England may not have earned as high a reputation for its cheeses as our continental cousins on the other side of the English Channel, but English cheese has a long and rich history, with many distinctive and famous varieties.
Cheese of course is not an English invention. In fact, it is believed that the production of cheese even predates recorded history. Experts believe that cheese was probably discovered by accident, perhaps as early as 8000 BCE, though the likely explanation is a little unpleasant to contemplate.
At this point in history, sheep were being domesticated for the first time. Rennet, which is the enzyme used to make cheese, is naturally present in the stomachs of sheep and other ruminants. It is slightly grisly to imagine, but the leak-proof stomachs and other bladder-like organs of sheep and similar ruminants were often used to store and transport milk and other liquids. The combination of warm summer heat and residual rennet in the stomach lining would most likely have curdled the milk to produce the earliest forms of primitive cheese.
As our ancestors began to understand this magical new food source, they learned how to strain the milk curds and to add salt for extra preservation, which produced a final product that we might recognise as cheese. But this was a long time before the invention of the refrigeration process, and even with a dose of salt in the mix, most cheeses in warm climates were made daily and eaten while they were still fresh. In fact, there are Roman texts describing how popular cheese was at the time. The Romans enjoyed a variety of cheeses and they considered cheese making an art form.
The word cheese itself is derived from the Latin word caseus, and the root of this word can be traced back to the proto-Indo-European root kwat, which means to ferment or become sour.
If you’re thinking that the Romans brought the secret of cheese with them when they invade Britain, you’d be mistaken. Cheese making on these islands began before the Romans arrived. Those early versions of cheese were the forerunners of Cheshire and Lancashire cheeses. In those days, English cheesemaking was localised and produced by peasant farmers, which led to the development of countless local cheese traditions and styles. Later, after the arrival of Christianity in England, monasteries also became an important cheese making factor, while the monks were also responsible for the development of many fine types of ale.
Cheesemaking, based largely in the monasteries, was a thriving industry until Henry VIII fell out with the Church at the end of the 1530s. His fight to control the English Church, sparked by his desire to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon, led to the closure of all of the monasteries in England, which drastically affected the production of cheese in England.
In fact the practice of cheesemaking went into a serious decline until the 1600s when, thanks to the development of more modern cheesemaking practices and the increasingly urban population of England, there was a revival in the fortunes of cheese. Larger dairies and creameries began to appear to meet the demands of the growing populace of towns and cities. While this was able to meet the needs of the people, the result was that local artisanal cheesemaking declined rapidly and this trend continued until the second half of the 20th century.
Fortunately, the last few decades have seen the return of the locally made cheese. The modern trend for renewing our old cheese traditions and creating new ones began in 1973 with the founding of the Campaign for Real Cheese by Patrick Rance. By the 2000s, there was a new and fast growing artisanal cheese movement, which has revived some ancient English cheeses and created entire new cheese products for us all to enjoy. To help you on your exploration of English cheeses, here are some of the many local cheeses to sample in 2021.
The family run firm Applebys is one of a small number of cheesemakers still producing traditional handmade Cheshire cheese. At Appleby’s, the cheeses are still bandaged rather than waxed, which leads to a much deeper savoury taste, packed full of minerals and yet betraying the familiar zesty citrus tang that has made Cheshire one of England’s most popular cheeses.
A relatively new cheese, Beauvale is made by Cropwell Bishop a long established and traditional Stilton producer. Beauvale is the English answer to the famous Gorgonzola. The incredibly creamy, soft texture, which becomes almost spreadable at room temperature, combine with a mile blue favour to produce an award winning cheese, which underlines the strength both of the old and the new in the world of English artisanal cheese making .
English-made goat and sheep’s milk cheeses were all but unheard of in England until the 1980s, but these days they are at the cutting edge of cheesemaking, and are paving the way for exciting new cheesemakers to make their mark. Berkswell is a sheep’s milk cheese that’s matured until firm and packs a sweet, caramel flavour along with delicious nuttiness that lingers on the tongue.
This is a famous English cheese that’s wrapped in nettle leaves as it is aged, which adds further flavour and a striking appearance to the final wheel of cheese. This, combined with the creamy texture, which becomes crumblier towards the centre, as well as the slightly tangy taste has made for a multi-award-winning combination. To enhance the seasonal effect of this remarkable cheese, Cornish Yarg also comes wrapped in wild garlic leaves.
This bloomy, bright white cheese is made from goat’s milk, and it offers a very clean, refreshing flavour that doesn’t have the familiar overpowering flavour of some of the more aged goat’s cheese. The texture of Ticklemore is quite firm, and the unusual shape is caused by the cheese being drained in a basket, which allows a more natural rind to form and creates ridges around the outside.
A Camembert-style cheese that really does prove that English cheesemakers can make soft varieties just as well as the French. This cheese has an incredible depth of flavour, with hints of mushroom, cabbage, milk and fresh fruit. The rind on this cheese is wafer-thin, just strong enough to hold the oozing middle together, and the cheese itself has been named the best in Britain on two occasions.
There are countless varieties of cheddar out there these days but Keen’s Cheddar has firmly secured its position as one of England’s most popular cheddars, and it is a world away from the mass-produced blocks that you will find in the supermarket. This is a proper handmade West Country Farmhouse Cheddar that is noticeably less sweet than modern varieties and has a much more pronounced farmyard flavour. If you’ve only ever eaten supermarket cheddar, you should definitely give this a try. It is what cheddar is supposed to taste like.
Sparkenhoe Red Leicester
For many years, red Leicester was widely regarded as a lurid orange block that tasted only slightly different to the mass-made cheddars that fill our shop shelves. Some might even have wondered how it had remained popular throughout the centuries. In 2005, however, proper authentic red Leicester was put back into the market for the first time in decades, in the form of Sparkenhoe. The deep, fiery orange, along with the sweet, long-lasting nuttiness and chewy texture reminds us of how traditionally created red Leicester can taste, and sets the bar high for other Leicester producers.
This particular modern English classic developed out of the strict rules associated with the production of the famous Stilton cheese. For a cheese to be called Stilton, it is required to meet several guidelines. It has to be made from pasteurised milk, created in certain counties of England, and hand-ladled into presses. Cheesemaker Joe Schneider followed all of these rules with his new cheese product, apart from the rule on pasteurised milk. He made his with unpasteurised milk. This meant he had to come up with another name for it, hence the creation of Stichelton. In fact, this creamy, tangy cheese has proven almost as popular as Stilton itself.
Perhaps one of the most famous of the UK’s more modern cheeses, thanks largely to its appearance in the Wallace and Gromit films, there is no doubt that Stinking Bishop provides a serious pong. This is because the cheese is washed in pear cider, which helps develop the beautiful pink rind for which this cheese is noted. Once you get past the smell, however, you’ll find that the cheese itself is fairly mild and herby. If you’re interested in the modern English cheese revival, this one is a must.