We in the UK love our cheese. We love blue cheese on crackers, soft cheese in creamy pasta sauces, strong Cheddar bubbling on toast with a splash of Worcestershire sauce and smoked cheese with crisp, fresh apples. I bet you’re even thinking about going to the fridge now to dig into a block of cheddar. But what makes a good cheese? And which are the best British cheeses around?
What is Cheese?
Cheesemaking requires putting milk through a series of processes such as heating, cooling, curdling, drying and ageing. The various types of cheese taste different according to a huge number of reasons.
These factors include the type of milk used (cow, goat, sheep, water buffalo); the addition of bacteria to the milk (used in Blue Stilton); the different types of processes (ricotta is curdled with acid rather than rennet), and the climate in which the cheese is aged (gorgonzola is known to be aged in cold, cave-like climates).
Different ingredients, including herbs, spices, chilli peppers, horseradish, and port wine, can be added to complement different flavours of cheese.
What’s great is that cheese is incredibly versatile in both flavour and functionality. It can complement just about any item on a menu, adding intense or subtle flavours and textures. Moreover, no two are the same. Even the smallest variations in a recipe can lead to very different flavour profiles. Cheese has a real sense of regionality; each cheesemaker brings their expertise to their produce.
Traditional British Cheese
Cheese has been made in the UK dating back hundreds if not thousands of years. Over the years British cheesemakers and dairies have developed traditional British styles of cheese that are unique to the UK and popular around the world.
Recognized by its blue-green veins, crinkly inedible rind, complex flavour and crumbly texture, Blue Stilton is a classic English cheese. It has PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, meaning it can only be made within Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire or Leicestershire from locally produced pasteurized milk. Cropwell Bishop uses recipes passed down three generations to produce their Blue Stilton which takes around five weeks to mature. During this time, the Stilton gradually develops the gorgeous richness that is so much a part of its appeal.
In the 1100s, the humble cheddar cheese began its life in the village of Cheddar in southwestern England. The nearby series of caves called Cheddar Gorge naturally maintain ideal conditions (humidity, temperature, etc.) for cheese ripening. Cheddar is naturally a white or pale yellow colour, the yellow coming from naturally occurring carotene in grass eaten by dairy cows.
Montgomery’s Mature Cheddar is the epitome of traditional, handmade, unpasteurised Somerset Cheddar. It is wrapped in a muslin cloth and placed on wooden shelves before it is left to mature for 12 months. This process gives the cheddar deep, rich and nutty flavours.
West Country Farmhouse Cheddar also has PDO status. It must be produced from milk within Devon, Dorset, Cornwall or Somerset, England.
Caerphilly is a hard, crumbly Welsh cheese that was first developed to provide food for coal miners. A milder tasting cheese with a lemony tang, Caerphilly can be used to create a rich and zesty Welsh Rarebit or crumbled into salads. Traditional Caerphilly must be made using Welsh milk although it’s now mainly produced in factories in Somerset and Wiltshire.
Discovering Regional Cheeses
Cheesemaking historically was extremely localised. Farmers would develop recipes based on the ingredients and conditions available to them. This resulted in different techniques and final products depending on where you went in the country. Although information, ingredients and techniques are now widely shared, many cheesemakers stick to their local production processes.
All around the UK, cheesemakers are proudly producing cheeses with unique characteristics, traditions and recipes native to their regions. You’ve probably heard of the supermarket favourites; Red Leicester, Double Gloucester and Cheshire, but did you know that almost every county will have a named cheese that their residents will likely say is the best cheese in the land.
Famous for being featured on Wallace and Gromit as Wallace’s favourite cheese, Wensleydale originates from the Yorkshire Dales. A fairly mild flavour with a crumbly texture, Wensleydale pairs well with sweeter things, making it a perfect partner to fruit or caramelised onion.
Lincolnshire Poacher is made at Ulceby Grange Farm in Alford, Leicestershire by artisan cheesemaker Richard Tagg. It is produced using unpasteurised cow’s milk and a recipe that originated 1992. The unique flavour is a cross between a traditional West Country cheddar and a continental alpine cheese such as Comté.
Cornish Yarg is a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese made at Lynher Dairies Cheese Company near Truro. Each wheel of Cornish Yarg is made using grass rich Cornish milk and is wrapped in nettle leaves, which attracts naturally occurring edible moulds. As the cheese matures, the edible wrap imparts a delicate, mushroomy taste and develops its unique bloomy white appearance. Once matured, nettled Yarg is fresh, lemony, crumbly and creamy under its eye-striking rind.
The New Age of British Cheesemakers
The UK might be renowned for producing Cheddar, Red Leicester, Blue Stilton and Wensleydale, but the traditional British cheese landscape is changing. Just because you love traditional mozzarella or Parmesan from Italy, doesn’t mean you won’t find a local alternative you enjoy!
The Dutch classic, Gouda has a beautifully creamy and nutty flavour profile. It is a mild, cow’s milk cheese which dates back to 1184, making it one of the oldest recorded cheeses in the world still made today. But have you ever thought about eating Gouda made in Cornwall?
The Cornish Gouda Co. produce their Gouda using traditional techniques borrowed from the cheesemakers’ roots in the Netherlands. Their Cornish Gouda comes in a variety of different strengths; 18+ months matured is the strongest.
Camembert is a rich, soft, creamy surface-ripened cow’s milk cheese. And it’s French, very French… originating in Normandy in the 18th Century. Each cheese is sprayed with the mould Penicillium camemberti before ripening for three weeks. This produces the characteristic bloomy rind.
Fast forward to today and cheesemakers around the UK are trying their hand at replicating the traditionally French delicacy. Tunworth’s soft cheese is an ‘ode’ to Camembert but while its style, texture and production are similar to that of a Camembert, the taste is unique: cleaner and smoother than its French inspiration. Tunworth is a previous Supreme Champion and Gold Award winner at the British Cheese Awards.
Mozzarella, one of the most famous Italian cheeses and the most common pizza topping worldwide. It is a soft and creamy cheese that tastes like fresh milk with a slightly sour edge to it. Laverstroke Park Farm is the first company in the UK to produce fresh, buffalo mozzarella using the traditional method. Rearing a buffalo herd of over 500 across their 2,500 acres of bio-dynamic and organic farmland in Winchester, Hampshire.
Plant-based food is also on the rise. You may not associate vegan with cheese, but there is a huge number of plant-based brands catering to vegan cheese lovers! You can make Vegan cheese using coconut milk or oat protein.
Vegan Mozzarella is increasingly popular as home chefs want a realistic pizza topping. VBites manufacture the widest range of vegan products in the UK. They have been going since 1993 and are the self-proclaimed Pioneers of Plant-Based Food. Their Dairy-Free Mozzarella is a unique and innovative alternative to the much loved and iconic Mozzarella.
So if you’re looking to try a new cheese or even one of the oldest cheeses in the world, check out YouK. Discover the best cheese the UK has to offer!