-The Cooking Colonel of Madras by David Smith

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Keens Farmhouse Cheddar

picture courtesy of
© British Cheese Board


What a tragedy for the dairy farmers and cheese makers of Somerset that Cheddar is not a protected food name like Stilton cheese. You can get Scottish Cheddar, Irish Cheddar and Cheddar from all sorts of countries which have historical connections with Britain such as New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Cheddar became a generic name for a particular type of cheese very early on in its history although the the village of Cheddar and Cheddar Gorge itself have been associated with cheese making since medieval times.

All those "Cheddars" from other countries are, of course, cheeses made in the style of the famous cheese named after a village in the county of Somerset, England. Cheddar itself is a straw coloured cheese with a close, firm texture and is made from cow's milk. "Cheddaring" is the process of making the cheese whereby the curd, once separated from the whey, is cut into pieces, salted and pressed to extract the maximum amount of moisture. Traditional Cheddar is matured while wrapped in a cloth for at least 12 months and, during that period, the cheese develops its characteristic rind.

Cheddar is traditionally made into cylinder shaped cheeses which can be anything from half a kilo to 30kg although monster cheeses weighing up to 90kg have been recorded as being made in the nineteenth century.

Stilton cheese

picture courtesy of
© British Cheese Board


"The King of English Cheese" "English Parmesan" - Stilton cheese has a formidable reputation to live up to and judging by some packaged supermarket Stilton that I've tasted it doesn't always succeed. A well kept Stilton is arguably the finest of English cheeses and can hold its own against any other cheese in the world. But the supermarket practice of wrapping it tightly in plastic and chilling it to death doesn't do Stilton (or any other cheese for that matter) any favours.

Stilton is an un-pressed, semi hard, blue veined cheese made from cows' milk and made into cylinders which are traditionally 17lb (8kg) in weight. Smaller Stiltons are also made.

So, where is Stilton made? Certainly not the village of Stilton from which it gets its name. Stilton village is now in Cambridgeshire (and was formerly in Huntingdonshire) but Stilton cheese may only be made in the counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. It may only be made in those 3 counties because the makers of Stilton had the foresight to create their own definition in 1910 of how and where it can be made. Stilton was given further legal protection in recent years by gaining the EC's Protected Designation of Origin (PGO) status.

Although Derbyshire is one of the counties of England in which Stilton is allowed to be made there is sadly no longer any being made in the county. Before its closure, the old Nuttalls dairy in Hartington, Derbyshire made a quarter of all the Stilton produced annually. The Hartington creamery was sold by Dairy Crest to rivals Long Clawson Dairy in 2008 and they have since moved all production to their Leicestershire factory. The old creamery in Hartington has now been sold to a property developer for a housing development. So that's "another little bit of old England gone". *

The generally accepted history, as told by Patrick Rance in The Great British Cheese Book, is that the village of Stilton never did make Stilton cheese. It's name arose because it was sold at The Bell a coaching inn on the Great North Road which passes through Stilton village. Travellers spread the word of the excellent cheese served at the inn by calling it Stilton cheese but the cheese sold at The Bell was probably bought from a dairy some 30 miles away in Leicestershire and was locally known as Quenby cheese. Recent research by local historians has suggested that cheese was indeed being made in Stilton in the early 1700s when it became famous but it is inconclusive as to whether the cheese was recognisable as the blue veined Stilton we know today or whether is was more likely to be a pressed cream cheese.

I will finish with this rather unappetising thought. When Daniel Defoe secured Stilton's fame in his 1722 book Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain by calling Stilton "our English Parmesan" he went on to add that it is "brought to the table with the mites and maggots around it so thick, that they bring a spoon for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese". The good old days eh?

* H..E.Bates - Oh! To Be in England

Sage Derby cheese

sage Derby
picture courtesy of © PDPhoto

  Derby & Sage Derby

In his classic work, The Great British Cheese Book, Patrick Rance writes "Derby is one of the oldest cheeses to become distinct from the ancient widespread type once common to all the Midlands, which led to the Cheshire we know today". So Derby and Cheshire cheeses share a common ancestor. Rance also notes that Derby was the first cheese to be made in a factory rather than on the farm and that almost half the cheese factories in England in the late 1870's were situated in Derbyshire.

As far as I can tell there is no longer any Derby cheese still made in Derbyshire. Some dairies in Cheshire make it and Fowlers of Earlswood in Warwickshire make an excellent Little Derby and have done for over 150 years. Once their Little Derby has matured for at least 7 months the outer cloth is removed and the cheese washed in red wine. The result is a hard cheese but it is softer and paler than Cheddar.

Cheeses flavoured with sage leaves were historically made in various counties of England but Sage Derby is arguably the most well known. Patrick Rance tells us that sage cheeses were commonly made in spring for eating at harvest time. Modern examples of Sage Derby are usually made with chopped sage leaves which have been soaked in chlorophyll or another food colouring to enhance the green colour. The sage mixture is then added to the cheese curd to give the effect of green marbling (see picture). Traditionally though, Sage Derby was made with a layer of sage-infused curd sandwiched between two layers of plain Derby and Fowlers of Earlswood still follow this tradition.

Kit Calvert Wensleydale cheese

Hawes 'Kit Calvert'


Wensleydale in Yorkshire has produced cheese since at least Roman times. The cheese was originally made with ewes' milk although the rough and ready local recipe was refined by monks brought over from the Roquefort area of France after the Norman conquest. Not surprisingly, seeing where the monks had come from, early Wensleydale was a blue cheese not the creamy white cheese we know today

After the abbey declined, the cheese became a farmhouse cheese and, over time, cows' milk replaced sheep's although the cheese still kept it's blue mould. From 1840 onwards regular cheese fairs were held in the town of Leyburn and the general name "Wensleydale" was first used for the local cheese. The cheeses sold at the fair weighed from 10 to 15 lbs and had a soft, moist, open texture.

As with the rest of England, the making of farmhouse cheese in Wensleydale declined in the late 19th century as the railway network spread across the country making it more profitable to transport milk to the growing cites than make cheese with it. Locally too, economies of scale made it more profitable to make cheese in large dairies.

The first dairy in Wensleydale, at Hawes, still exists today but it might not have survived at all but for the intervention of a man who is now recognised as a local food hero. His name was Kit Calvert. Research by Philip Rance, for The Great British Cheese Book, shows that at the outbreak of war in 1939 there were 176 farms in Wensleydale still making farmhouse cheeses. What Kit Calvert did was to form the Wensleydale Cheesemakers' Association bringing together local dairies and the farmhouse cheesemakers. Together they saved the Hawes dairy from closure.

In the end the softer, blue farmhouse cheeses vanished altogether as they could not be made to comply with strict wartime regulations on moisture content but their milk now went to the Hawes dairy instead to make white Wensleydale. Yet even that had to change its character to comply with government regulations and became harder and more acidic much like the generic supermarket Wensleydale you will find today. Kit Calvert himself once said "When you do manage to get some real Wensleydale you realise what a loss it is to cheese lovers everywhere"

But all is not lost. The Hawes dairy was bought by its management in 1992 and now once again produces traditional Wensleydale cheeses. Their Kit Calvert mature Wensleydale, sold by Waitrose supermarkets, is a revelation. It has a mature cheese flavour but does not attack the inside of your mouth like a lot of strong Cheddars. It is a hard cheese but is sweet and smooth. To my mind, it is the perfect example of an English cheese.

Cornish Yarg cheese

Cornish Yarg

  Cornish Yarg

Cornish Yarg is a semi-hard cheese made with cows milk and coated in nettle leaves

The cheese is pale in colour and the taste is mild and creamy with a gentle acidity. The texture is smooth and softer than a fully hard cheese like cheddar. The green nettle leaves give a very attractive finish which perfectly sets off the pale off-white cheese.

It is a modern cheese despite the ancient sounding name. In fact, Yarg was created by Alan and Jennie Gray in 1982 and it is their surname spelt backwards! The current makers of the cheese are Lynher Dairies Cheese Company of Ponsanooth near Truro, Cornwall and they currently process 2 million litres of milk a year to make their 200 tonnes of cheese.

Although Cornish Yarg was created in the 1980s the use of nettle leaves as a covering for cheese is a traditional practice. The leaves protect the cheese and attract naturally occurring moulds which help to ripen the cheese. And, in case you were wondering, the nettles would not sting your mouth if you were desperate enough to eat the rind.