With ample rolling green hills perfect for grazing livestock, England had a rich tradition of farmhouse cheesemaking from Roman times until WWII. Over 90% of traditional cheesemaking ceased with the centralized food production introduced during the war years, but thankfully England’s most famous cheeses survived and many more have been resurrected by passionate producers in the past few decades. Here are five to look out for.
While over half the cheese consumed in English-speaking countries is called cheddar, squeeze tubes, shelf-stable blocks, and plastic-wrapped slices are a far cry from the authentic cloth-wrapped cheeses made in the rich pasturelands of southwestern England. The Somerset village of Cheddar gave its name to the cheese and to ‘cheddaring’, the process of stacking blocks of curd atop one another to drain. Traditional farmhouse cheddar from the counties of Dorset, Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall, nearly extinct by the end of World War II, is enjoying a resurgence under the West Country Farmhouse Cheddar PDO appellation.
Soft, blue-veined, sheep’s milk cheeses were once made all over England, and the origin of the most famous one is a bit hazy. The story goes that in the early 1700s the housekeeper of Leicestershire’s Quenby Hall revived an old household recipe for ‘Lady Beaumont’s cheese’ and passed it on to an enterprising local woman, Frances Pawlett. Frances perfected it, organized local farmers to produce it, and supplied it to the Bell Inn in nearby Stilton. The inn was an important stagecoach stop on the London–Edinburgh road and so word of ‘the cheese from Stilton’ was spread far and wide, though it has never actually been produced in Stilton. Today it’s made by just seven dairies in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, and Leicestershire.
Semi-hard British cow’s milk cheeses are traditionally named for their native counties. Annatto seed was traditionally used to dye Leicester cheese deep orange-red, but it became white during the austerity measures of WWII. Post-war, when dying resumed, the name became Red Leicester to differentiate it from the pale wartime version. Gloucester is another popular English territorial classic that died out during WWII, but was revived in 1978; Single Gloucester was usually made from skim milk on butter-making days, and Double Gloucester on days when full-cream milk was available. Cheshire, Britain’s oldest named cheese, is also often dyed orange with annatto.
This washed-rind cheese created by Charles Martell in Gloucestershire in 1972 is made from cow’s milk and washed with perry (pear cider). It’s wrapped in a strip of beechwood and although the sticky orange rind develops a pungent whiff, it’s milder tasting than the name and smell suggest; when fully ripe it has a supple, almost-spoonable, interior. Rather than a reference to the cheese’s aroma, Stinking Bishop is the name of the pear cultivar commonly used for cider making in Gloucestershire.
This semi-hard cow’s milk cheese from Cornwall in England’s southwest is covered in local nettle leaves, which develop a dusting of white mould. It was created in the 1980s based on a 17th century recipe that Alan and Jenny Gray found in the attic of their old farm; the name ‘yarg’ is simply Gray spelled backwards. Its slightly crumbly, ivory-coloured interior tastes buttery and lemony (like Welsh Caerphilly), becoming creamier near the rind.
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