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Ned Palmer on the Wonder of British & Irish Cheese

Posted on 14th October 2020 by Mark Skinner

One of the surprise hits of last Christmas, Ned Palmer's delightfully quirky A Cheesemonger's History of the British Isles is now out in paperback as our Non-Fiction Book of the Month for October. In this exclusive piece, dripping with Palmer's infectious enthusiasm for his subject, the author outlines some of Britain and Ireland's key cheeses and what they tell us about our island story.         

The Cheeses of Britain and Ireland are not just delicious, they all also embody the stories of the land they come from and the people who created them. A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles examines our past through this cheesy lens.

The builders of Britain’s most famous monument, Stonehenge, were fuelled by cheese. This exciting discovery was made in 2003 by a Bristol University research team who discovered dairy-fat molecules on pottery shards found at the ancient settlement of Durrington Walls, which is a short walk from the stones.  When Stonehenge was built, around 3500 BCE, most adult humans couldn’t digest milk but these ancient people had discovered that by letting the milk sour, which converts the lactose in milk to lactic acid, they made it edible. By setting that soured milk with rennet, draining off the liquid whey and adding salt, they discovered a nutritious, tasty, portable and endlessly varied foodstuff - cheese. 

Seator’s Orkney is made by Anne Seator on the eponymous island, which is also home of the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, whose inhabitants farmed cattle and probably made cheese. It is a fresh cows’ milk cheese, best served young when it has a delicate milky flavour cut through with a bright lemony acidity and a moist crumbly texture. Seator’s is made to the same basic recipe I mentioned above and I like to think it’s just like the cheese that fed the ancient people of the British Isles.

Washed-rind cheeses, that pungent funky family epitomised by the aptly named Stinking Bishop, remind us of the lives of the monks who made this style across the British Isles before the dissolution of the monasteries. Their rich meaty flavours would have been a welcome addition to the monk’s table, and the monkish cheesemakers, with lay brothers to look after their livestock, had time for all the brine-washing and careful ripening washed-rinds need.

Milleens, made by Quinlan Steele on the wet, salty coast of County Cork is one of my favourite washed-rinds. It has luxuriant mouth-coating creamy texture, and rambunctious suite of flavours that can include earth, smokey bacon, and a hint of the cow barn. The French claim this style originated in their monasteries, but the Irish say that they taught the French.

Cheshire Cheese comes in two colours - white and sunset orange. What colour you think Cheshire is depends on where you come from and this division has its origin in the 17th century. By the 1630s the once mighty cheesemaking region of East Anglia had fallen, due to a combination of flooding, cattle plagues and the monopolistic practices of the London Cheesemongers - a powerful consortium. These powerful businessmen were looking for another region to supply them, and in 1650 the cargo ship St. James arrived in the port of London with a shipment of excellent cheese from Cheshire. This cheese was so good the London Cheesemakers charged a whole penny a pound more than for the discredited and rock-hard Suffolk Bang. Worried that its pale colour might put off southern consumers, they got the Cheshire cheesemakers to colour their shipments with anatto, a flavourless vegetable dye to give it what southern customers thought of as a indicator of full-fat deliciousness.

Appleby’s Cheshire, made in Shropshire - but don’t let that bother you - is a truly traditional Cheshire, clothbound, and made by hand from the raw milk of the Appleby’s own herd of happy healthy cows. Appleby’s is delicately flavoured yet wonderfully complex, with a crumbly texture and juicy minerality. Their head cheesemaker Garry Gray still dyes the cheeses for the southern market, and leaves the ones for their local consumers as pale as nature intended.

In the 18th century one cheese grew famous as the direct result of the first decent road-building program since the Romans left. On the newly improved Great North Road which connected London with Edinburgh lay a coaching inn called the Bell. Travellers from both cities stopped off there and discovered a wonderful cheese that soon became known nationally by the name of the town in which the Bell Inn was located, Stilton. 

My favourite Stilton is Colston Bassett, made in Nottinghamshire, but for the book I chose a different cheese to head the 18th century chapter. Made by American Joe Schneider on the Welbeck estate in Nottinghamshire, this cheese is made with raw milk, and so cannot be called Stilton, which since 1996 the Stilton Makers Association has said must be pasteurised. In a pleasing historical nod, Joe’s unpasteurised cheese is named for the Anglo-Saxon spelling of that town - Stichelton. Both cheeses are outstanding, with a rich texture like fondant icing, and flavours that can include marmite, digestive biscuits and bubblegum.

Never mind Shakespeare or the railways, according to cheese writer Patrick Rance, Cheddar is Britain’s ‘most generous gift to humanity.’ If you’ve only ever had factory block cheese you might wonder what he was talking about, but try a chunk of proper Somerset farmhouse Cheddar cut from an imposing 24 kilo clothbound wheel - earthy, with notes of the cellar, hay, and beefy umami - and you’ll get the point. Although Cheddar has been around since at least the 16th century, it reached a high point in the 19th due to a combination of Victorian science and the expertise of local cheesemakers, in particular a young woman called Edith J. Cannon, still revered among cheesemongers for her cheesemaking skill. 

Cheddar’s reputation suffered from the bland cheeses made in factories and sold in supermarkets, but luckily for us some national treasures like Montgomery’s and Keen’s survived, to be joined by new but traditional style cheeses like Westcombe and Pitchfork, all made to a quality that Edith J. would have been proud of.

After the assaults of wartime rationing, cheap imports and industrial blandness almost destroyed traditional cheesemaking in Britain and Ireland, the last forty years have seen tremendous progress. Traditional varieties like Cheddar, Stilton and the territorials are celebrated, and some, like Single Gloucester, been brought back from the brink of extinction. Alongside these novel varieties have appeared, often hybrids of different cheese making cultures, like Lincolnshire Poacher, the love child of Gruyère and Cheddar, Edmund Tew, made to a French recipe - sort of - by an Australian cheesemaker in Kent, and an eyewatering yet rewarding combination of washed-rind and blue cheese called Renegade Monk. I call these postmodern cheeses.

It’s nice to think that when you’re eating a piece of cheese, you’re eating a piece of history, and participating in a wonderful story of tradition, craft and innovation that isn’t over yet.

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