Everybody say cheese
Country Life UK|January 26, 2022
The millennia-long tradition of cheesemaking in Britain and Ireland, having weathered many storms, is as vigorous as ever thanks to the great cheese renaissance. Ned Palmer takes a dairy-driven tour
Ned Palmer
THE tradition of cheesemaking in Great Britain and Ireland stretches back at least 6,000 years, from the cheesemakers who fed the builders of Stonehenge to the 16th-century exporters of Cheshire and the Victorian celebrants of a Christmas Stilton. This noble tradition, however, nearly died out. In Ireland, Anglo-Norman cheese imperialism wiped out dairying for centuries and the industrial revolution, combined with the rise of cheaper, factory-made cheese, had, by the early 1970s, almost done for artisanal cheesemaking in both nations.

Happily, the late 1970s saw the beginning of the great cheese renaissance and we now live in a golden age of indigenous cheesemaking. The French have brought to the world the notion of terroir—that wines and cheeses gain much of their character from the soil, climate and culture of the places they are made —and we, too, have a terroir of cheese. In fact, it is entirely possible to carry out a grand cheese tour of Great Britain and Ireland from the comfort of your dining table.

The South-West

The West Country is the birthplace of Cheddar or ‘our most generous gift to humanity’, in the words of British cheese writer Patrick Rance. The names of the great Cheddar-making families and their cheeses are well known— Montgomery’s, Keens, Westcombe and Quicke’s —but there is a new kid on the block in Pitchfork, the first new Somerset artisan Cheddar for 150 years. This traditionally made cheese comes in great cloth-bound wheels, 1ft high and weighing in at 24kg (53lb). They mature in barns, stacked in their serried ranks to the high ceilings, grey with the mould growing on the cloth. The mould adds a note of old stone to a complex set of flavours that includes earthiness, grass and beef.

Yet Cheddar isn’t the only South-Western cheese. If Ordnance Survey maps had a sign for ‘cheese made here’—and they really should—it would look as if a demented cartographer had scattered a box of the stuff over the area. To pick out two of my favourites: Cornwall is home to Yarg, surely one of the most beautiful cheeses in the world with its emerald wrapping of nettles. Inside is a moist, crumbly texture and a delicate, fresh acidity. Somerset, meanwhile, is the lair of the rambunctious Renegade Monk, a post-modern hybrid of washed rind and blue, combining the farmy and spicy notes typically found in both styles.

The South-East

Kent, the garden of England, has traditionally been more famous for its orchards and hop farms and Sussex was always arable country. In recent years, however, they have become home to some marvellous cheeses. In Sussex, you’ll find the soft sheep’s milk Flower Marie and the rich, buttery Lord of the Hundreds; in Kent, the pudgy and wrinkled Edmund Tew is named after a convict who was deported to Australia for stealing cheese.

Elsewhere, Oxford Isis, made by Baron Robert Pouget, is a rich cow’s-milk cheese, blowsy and floral from the mead in which it is washed, and from Hampshire hails Tunworth, ‘the best Camembert in the world’, according to French chef Raymond Blanc. Beneath a railway arch in Bermondsey, southeast London, Zambian cheesemaker Bill Oglethorpe makes an Alpine-style cheese named Bermondsey Hard-Pressed—this has all the sweetness and nutty flavour you would expect from cheeses such as Comté and Gruyère. The name refers as much to the difficulty of making cheese as its firm texture.

East Anglia

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