In Search of Real, Traditional British Cheese

If I asked you to picture an example of ‘traditional British cheese,’ what would you think of?  Golden-yellow cheddar, perhaps – larded and bound in cloth? Crumbs of salty, moist Cheshire? From Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire, Stilton with its veins of green and blue?  My recent study of the dairying texts held at the British Library would suggest a slightly different picture.

The one-hundred-year period that began roughly in the middle of the 18th century saw profound changes to the structure and conditions of British society.  As the end of the Age of Enlightenment surged into the Industrial Revolution, a growing, and increasingly urban, population required more efficient food production methods at a time when advances in science and engineering could deliver new solutions to old problems.

Joseph Harding (1805-1876) is widely credited as being the ‘father of modern cheesemaking’ – introducing  a standardised cheddar-making process that still bears heavy influence on the way we make many cheeses today.  Harding’s goal was to produce the maximum quantity of quality cheese for the minimum amount of effort – in doing so he paved the way for the industrial cheese-processes of the modern day.  Harding’s legacy though was also to virtually wipe out knowledge of historic cheesemaking practice.

Writing in 1784, and later in 1816, Josiah Twamley, the Harding of his day, describes the average dairy herd as consisting of twenty to forty cows.  Gloucester and North Wiltshire cheese are the most highly-regarded cheeses of the day.  Curd is set in a ‘Cawl’ (tub) then broken by hand, placed in a ‘vat’ (mould) and pressed beneath weighted-boards.  Skimming of cream from the milk is common practice but produces inferior cheese.

‘In many counties, as Lincoln, Huntingdon and Bedford, people take very great pains to make bad cheese’.

Skimmed cheeses do find their way into almost every ship’s stores, though, owing to their long-keeping qualities. A premium is paid for full-cream cheeses made from the freshest milk and colour is generally held to be a measure of quality so the London market drives the use of Annatto (a type of yellow food colouring made from seeds) as a means of disguising poor cheese.

“You seldom meet with cheese of this native cast but what is exceedingly good, being fat, well-tasted, cuts flaky is stout or full-tasted, high-flavoured cheese…but there being so small a proportion of this best cheese and the demand for it being larger than the supply, a substitute is thought necessary, to make good cheese look as much like fine cheese as possible; from which cause the art of colouring originates and much increases.”

Cheese was generally made from calf rennet though a vegetable rennet extracted from Ladies Bedstraw was used when an animal stomach was unavailable.  Production lasted from May to September or October and the cows were rested through winter.  Though we tend to associate Britain with hard cheese, soft cheeses were made seasonally and for a very short time each year. Early milk or ‘strokings’ from late-lactation were used to make York, Cambridge, Cottonham and Slipcote.  ‘Slip’ refers to soft or ‘slippery curd’.

A recipe from 1776 describes a cheese called Angelot – made from milk and added cream, set with rennet and the resulting curd ladled with a skimming-dish and layered in a tall mould.  The similarity with some French styles of cheesemaking should come as little surprise – Angelot was an old name for Pont-l’Évêque.

A recipe for Stilton appears in the same year.  It was made in the village of Stilton, using morning milk plus half as much again of cream, a little spring or river water, rennet and mace.  The curds were set and salted and the newly-formed cheese was soaked in boiled whey for half an hour before being lightly pressed.  The mature cheese was about 8” inches in height by 7” inches diameter and weighed approximately 18lbs – not dissimilar to a modern Stilton. Its association with Port can be traced back to the practice of pouring ‘Sack, Canary wine or tent’ (Sherry, Madiera or Malaga) into an inch-wide hollow at the centre of a dry cheese.

‘It is so soft that when you cut it at a year old or about the Christmas next after making, that you may spread upon bread like butter’.

By 1816, Thomas Horne observes its production in Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire and Rutland and in ‘Essays on the Management of the Dairy’, Twamley writes about the ‘Parmesan of England’ which is ‘sold decayed, blue and moist’.  Both describe how the cheeses are kept in buckets covered over with horse dung to encourage ripening.

Of the harder cheeses, Twamley describes a 30lb Cheddar as having ‘a spongy appearance and the eyes are filled with a limpid, rich but not rancid oil’ while recipes for Gloucester and North Wiltshire are described at length –  the curds pressed under the whey which is poured off as it rises.  Sometimes the curds were washed to sweeten the cheese though the chemistry of the process would not be understood for several decades.  The importance of controlling the overnight acidification of the evening milk was recognised and for this purpose, a lead-lined cooler was recommended.

Coagulation times were generally around one hour – though could sometimes take as long as three to five hours – resulting  in ‘spongy and tough cheese’.  Small herd sizes encouraged the mixing of evening and morning milk – a practice that remains today.  Cheeses were made in thin, thick or loaf sizes and often salted in layers as the vat was filled.  Thin cheese would remain on the press for a day or so and loaves for around three days, developing slowly.  Twamley complained that ‘Cheese in general was made too much in a hurry’.

Twamley’s later writings, of 1816, see the appearance of a recognisable Cheshire cheese ‘smeared in butter’ – a step towards the larded cloth of the “traditional” cheese we see today. Earlier, in 1805, Horne described Cheshire as very hard, heavily salted or brined and matured for two to three years – possibly more Parmiggiano than Appleby’s.

In those times, the rinds of most cheeses were washed in water or sweet whey until they had a ‘coat of reddish or red-brown colour’. They were sometimes pierced to aid the drainage of whey or to remove the external signs of ‘hoving’ or ‘heaving’ – a defect caused by gas production within the body of the cheese.  The finished appearance would not have been altogether different from that of a modern-day stilton – but what would they taste like?  Let me fetch my cawl and skimming dish; I will tell you in a few years!

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