British cheesemakers produce over 450 unique cheeses - more than in France. Sue Braithwaite reports on the rise of real cheese.
Artisan cheese is a product which above all reflects the essential local aspects of that subtle mixture of physical location, animal husbandry and farming techniques which the winemakers call 'terroir'.
A good cheesemaker understands how to exploit the differing qualities of the milk each season, which in turn are due to changes in weather and the food being grazed by the herd.
These individual, variously shaped and differently rinded cheeses are a world away from the uniform yellow, shrink wrapped blocks which too many of us have become accustomed to by the onward march of the supermarket. And don't be deceived by the modern use of the word 'farmhouse', unfortunately it has no legal significance and can be used by anyone to try and 'legitimise' the product.
Traditionally, a farmhouse cheese was just that, one developed on the farm as a way of preserving the milk from the dairy, all cheeses would have been made with raw milk and the by-product, whey, fed to the pigs - nothing was wasted.
A range of cheeses would be produced on each farm - fresh, soft ones to eat straightaway, lightly pressed ones to store for a short time and hard-pressed ones, wrapped in muslin or calico to last through the winter. Since Roman times, these local and regional cheeses have been recorded literally in their hundreds.
Talk to many artisan cheesemakers and they will tell you that the subtleties in the milk which they are trying to bring out in their cheese are really only present in raw, unpasteurised milk. There are bacteria in all cheeses which give them their individual character and flavour.
As well as killing off any possible bad bacteria, the heating process of pasteurisation also kill off the helpful ones, making it much harder to make anything like a decent product and requiring laboratory cultures to be added back during the cheesemaking process.
Many cheesemakers also feel bludgeoned by regulations and lack of support from local authorities to change or revert back to raw milk. There is a lot of history to counter.
The homogenisation of our British cheeses started in the late 1800s as the growth in transportation led to essentially local products being moved around the country. Cheeses which up to that time would have been known by the name of the farm or farmer, started to acquire names, usually denoting the region of production - Lancashire, Caerphilly, Stilton or Gloucester - so they could be identified further afield.
The advent of the Milk Marketing Board in 1913 enabled farmers to sell in their milk to a central 'distributor' rather than process it themselves. This also brought about mass-pasteurisation, partly to kill off diseases but also to extend the milk's shelf life.
The tide of industrialisation continued along with the introduction of ever more 'rules'. Conformity became the goal. For example, during the Second World War the Ministry of Food only recognised four types of cheese Cheddar, Cheshire, Leicester and Wensleydale. If you didn't comply, it was often easier to give up.
In spite of the history and food hygiene issues, and after a long decline, we are now seeing a revival of artisan cheesemaking in the UK as farmers look to diversify and develop value-added products for consumers who are increasingly looking for interest, localness and variety.
A recent count shows that The Specialist Cheesemakers Association has over 150 registered members in Britain, making over 450 unique cheeses (we possibly have more individually different cheeses now than the French!) Many of these are made using raw milk in spite of the 'lysteria hysteria' which seems to pop up every time there is some other food scare.
The three Worcestershire cheesemakers - Lightwoods in Lower Broadheath which uses exclusively raw milk, Gorsehill Abbey near Broadway which uses organic cows milk from their own herd and Anstey's of Worcester which uses both pasteurised and unpasteurised milk - all make some fine cheeses and are worth searching out.
Unfortunately John and Margaret Jenkins of Mar Goats in Little Witley stopped making their wonderful goats cheeses some time ago, but alongside their cows' milk cheeses Phil Hulland of Lightwoods has recently launched two soft goats cheeses - Capria and Rhapsody - and Colin Anstey makes a tangy hard one called Snodsbury.
A cheeseboard made up exclusively from the region's producers would take you through cow's, ewe's and goat's milk, fresh, soft, semi-soft and hard, smoked and unsmoked and even some blue. Like all small producers, they are continually refining their products and bringing new ones to the market often testing them out with loyal customers during the development process and always looking for feedback.
So take a real or virtual tour round the region's cheeses and decide for yourself if raw, organic or pasteurised makes a difference - but above all enjoy the fantastic quality and variety.
Old Fashioned Cheese Pudding
A simple dish which you can dress up if you feel like it. Makes a light supper or try it sliced and fried for breakfast. Use a strong cheese such as Lightwood's Elgar Mature.
225g grated cheese
570ml whole milk
75g streaky bacon, preferably in a piece (optional)
2 free range eggs, beaten
½ teaspoon, mustard powder or freshly grated nutmeg
Heat the milk to just under boiling point and add the breadcrumbs. Leave to stand for at least an hour. If using, cut the bacon into small chunks or strips and fry in a dry pan until crispy. Drain on kitchen paper. When you are ready to prepare the dish, gently reheat the milk and bread mixture and when hot, stir in the cheese and mix to ensure all the cheese has melted. Remove from the heat and add the beaten egg, bacon, seasoning and mustard if you are using the bacon, or if not the nutmeg. Pour the mixture into a well buttered ovenproof dish. Bake in the oven preheated to 180°C/375°F/gas mark 3 for 35-40 minutes until the pudding is fairly firm. Leave to stand for a couple of minutes before serving.
A selection of fine cheeses from the eleven traditional cheesemakers of Herefordshire, Shropshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire. For expert advice why not visit The Moustrap in either Leominster, Hereford or Ludlow? Run by the hugely knowledgeable Mark Hindle of Monkland Dairy, these specialist cheese shops stock an outstanding range of the best local and British cheeses alongside more well known European ones.
Monkland Cheese. www.mousetrapcheese.co.uk 01568 720307
Little Hereford, unpasteurised, made to a traditional Herefordshire recipe. Matured for 3-4 months for a good lingering flavour
Monkland, unpasteurised, brine-bathed cheese, fresh tasting with a crumbly texture
Neal's Yard Creamery www.nealsyardcreamery.co.uk 01981 500395
Finn, organic, unpasteurised, cream enriched cheese, with a soft creamy white mould rind
Dorstone, unpasteurised, ash rind goats cheese with a mouse-like texture
Appleby's of Hawkstone. www.applebysofhawkstone.co.uk 01948 840387
Cheshire, pasteurised, traditional Cheshire
Ludlow Food Centre www.ludlowfoodcentre.co.uk 01584 856000
Cheese with no name, a mould ripened soft cheese with a creamy texture
Remembered Hills Blue, full flavoured blue cheese in the stilton style
Mr Moyden www.mrmoyden.com 01952 810798
Wrekin White, unpasteurised, full bodied cheese matured for 6 months.
Newport 1665, unpasteurised, smoked at Bings Heath Smokery, mellow, buttery flavour with flaky texture
Shropshire Cheese Company www.shropshirecheese.co.uk 01691 828765
Tanataside, pasteurised, similar to Wenslydale, dry, slightly crumbly texture
Fowlers of Earslwood. www.traditionalcheeses.co.uk 01564 702329
Warwickshire truckle, pasteurised, made to a traditional recipe. Cheddar-like, cloth bound and waxed
Forest Blue, pasteurised, firm creamy texture, similar to a good Stilton
Ram Hall Farm. www.sheepscheese.com 01676 532203
Berkswell, unpasteurised, hard ewe's mik cheese, matured for 6 months with a nutty, tangy full flavour
Anstey's. www.ansteys.com 01905 820232
Double Worcester, pasteurised, similar to double Gloucester
Snodsbury, a hard cheese made with unpasteurised goats milk
Gorsehill Abbey. www.gorsehillabbey.co.uk 01386 852208
St Eadburgha, organic, soft brie-like, matured for 4-12 weeks
Cotswold, a range of organic soft fresh cream cheeses
Lightwood Cheese. www.lightwoodcheese.co.uk 01905 333468
Elgar Mature, unpasteurised, strong cloth bound cheddar
Chaser, unpasteurised, cream enriched soft cheese
Lightwood also makes fabulous hand-churned butter