The English cheesemaking tradition may not quite have attained the heights of popularity of that in France, but there is a long and proud history behind it.
It is thought that cheese making dates back as early as 8000 BCE when the first sheep farmers made the slightly grizzly discover that rennet was naturally present in the stomachs of sheep. Rennet, of course, is the enzyme that plays a major role in the creation of cheese. At some point, sheep’s’ stomachs were used as containers for milk, and the combination of the rennet and a little summer heat is likely to have produced the first forms of cheese.
As our ancestors began to fully understand this magical new food source, they also learned how to strain the resulting milk curds and later, to add salt for extra preservation, the effect being to produce a final product that we might recognise as cheese.
Of course, this was a long time before the invention of refrigeration, so even with the use of salt, there was a limit on how long cheese could be stored. So most cheeses in warm climates were made daily and eaten fresh. A few Roman texts describe how popular cheese was throughout their Empire. In fact, the Romans enjoyed a range of cheeses, considering cheese making an art form.
The word cheese also owes something to the Romans, being derived from the Latin word caseus, although the root of this may be the proto-Indo-European root kwat, meaning to ferment.
The Romans undoubtedly brought their cheese making skills to Britain but by that time there was already a flourishing cheese making tradition. At this time, English cheesemaking was localised which helped lead to the development of countless local cheese traditions and styles. When Christianity arrived in England, monasteries also became key cheese making factors.
The monasteries kept the traditions of cheese making alive until the dissolution of their establishment in the 1530s, as Henry VIII fought to put himself at the head of the English church. The result was that the art of cheesemaking went into a decline until the 1600s.
Fortunately, the increasingly urban population of England and the development of new cheese making techniques meant that there was a revival in the fortunes of cheese. Larger dairies and creameries appeared to meet the needs of the growing populace of towns and cities. This had the unfortunate side effect of leading to the decline of artisanal cheesemaking.
Fortunately, this process has been reversed in recent decades and by the 2000s, there was a new and fast growing artisanal cheese movement, which has helped to revive some ancient English cheeses and created entire new cheese products for us all to enjoy.
The English cheesemaking sector has also faced a new challenge with the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated lockdowns. With many restaurants closing down for the duration, there was a sudden drop in demand for cheese, leaving cheesemakers and dairies struggling to cope.
Fortunately, cheese shops were able to step up and help. Specialist cheese chops, which for decades have been promoting English artisan cheeses, have offered a lifeline for the makers of some of the UK’s best cheeses. Many of these fromageries offer a fascinating variety of cheeses and some of them are tourist destinations in their own right. To show your support for the English cheese industry, here are some of the top fromageries to check out this summer.
Owned by Gary and Elise Jungheim, Country Cheeses have sold English cheese in Devon for more than 30 years. They began with a stall at Pannier Market, in Tavistock, and now they operate three Country Cheeses shops in the county: in Topsham, Totnes and Tavistock. They sell an impressive range of 150 cheeses, mostly from the West Country, as well as bespoke cheeses ordered from local producers, such as the Sharpham Estate’s award-winning Celeste.
The Cheese Hamlet
The Cheese Hamlet was set up way back in 1960 and over the last sixty years, has landed over forty awards, making it one of Manchester’s best places to find artisanal cheeses, from around the world – they are particularly renowned for their Swiss cheeses – and from homegrown cheese makers.
She started out by selling cheese from her garden shed, but Patricia Michelson went on to create La Fromagerie in Highbury, London, in 1992. Two more shops followed, the first in Marylebone in 2002 and then another in Bloomsbury in 2017. The stores are famous for their ‘cheese rooms’, which have replaced traditional glass counters with open shelves stacked high with products from the UK and Europe. La Fromagerie also works with the Academy of Cheese to offer day courses for professionals and cheese enthusiasts everywhere.
The Courtyard Dairy
This multi-award-winning The Courtyard Dairy in Settle, North Yorkshire is a must-visit destination for cheese-lovers. Run by Andy and Kathy Swinscoe, it comprises a beautiful shop selling artisan cheeses from the UK and Europe, a cafe serving fondue and toasties, and a cheese museum, where visitors can learn about the history of cheesemaking.
The Old Cheese Shop
There is a tradition of cheese-making in Hartington, Derbyshire, that dates back to the 1870s, but local production ceased with the closure of the Hartington cheese factory in 2009. So a group of local cheesemakers formed Hartington Creamery to keep the tradition alive. One of those shops was the Old Cheese Shop in the centre of Hartington village, and it offers over 100 varieties of British and Irish cheeses, including the creamery’s award-winning stilton.
The Bristol Cheesemonger
The Bristol Cheesemonger won Best Cheese Retailer at the Great British Cheese Awards in 2017 and has a reputation as one of the trendiest cheese shops around. The Bristol Cheesemonger is housed inside a shipping container at the city’s Wapping Wharf development and is home to an expertly curated selection of the South West’s best cheeses.
The Mousetrap Cheese Shop
Based in Hereford, the Mousetrap Cheese Shop has been selling cheese since 1990 and the team involved have decades of experience and knowledge to share. Every week they focus on a particularly good cheese (with plenty of free samples), and their full range is one of the most comprehensive in England. They also have branches in Ludlow and Leominster.
Neal’s Yard Dairy
Founded in London’s Covent Garden in 1979, Neal’s Yard has played a major role in the great English cheese revival. It works with around 40 cheesemakers across the UK and Ireland, choosing the best cheeses to mature and sell on from its three London outposts. Its speciality is the curation of traditional UK regional cheeses, showcasing the nation’s unique cheese cultures.
Based in Battersea, in London, Hamish Johnston has been operating since 1994 and has evolved to become one of the most important cheese shops in London. This outlet is particularly devoted to spreading a love of good cheese. They emphasise how important it is to taste what you’re buying, so they lay on plenty of free tasters to help you find just the right cheese.