Wallace was particularly fond of Wensleydale (“cracking cheese, Gromit! ”), Antony Worrall Thompson was caught pinching cheese from his local Tesco’s and Sir Winston Churchill was a man who liked his Stilton. With over 700 cheeses produced in Britain, it’s not surprising that we are such cheese disciples, consuming some 600,000 tonnes per year. Brought by an eye-popping 98% of British households, you no longer need to roam across the channel to find tasty cheese.
The industrial revolution almost killed traditional cheese-making in the UK during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The rise of the factories gave rise to factory cheese-making and along with it pasteurization and homogenization and…you’ve guessed it, fewer original cheeses and blander products. After decades of mass-produced cheese, Britain is at the forefront of a cheese renaissance with exciting artisan varieties emerging every year. Gone are the misspent days of eating Cheesestrings and Dairylea. The British cheese industry is booming with our European neighbours going bonkers for Cheddar and Blue cheese, importing it in droves.
As National Cheese Week approaches, the time is nigh to glorify our national gastronomic delight. The British Cheese Board ran a competition for a cheese-themed national anthem. We have our very own cheese-themed Monopoly board, featuring Cheddar and Cheshire cheese. Cheese has even infiltrated into British sport with the annual cheese rolling competition held in Gloucestershire each year, where participants tumble down a hill to catch a rogue cheese reaching speeds of 70mph. While we don’t suggest that you risk broken bones and severe bruising for the sake of a hunk of cheese, we do urge you to nip to your nearest cheese shop, pick up a splendid wedge of something and go forth and wax lyrical about the wonders of British cheese!
“Britain may be a small island but British cheeses have some big personalities”, says Patrick, our chef. He has prepared his top cheeses for you swashbuckling diners to try.
1. Sparkenhoe Red Leicester. Most of the Red Leicester we come across in the supermarkets is phosphorescent orange and as flavoursome as the plastic which it came in. But don’t dismiss this as another brightly coloured cheddar impersonator. The name Sparkenhoe was coined in 1754 by an English farmer who began naming his bold-coloured cheese wheels after his prize bull. The tradition has since been revived by the Clark family of Leicester. Made from unpasteurised cows’ milk with a striking rich colour (very dark orange), this cheese has a thick, cloth-bound rind. It is subtle, nutty, rich, wholesome and biscuity. The flavours are complex but at the same time balanced and smooth like mild cheddar with a bit more going on in the background.
2. Beenleigh blue. Made from ewes’ milk, using vegetable rennet, the paste can look quite white and may be lacking the strong vein-lines you find in many other blues but don’t let this mislead you. The flavour starts out as tangy and slightly salty, revealing a full, sweet, rich almost nutty flavour. Crumbly, yet sticky at the same time, this cheese has tiny, bubbly holes. Other tasters have described it as reminiscent of a fino sherry. Made by Robin Congdon, who tried to replicate the flavours of Roquefort in his hometown of Totnes, Devon, it is matured for six months and available from early summer to winter. It is incredible with roast beetroot or tossed into a risotto and it’s sharp, tangy flavour unites very well with fatty meat dishes.
3. Wigmore is an English ewe’s milk cheese from the Berkshire region, which has regularly plaudits and awards including a Gold medal at the British cheese awards. With a thin, white rind and a silky, gooey, milky white centre, you’ll be blown away by the amazing melt-in-the-mouth taste – it’s gentle with a hint of caramel and a clean after-taste with subtle overtones of saltiness. This unsung hero is perfect if you hanker after the sweet creaminess of a good Brie but have issues with cow’s milk dairy products. It has a truly gratifying and unctuous taste – we could eat it all day long.
4. Stinking Bishop. The pungent smell of Britain’s smelliest cheese may have brought Wallace back from the dead in “The Curse-of the Were-Rabbit” and the pong of this cheese has been likened to a number of unpalatable smells, from “a rugby changing room” to “a marathon runner’s unwashed feet”. But, don’t let the aroma deter you from eating it; the taste is subtle – it has a smoky sour flavour balanced with a slightly nuttiness and fruity sweetness. The name, incidentally, originates from the variety of pear used to make the Perry (pear cider), which the cheese rinds are washed in. The cheese is pliable and spongy with small pockets of air. It is produced in limited quantities by Laurel Farm, Gloucestershire with well-sourced ingredients from the milk of once-nearly-extinct Gloucestershire cows and is aged for up to 2 months before market. And boy, does it produce some cheese with robust flavours.