This post complements the episode ‘Cheddar & the Cheese Industry’ on The British Food History Podcast:
Britain’s cheese industry has certainly been through its peaks and troughs over the centuries. As Peter Atkins and I discuss in the podcast episode Cheddar & the Cheese Industry there was once a great variety of local cheeses, but as urban populations grew and there was the need for cheap cheeses for the masses, Britain underwent a cheese bottleneck. The reason? The ‘cheddarfication’ of the industry: our lovely Cheddars were stripped of their character in the 19th and 20th centuries, massed produced and insipid. Not only that, but other cheeses became more like Cheddar, i.e. sharper and harder: Cheshire, Dunlop and Wensleydale all became more like Cheddar. The latter, now a mild and curdy cow’s milk cheese was once a soft, blue ewe’s milk cheese! Writing in the 1950s, Dorothy Hartley thought our cheese industry was dead: ‘the sub-standard cheese is so poor that it invites contrast; so the good cheese standard must be lowered till both are “standard mediocre”. The industrial revolution of the dairy is complete! And our really fine cheeses are lost to England.’1
But then old cheeses and old methods returned with gusto from the late 1980s. How? You’ll have to listen to the podcast! Writing in the 1990s in the third edition of her book English Food, Jane Grigson was impressed by the ‘marvellous choice’ available by the end of the 20th century: ‘One of the happy developments since I wrote [the first edition of] this book has been the renaissance of cheesemaking in Britain.’2 She was particularly happy about the raw milk cheeses, and chesses made with ewe’s and goat’s milk. I’d like to add more soft cheeses and proper full-flavoured hard cheeses.
You are not going to find these cheeses in your local supermarket: you need a good purveyor. I can highly recommend Harvey & Brockless. They have some excellent cheeses, in fact some of my absolute all-time favourites. They sent me a selection of British cheeses through the post, and I must say I was impressed.* It wasn’t just the quality but the fact there was the full gamut of historical and traditional cheeses represented: a Romanesque fresh goat’s milk cheese (Rosary), a cheese that could have been Anglo-Saxon (Bix, a raw creamy cow’s milk cheese), my favourite blue cheese of all time (Isle of Wight Blue; just divine). There was too the oozy and very ripe Baron Bigod, and some traditional cheesecloth matured Cheddar and Devonshire Red (both by Quicke’s). There was even a jar of salty raw goat’s cheese in a herby and garlicky oil (Graceburn) which I made into a salad using the oil to make the dressing – excellent!
Excellent cheeses such as these require little help. It’s important you allow your cheese to come up to room temperature under a cheese cloche (or upturned bowl). Proper cheese is a living breathing community of bacteria and fungi and it can sit happily under cover for 2 or 3 days in a cool cupboard or larder.
Eat with simple crackers (H&B provided me with Fig & Sultana Toasts from the excellent Millar’s, and Peter’s Yard Sourdough Crispbreads) or good bread, oatcakes and digestive biscuits (recipe coming soon!). In Yorkshire cheese is eaten with fruit cake, apple pie and gingerbread. Add equally simple accoutrements such as fruit jellies, chutneys or pickles.
Using great cheeses in your cooking improves dishes immeasurably and I thought I’d provide you with a couple of good recipes that makes a small amount of cheese go a long way: a historical toasted cheese and a blue cheese ice cream which is excellent served with poached pears and home-made spelt digestives (that one will be coming in the next post).
Lady Shaftsbury’s Toasted Cheese
This is a recipe I have adapted slightly from Jane Grigson’s English Food. Jane was fortunate to receive the ‘receipt’ book that belonged to Emily Shaftesbury ‘wife of the great social reformer, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury’. They were relatively poor, at least as far as the aristocracy go, and were always in debt.2 Because of this, many of the dishes are cheap – again, as far as the aristocracy go – and this one is delicious. It would make an excellent savoury or starter, or even a ‘light’ lunch if served with a green salad on the side.
I use inverted commas when I write ‘light’ because it is actually pretty heavy going; essentially it’s a fondue of good Cheddar cheese, egg yolks and cream that is grilled before serving with toast. The small amounts given are enough to feed four people.
A good strong melting cheese is required, and I used Quicke’s mature clothbound Cheddar. It is perfect: potent, yet creamy with just the merest hint of blue. Just one 150g piece is needed for four people.
Be warned, Jane points out that toasted cheese can cause nightmares,2 so don’t eat it too close to bedtime.**
50 g butter
5 tbs double cream
150 g grated mature Cheddar cheese such as Quicke’s mature clothbound Cheddar
2 medium egg yolks
Freshly ground pepper
Optional extras: pinch of Cayenne pepper or 1-2 tsp smooth or wholegrain mustard
4 slices of toast cut into soldiers
Preheat your grill to a medium-high heat.
Gently melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium-low heat, then add the cream, cheese and egg yolks.
Stir to combine so that the cheese melts and the egg yolks thicken the mixture to produce a smooth, thick mixture like a thick pouring custard. On no account let it boil, otherwise the cheese may split and the egg yolks scramble. Slow and steady wins the race.
As the sauce is melting, season with pepper and add the Cayenne or mustard if using.
Divide the cheese mixture between four ramekins and grill until a golden brown colour, around 3 minutes.
Serve immediately with the toast soldiers.
- Hartley, D. Food in England. (Little, Brown & Company, 1954).
- Grigson, J. English Food. (Penguin, 1992).
* I should point out that I am asked fairly often to do this sort of thing, but I usually turn the company/producer down, the products on offer not being my thing at all, but the brands sold by Harvey & Brockless are genuinely the ones I purchase anyway. You can be sure I would never endorse a product I didn’t think was excellent. I am no cynic!
** Cheese does not cause nightmares.
7 responses to “The Return of the British Cheese Industry”
Looking forward to listening to the podcast. This recipe sounds fab. Will have to find a good cheese for it. I’ve been meaning to get into cooking with locally produced “artisan” cheeses to see what difference they make. I like using the Vintage organic cheddar from Sainsbury’s for everyday cooking but really should be a bit more adventurous. We sometimes go up to Courtyard Dairy near Kirby Longsdale. The cheeses there are brilliant but we’ve always just had them for tea with homemade chutneys and a good wine. All small farm produced. Have you been there?
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I reckon you have the balance right to be honest , Christopher. A good strong cheddar for everyday.
I’ve not been to the Courtyard Dairy! I should go, as I’m in that part of the world fairly often. I’ll visit next time I’m there. Thanks for the tip.
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Great podcast! Filled in some big gaps in my cheese history knowledge. Liked the extra Easter Egg on factory extra mature cheeses too.
Just a few thoughts on late medieval cheeses:
Cheese was very important to monastic communities. Woolgar discusses it in a chapter on monastic floodways in his Medieval Food book.
A few years ago I translated parts of a custumal from Rochester Priory, c.1235. Cheese gets mentioned a fair bit, especially in the context of food gifts (‘oblations’) for the monks’ paid servants. There is reference to young, medium and mature cheeses.
Fourme of Cury refers to cheese being grated in at least one recipe, which to me suggests a hard cheese. Rowan cheese appears in one recipe; this was made of milk from cows who had fed on the second harvesting of grass. Curds are also mentioned and get turned into a cheesecake.
In various medieval recipes (English & French) curds also get compressed, sometimes with eggs, and fried. Known as lait lardes, they would often be coloured quite brightly.
I need to bring together all the medieval info on cheese and write a blog post or blog posts.
Thanks again for an excellent podcast.
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That all really interesting stuff. I wonder if Peter is aware of it. I’m not sure how much work he does on medieval cheese and dairy but I think he’ll find it fascinating. Would you mind if I passed on your comments to him?
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By all means.
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