s happened. It could be a distant relative of the Tooth Fairy working away in there for all I know!
After its matured, I have a team of guinea pigs, or testers as they like to be called, at my local bar. I put it in front of them then stand back and watch their faces and body language. This is a more accurate measure than any words. I’ve weeded out the ones who say it’s ‘nice’ just because it’s free food!
Basing on your experience, what advice would you give to those who want to try to smoke cheese in their home for the first time?
Read the instructions, be patient and remember what you’ve done – only alter thing one at a time.
Is there a cheese you have always liked to try to smoke but you still don’t?
I would like to try some hard goats’ cheese at some point, and also like to learn about the process of coating cheese in ash.
Are you planning some special production for Christmas?
All my Christmas cheese production is done, 85% is now in the Netherlands. The week before Christmas I’ll be baking off Canadian Hams together with some Leek, Stilton and Apple Pies.
I’ve noticed that you’re expanding the experiments to other elements, such as honey and mustard. How is it going?
Both the Honey and Dijon Mustard have been very well received – again most of it has gone out to the Netherlands.
Which are the next projects on your smoking schedule?
I hope to become a Master Judge early in 2017, and then I would like to join a team very occasionally to cook the ancillary rounds.
Do you live this only as a hobby or are you planning more, one day?
Whatever I do as a hobby, someone sometime will want to pay me for it – that’s how I became a full time balloon pilot!
At the moment, my smokehouse funds m European travels, I suppose that one day it will supplement my pension!
I can only thank Roger for his valuable suggestions, hoping that the wheels that I’m about to put in my smoker will become as good as his ones, waiting to be able to taste them again in the next competition, in which he will be present. Let’s go with the saw dust now …!