Britain is an excellent country for the raising of sheep, goats and cows and thus for the production of milk. From the earliest times every small farmer no doubt used curds (by design or accident) as a way of using up surplus milk.
Cheesemaking techniques were probably refined by the additions of Roman and later Norman knowledge. Added to which the monasteries would have developed expertise in the art.
By the 16th century almost every parish in Britain had its own particular form of white meat (cheese). Most of these cheeses, many of which were probably soft and made of ewe’s and goat’s milk, are now long forgotten.
For centuries farms continued to make their own cheeses, the taste and textures of which depended very much on the local grazing and the methods employed in the making of the cheese. Cheese was generally made from the summer milk, sometimes from morning milk or a mixture of morning and evening milk.
Excess cheeses were then sold at the local market and the rest of the cheese was kept in the farmhouse to be eaten by the farmer’s family and the farm hands through the winter months when milk yields were low.
In 1860 there was a cattle epidemic and thousands of cattle were slaughtered. Naturally this led to a shortage of cheese and factory-made cheddar was imported from America. Factory production took hold in Britain and with increased demand for cheese in the industrialised towns the farmers could not compete when and if their herds recovered.
Before the second World War there were still 1,500 different farmhouse cheeses being produced in Britain. During the war the government commandeered milk and the making of any cheese (i.e. a "luxury" variety) which did not keep for long, was banned.
Following this further blow to traditional cheese making only 126 farms continued to make cheese. The Farmhouse Cheesemaking Scheme of 1954 helped to boost the farmhouse cheese industry.
Today there is a huge revival of interest in the making of the delicious cheeses that are our true heritage and which bear little resemblance to factory cheese.
Cheddar cheese is now the most widely made cheese in the world. It originated in Somerset near the village of Cheddar. Cheddar cheese is documented from at least the time of Elizabeth The First.
The process which sets it apart from other cheese is "cheddaring" in which the blocks of curd are repeatedly stacked and turned to facilitate the draining of moisture.
Cheddar is sold as mild which means it has matured for 3-5 months whereas mature is over 5 months and up to 9 months old. It can be as old as 2 years. A good cheddar should be smooth and not crumble when cut.
There is a Red Cheshire Cheese (coloured with annatto) and A White Cheshire Both cheeses have the same texture and flavour, slightly crumbly and a little salty. Cheshire is probably one of the oldest English cheeses. It is mentioned in the Domesday Book. And there is an old story that a Cheshire cheesemaker was executed by the Romans for refusing to share the secret of how to make the cheese.
The Cheshire Cheese curds are drained very quickly and then torn up into small pieces, milled and then pressed in moulds for between 1 and 2 days. It is usually ripened for between 4-8 weeks. Sometimes a promising looking cheese is selected for extra ripening of up to 15 months.
Made from skimmed cow’s milk. The curds are cooked and drained then washed and coated in thin cream. Nowadays it is usually sold pre-packed, often flavoured with pineapple, chives etc.
This is made from unripened rennet-curd cow’s milk. Cream cheese can be made from single or double cream.
A cow’s milk cheese. The curd is formed with the use of lactic acid. It can be bought as a medium or low fat cheese.
A pale yellow cheese with a mild yet tangy taste and slightly flaky texture. This was unfortunately one of the first cheeses to be taken from the farmhouse and made in factories. It is usually eaten far too young and is best matured for 6 months. Sage Derby is a variety of Derby with chopped sage leaves embedded in it. This delicious cheese is traditionally eaten at Christmas.
Made from unpasteurised Jersey milk Devon Garland has a layer of chopped mixed herbs in the middle. A traditional Devonshire cheese which used to be made in farmhouses on Dartmoor.
Double and Single Gloucester
Double Gloucester is an orange coloured cheese. This colour was originally achieved by the addition of carrot juice or saffron and later with annatto. It was felt that the colour would encourage London traders to buy the cheese thinking the deep orange signified richness and maturity.
The cheese used to be made from the unpasteurised milk of Gloucester cows and was not coloured for local consumption.
For about 200 years before the Second World War there was a single Gloucester Cheese also made in the Vale of Gloucester and in the Berkeley Vale. For both the Double and Single cheese skimmed evening milk and skimmed milk from the next morning were mixed and the cream was added at a lower temperature. Single Gloucester was cooled to about 8 degrees lower than Double and the Single was cut into smaller curds and was thus more acidic. Both cheeses were 15 inches in diameter but the Single was 3 1/2 inches high and weighed 15 pounds whereas the Double was 6 inches high and weighed 28 – 30 pounds.
Fresh tasting, semi-soft cheese which used to be made in the farmhouses on Exmoor. It was made from unpasteurised Jersey milk.
Made from the unpasteurised milk of Welsh Black or Jersey cows. It is eaten at all stages from semi-soft to hard. Sometimes the cheese has a natural blue vein.
Traditionally made in the Fylde, the area between the rivers Ribble and Lune. Lancashire cheese used to be referred to as "Leigh Toaster" after the town near Manchester and because the cheese was so good for toasting.
The cheese is made from a mixture of two day’s curd, which is then kept for 2 weeks. This makes the cheese acid and thus the final colour of the cheese is white.
Lancashire cheese can be sold at 4-8 weeks old or left to mature for 3 months. As it matures the flavour becomes stronger and the cheese softer. This makes it easy to spread and toast.
There is also a version of Lancashire, which is flavoured with sage.
A red cheese, coloured with annatto, once second in popularity to Cheddar. Leicester is a quick ripening cheese, which is ready to eat in 10-12 weeks. Like Lancashire it is a very good cheese for melting.
Originally made by Cistercian monks at Jervaulx Abbey probably from a Norman recipe using sheep or goat milk and making a blue veined cheese. Wensleydale was made with cow’s milk from the seventeenth century onwards and nowadays the white cheese is more common than the blue. When making Wensleydale the curd must not be allowed to go sour so the milk must be very fresh and the quantity of rennet exact. The curds are then drained very slowly. Traditionally Wensleydale cheese is eaten with apple pie.
Cheese with a dry crusty rind and a pale creamy paste with blue veining. The cheese was not actually made in Stilton but was sold at the Bell Inn there. Originally made from unpasteurised milk Stilton is never pressed. The blue vein comes from the addition of a culture of Penicillium roquefortii.
Made in the same way as Blue Stilton but without the addition of the culture. If left, however, for longer than about 10 weeks the cheese will blue naturally.
Made from unpasteurised ewe’s milk this cheese originated in Dumfrieshire. Barac is from an old Scottish word meaning milkmaid. The cheese is semi-hard and pale in colour. It has a fresh, sharp taste.