Great British cheese
Can you imagine a sandwich containing only Branston Pickle? Or how about a ploughman’s lunch devoid of a chunk of cheddar? It doesn’t bear thinking about. Cheese is as important to British people as talking about the weather, holding doors open for strangers and saying thank you to the bus driver.
This earthy, nutty and buttery dairy product made from milk, salt, good bacteria and rennet is enjoyed by an incredible 91% of the UK’s population who have a choice of more than 750 different varieties.
From powerful Cornish cheddar and Double Gloucester in the southwest, up to the crumbly Caerphilly variety in south Wales and then further north to the similarly crumbly Cheshire cheese, each region of Great Britain has a cheese they are proud of.
Here, we take a road trip around the UK to discover the cheeses produced in each region. First stop: the East Midlands and the home of Red Leicester.
Mild, nutty and colourful, Red Leicester has been intentionally created to stand out on the cheese counter. To differentiate its firm texture and warm, caramel flavour from the rest of its cheddar siblings, Leicester’s fromagers add annatto food colouring to the cow’s milk at the beginning of the cheesemaking process. This gives Red Leicester its distinctive deep orange colour.
Although steeped in medieval history and natural beauty, the North Yorkshire valley of Wensleydale is best known for its cheese, and so it should be, as the mild, crumbly and moist cheese has been produced in the dale since the 12th century. That’s a lot of time to perfect its buttery flavour and fresh smoky aroma. Due to its popularity, creameries across the UK can produce their own Wensleydale, but only cheese made on the banks of the River Ure can officially be called Yorkshire Wensleydale.
Inspired by his time at agricultural college, Lincolnshire dairy farmer Simon Jones decided to utilise some of the spring milk from his 230 Friesian cows to produce a specialist cheese on a small scale. This was back in 1992 and since then, Jones’ Lincolnshire Poacher unpasteurised cheese has become so popular that virtually all of the milk produced on the farm goes towards its production. Surrounded by a natural rind similar in appearance to granite, it has a sweet, nutty flavour and a fresh aroma – definitely worth the 18-24 month wait while it matures.
There’s blue cheese and then there’s Stilton. Licensed only to be produced in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, this semi-soft classic has a bold, salty flavour with a pungent aftertaste that, in some cases, can make the eyes water. Introducing mould spores during the early stages of production forms the characteristic marble-like veins and it’s this completely harmless strain of penicillium roqueforti that brings out the cheese’s creaminess as it ages.
Cheddar originated in the town of the same name in Somerset in south west England in the 12th century where numerous caves provided the perfect humidity and temperature for maturing cheese. However, it wasn’t until 1856 when local dairyman Joseph Harding invented a process that drained curds of as much of their moisture as possible, that the sharp, semi-hard cheese we know and love first came to market. Since then, the popularity of cheddar has seen it become Britain’s most popular cheese, mainly due to its many family-friendly variations. Cheddar can alter significantly in taste, with strength ranging from mild to extra mature – as demonstrated superbly in Waitrose Cornish quartz cheddar – and even vintage cheddar for true connoisseurs.