The Great British Cheese Panorama

Cheese is an essential part of British culture, with a history that stretches back thousands of years and over 700 named cheeses produced on the island.

Yet like many products, the way it is produced, and by whom, has changed substantially in recent times. Nowadays the vast majority of British cheese is produced industrially with pasteurized milk, selected starter cultures and a long chain of middle-men between the farm and the table.

But there’s a small number of producers out there who are dedicated to keeping tradition alive. Few know more about these producers than Jason Hinds of Neal’s Yard Dairy, the nation’s finest affineurs and regular guests at Cheese. I sat down with Jason to discuss a few of the Great British Cheeses, and the producers who are living proof of a courageous resistance to industrial logic. But before we dive further in…

WHERE TO FIND NEAL’S YARD DAIRY AT CHEESE 2019

  • In the International Market on Affineur Alley
  • In the Taste Workshop God Save the Cheese, Friday September 20 at 7 p.m. at the Liceo Scientifico Giolitti-Gandino (the cheeses described in this article have been chosen in accordance with the cheeses featured in this workshop)
  • In the workshop British Cheese and Barolo Wine, Saturday September 21 at 1 p.m. at the Vicino DiVino enoteca
  • In the workshop Among the Greats, Saturday September 21 at 4 p.m. at the Vicino DiVino enoteca

Ph. Paolo Properzi.

CAERPHILLY – THE MINERS’ CHEESE

We start with Caerphilly, named after a mining town in South Wales but which has just as much an English heritage as a Welsh one, as Jason explains. “When the coal boom arrived in South Wales in the late 19th century there was a huge increase in demand for a good source of fat, salt and protein that the men could take underground with them. This cheese grew out of that, but there were so many miners coming to work in the pits that demand outstripped supply.”

For those of you unfamiliar with British geography, Caerphilly is close to the Severn Estuary, the body of water which separates South Wales from England. “So cheesemakers on the other side of the estuary in Somerset, the home of cheddar, took to making Caerphilly cheese for a quick turnover. For while cheddar takes a long time to make, they could make and sell Caerphilly in a matter of weeks. Lots of cheddar makers took on this second cheese, which was destined for Wales on boats.”

So what is Caerphilly? “Essentially it’s squeaky, pressed acid curd. There’s almost no rind and it can ripen quite well. But it wouldn’t have been sold quite as young then as it is sold now. It would have been aged for 2 or 3 months.”

Over the course of the 20th century, and in particular during the reign of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the coal mining industry was largely shut down. Caerphilly cheese suffered a similar fate. “By the early 1990s there was only one producer left—Chris Duckett—making Caerphilly with raw milk, and he was located in western Somerset. Then a Welsh man who worked for Neal’s Yard by the name of Todd Trethowan went to go and make cheese with Chris. Todd had a family farm in West Wales, so after learning how to make raw milk Caerphilly from Chris he went to make it on his family property, bringing traditional Caerphilly production back to Wales. In the last five years Todd and his brother Morgan have moved the business back to Somerset once again and started to make cloth-bound raw milk cheddar. This close relationship between cheddar and Caerphilly continues to this day! And now we’re doing the first review of the artisan cheddar Presidium, we’re hoping that the Trethowan cheddar will become part of the Presidium!”

Gorwydd Caerphilly, photo courtesy of Neal’s Yard Dairy.

RED LEICESTER – RAW MILK RESURRECTION

This is an iconic cheese in Britain, one you can find (albeit in its industrial version) in supermarkets up and down the country. Farmers in Leicestershire had developed the technique of adding vegetable dye to the milk to give the cheese its distinctive red color as early as the 17th century. It may come as a surprise to learn, then, that the traditional farmhouse version of this cheese had disappeared completely before being revived. “It was extinct. There was no raw milk version. When the Clarke family started producing it in 2005, it was the first time there had been a raw milk Leicester cheese in 50 years. Neal’s Yard were the first to buy a whole wheel. They have an amazing herd of animals that produce amazing milk. They are keen to celebrate this milk, and get a better premium on it by using it to make cheese.”

The cheese also has a historic relationship with that other Midlands favorite: Stilton. Indeed, they were often produced by the same dairies, with Red Leicester being made with the surplus milk left over from Stilton production. “Most of the milk was consumed as it is or turned into cream. The surplus was then preserved by curdling, thus turning into cheese. Stilton gained its popularity because  the village was a popular stop for coaches on the Great North Road between London and Edinburgh.   The cheese produced closest to the inns was the blue cheese we call Stilton, but it got its name from the coach stop. It was actually produced, along with Red Leicester, in farms all across the region.”

Sparkenhoe Red Leicester, photo courtesy of Neal’s Yard Dairy.

WENSLEYDALE – A VICTIM OF THE WAR

The tradition behind the production of Wensleydale cheese, like many British cheeses (including Caerphilly and Stilton) suffered irreparably because of the Second World War. “As part of the war effort the government effectively nationalized all cheese production in order to preserve the national milk supply as well as possible. That meant short shelf life cheeses were not allowed to be made. All we had was the so-called National Cheese, otherwise known as Government Cheddar. The farmhouse versions disappeared, and many of the farmers who had been the custodians of artisanal cheesemaking traditions either stopped making cheese afterwards, or didn’t return from the war.”

The government-owned Wensleydale Creamery was shut down in 1992, because it was considered inefficient, but within six months a team of former workers bought the dairy outright, and restarted production independently. “Neal’s Yard were involved in the creation of this new generation of Wensleydale. Up until the late 1990s all their cheese was produced industrially, bagged in Cryovac bags and put in a cold room as soon as it was made. They use were already using liquid starters, but we persuaded them not to put the cheese in bags so it could mature correctly. We also made suggestions for changes to the recipe, including the use of an animal rennet, and this has been successful. We’ve created a market for this authentic Wensleydale, albeit using pasteurized milk. They’ve not made the jump yet to using raw milk from a single herd.”

There are others who have started making raw milk Wensleydale in the very same town as the larger Creamery, we’re happy to announce: the Ribblesdale Cheese Company makes it using milk from a single herd, though they do use selected starter cultures. The same can be said of the Whin Yeats dairy in Cumbria. Alas, today there is still no truly natural Wensleydale on the market.

Hawes Wensleydale, photo courtesy of Neal’s Yard Dairy.

CHESHIRE – THE ORIGINAL NATIONAL CHEESE

While today for many English cheese is synonymous with cheddar, Cheshire cheese was the indispensable national cheese for centuries. “You would have found Cheshire everywhere, because it kept for a long time and so was traded on boats. The lineage of this cheese goes all the way back to the Roman occupation of Britain. At the beginning of the 20th century there two or three thousand farms making Cheshire, making it by far the most widespread cheese on the island. But by the time I started selling cheese in the 1990s, there were just three producers left making raw milk Cheshire, and this eventually whittled down to just one: Appleby’s. And they’re still the only one[1].”

The decline in popularity of Cheshire cheese is perversely due to how badly it adapted to modern production methods. “The industrial Cheshire sold now is this dry, tasteless, salty acid cheese with no flavor. It doesn’t figure much any more in the British cheese scene. Without Lucy Appleby it may have been wiped out altogether. Now they’re into their third generation of cheesemakers, and they’re working to piece together fragments of history to try and replicate how they think the finest raw milk Cheshire cheese of the past may have tasted.”

by Jack Coulton, info.eventi@slowfood.it

Appleby’s Cheshire, photo courtesy of Neal’s Yard Dairy.

[1]     “In the late 1980s a series of public health scares led supermarkets to stop selling cheese made from unpasteurised milk. Whilst many cheesemakers felt compelled to pasteurise their milk in order retain the supermarkets’ business, Appleby did not follow suit believing that quality unpasteurised milk was key to the flavour and texture of her cheese. Appleby subsequently co-founded, with Randolph Hodgson, the Specialist Cheesemakers Association, to lobby for the preservation of cheeses made with unpasteurised milk and to encourage excellence in farmhouse cheesemaking.” From Wikipedia

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