Tag Archives: cheesemaking

The Return of the British Cheese Industry


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!

Eating Cheese

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.

Letting your cheese come up to room temperature brings out their true flavour.

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.

Cheese Recipes

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.

References

  1. Hartley, D. Food in England. (Little, Brown & Company, 1954).
  2. 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.

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Yorkshire Curd Tart

Ah, Yorkshire. God’s Own Country and my home county (well, it’s 3 counties technically, but let’s not worry about that now). There are many delicious regional recipes to be found there, but this must be the best: Yorkshire curd tart. For some very strange reason it hasn’t really ever made its way out of Yorkshire. Essentially it is a baked cheesecake – something that Britain isn’t considered famous for, yet if you delve into the old cook books, you’ll find loads of recipes for them. The cheese in question here is, of course, curd cheese which is sweetened with sugar, and mixed with currants, allspice and sometimes rosewater.

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Now a few guiding words on the making of a curd tart: no matter what you read, and I want to be very clear on this, cottage cheese cannot be used. It must be curd cheese which is very different in taste and texture to cottage cheese. These days it is difficult to get your hands on it, but it is very easy to make yourself, as you’ll see below. Also, the only spice to be used must be ground allspice (or clove-pepper as it used to be called in Yorkshire). Not cinnamon, not nutmeg, and certainly not mixed spice. Another misconception is that lemon curd is spread on the pastry base of the tart. Well it’s not, Mr Michelin Guide. Lastly, and as already mentioned, it’s a kind of cheesecake, and not some kind of custard tart as some people seem to think (Mr Paul Hollywood, I’m looking at you).

Ok. Good. Glad we got those issues out of the way.

Curd tarts were traditionally made around Whitsuntide from left-over curds from the cheese-making process and seem to originate in the early-to-mid 17th century. Most families kept their own cow in those days. For those of you that don’t know (and who does?), Whitsuntide derives from the words White Sunday which is our name for Pentecost, which, if my memory serves me correctly, is the seventh Sunday after Easter. The important thing is that there’s a Bank Holiday the next day and a whole week off for half term for the schoolkids.

In dairy farms with several cows, special curd tarts would be made after the cows had calved, using the cows’ colostrum to make the curd for the tarts. Colostrum is the milk produced straight after a mammal gives birth. It is particularly rich in nutrients and fat, and is yellowish in colour. I’ve always thought of this as a bit mean of the dairy farmer’s wife, but then again, she’d also have to tuck into umbilical cord pie the next day, so I suppose it evens out.

To Make Curd Cheese

It’s really easy to make your own curd cheese. All you need is some gold top Channel Island milk, some rennet, salt, and some muslin or other cloth to drain the whey from the curds; I have used an old pillowcase in the past with much success.

Rennet is an enzyme that curdles milk. In the old days a piece of a freshly-slaughtered male calf’s stomach lining would have been popped into the milk (as still occurs in the production of some non-vegetarian cheeses). These days with the magic of science, we can produce it from bacterial culture.

This recipe makes around 750g curd cheese.

In a saucepan, warm a litre of Channel Island milk to 37⁰C, also termed ‘blood-heat’. Use a thermometer if you like. Pour the milk into a dish or bowl and stir in half a teaspoon of salt and your rennet. Follow the instructions on the bottle to see how much to add, as different brands vary. Stir it in, along with half a teaspoon of salt.

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Leave the milk to stand for 10 or 15 minutes. Upon your return, you’ll see that the milk had gone all wobbly and can be easily – and satisfyingly – broken into curds.

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Scald your straining cloth with water straight from the kettle, spread it out over a bowl so the edges hang over, and then pour in your curds and whey. Tie up the cloth with string and hang up the cheese above the bowl to strain for 4 or 5 hours. Hey presto! You have made curd cheese. It keeps for several days covered in the fridge.

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To Make a Yorkshire Curd Tart

Here’s the recipe I use which is based on the one that appears in Jane Grigson’s English Food. It makes enough filling for one 10 inch diameter tart tin, though you can make several small ones if you prefer. The recipe only requires 250g of cheese, so if you’re making your own, you might want to adjust the quantities in the recipe above, or just make three tarts.

The tart is not overly sweet and has a lovely soft centre and a golden brown colour.

125g salted butter

60g caster sugar

250g curd cheese

125g raisins

pinch of salt

2 eggs, beaten

¼ to ½ tsp ground allspice

1 tsp rosewater (optional).

blind-baked 10 inch shortcrust pastry shell (made or bought)

First of all, cream together the butter and sugar well, then mix in the cheese, raisins, salt and eggs. Season to taste with the allspice and rosewater.

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Pour the filling into the pastry shell and bake for 25 to 30 minutes at 220⁰C. Cool on a rack.


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Filed under baking, Britain, cooking, Dairy, Desserts, food, General, history, Puddings, Recipes