Where does cheese come from?
According to the British Cheese Board over 700 different types of cheese are made in the UK. Cheddar is the best known, and the British Cheese Board suggest that it’s ‘probably the most consumed cheese in the world’. In this country, it accounts for over half of all cheese sales.
But I was shopping online with a major supermarket recently and I noticed that one well-known brand of Cheddar was described as ‘packed in the UK’, but ‘produced in the UK, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, using milk from the UK, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia’. So I decided to find out more about where Cheddar comes from, what makes Cheddar English, and what exactly makes it Cheddar.
History of Cheddar
Medieval financial records, known as pipe rolls, contain royal accounts for the period between 1130 and circa 1300. These historical accounts show that Henry II purchased 10,240lbs of Cheddar cheese in 1170. That’s 4.6 tonnes or, to put it another way, an awful lot of cheese sandwiches. (Although the sandwich wasn’t actually invented until 1762). Cheddar continued to be popular with the royals during the following centuries, and during the reign of Charles I in the mid-seventeenth century you couldn’t get hold of Cheddar unless you were part of the royal court.
In 1724 Daniel Defoe wrote about Cheddar in his book ‘A tour of the Islands of Great Britain’. His opinion was that ‘without all dispute, it is the best cheese that England affords, if not, that the whole world affords’. Defoe’s description of the communal nature of cheese production at that time is an intriguing reminder of how much our approach to work, and food, has changed in the meantime.
In the low country, on the other side Mendip Hills, lies Chedder, a village pleasantly situated under the very ridge of the mountains; before the village is a large green, or common, a piece of ground, in which the whole herd of the cows, belonging to the town, do feed; the ground is exceeding rich, and as the whole village are cowkeepers, they take care to keep up the goodness of the soil, by agreeing to lay on large quantities of dung for manuring, and inriching the land.
The milk of all the town cows, is brought together every day into a common room, where the persons appointed, or trusted for the management, measure every man’s quantity, and set it down in a book; when the quantities are adjusted, the milk is all put together, and every meal’s milk makes one cheese, and no more; so that the cheese is bigger, or less, as the cows yield more, or less, milk. By this method, the goodness of the cheese is preserved, and, without all dispute, it is the best cheese that England affords, if not, that the whole world affords.
As the cheeses are, by this means, very large, for they often weigh a hundred weight, sometimes much more, so the poorer inhabitants, who have but few cows, are obliged to stay the longer for the return of their milk; for no man has any such return, ’till his share comes to a whole cheese, and then he has it; and if the quantity of his milk deliver’d in, comes to above a cheese, the overplus rests in account to his credit, ’till another cheese comes to his share; and thus every man has equal justice, and though he should have but one cow, he shall, in time, have one whole cheese.
There was a rapid transformation of Cheddar cheese production in the twentieth century. The Milk Marketing Board took advantage of technological improvements in transportation and mechanisation to encourage pooling of milk and centralisation of cheese manufacture.
In her article on ‘The Heroes of British Cheese’, Nancy Anne Harbord points out that ‘as late as World War Two, there were still more than five hundred farms making Cheddar alone. But when the government took control of milk supply in the 1930s, making the production of any cheese other than ‘Government Cheddar’ illegal, cheapness, efficiency and uniformity became the sole considerations and the farmhouse industries of Britain were all but lost’.
So, for various reasons, small farmhouse cheese producers found it difficult to survive and many went out of business. But, in recent years, there’s been a resurgence of interest in traditional British regional products, including Cheddar.
What makes Cheddar Cheddar?
It’s actually quite hard to say what makes Cheddar Cheddar. The only legal requirement is a 1966 codex for Trading Standards, an international standard specifying that Cheddar must be a firm cheese with less than 39% moisture. In practice this pretty broad requirement encompasses a wide variety of tastes and textures.
One way of trying to identify what makes Cheddar Cheddar is to look at the way it’s made. The term ‘cheddaring’ describes a cheese-making process which is unique to Cheddar. Basically slabs of curd are cut and formed into blocks, then repeatedly turned and piled to help drain the whey while stretching and acidifying the curd. This changes the texture of the curd from crumbly to pliable, creating a hard cheese with the distinctive Cheddar texture.
Except that not all cheese sold as Cheddar is produced using this technique or has this specific texture. Some Cheddar cheese producers use a technique known as dry-stirring, which gives a slightly waxier texture. Other use a process of extrusion combined with an external wax layer resulting in a softer, creamier taste.
So maybe it’s taste rather than texture that makes Cheddar Cheddar. Wine drinkers might be familiar with the concept of ‘terroir’. It’s a French word with no exact English equivalent. But it refers to the fact that the taste of some foods is inextricably linked to the geography, weather and other unique aspects of particular regions. Products made using ingredients from another area, let alone another country, simply won’t taste the same.
The Courtyard Dairy in Yorkshire explain why traditional Somerset Cheddar tastes the way it does in an in-depth article on ‘What makes a cheese a Cheddar cheese?’. They explain: ‘The majority of Cheddar is industrially made in block vacuum-packed form, rather than individual truckles being cloth bound to allow them to breathe, and is matured quickly in warmer temperatures, producing moister cheeses which often have sharp tang but not as much complexity’. Traditional Cheddar manufacture requires a starter bacteria, but many industrial producers use an imported Swiss bacteria which is sweeter and matures faster. Whereas traditional makers are more likely to use local strains of bacteria, known as ‘pint starters’, which are native to Somerset and based on local micro-flora giving that distinctive west country flavour.
Given that cheese making techniques and recipes are continually evolving, and that modern Cheddar is probably very different to the cheese eaten by medieval royals, it might not actually be possible to give a definitive answer to what makes Cheddar Cheddar. It might be easier to make a case for what makes a tasty Cheddar tasty. But even that depends on your personal taste and, perhaps, your budget. Though the resurgence of interest in farmhouse cheeses suggests that not everyone wants to eat the more industrialised and rather blander versions of Cheddar all the time.
Is Cheddar from Cheddar?
Cheddar is named after Cheddar Gorge because the gorge, and nearby caves, provided perfect conditions (constant temperature and humidity) for traditional maturation techniques. In earlier times, in order to be officially recognized as Cheddar, the cheese had to be made within thirty miles of Wells Cathedral in Somerset (Wells is around nine miles from Cheddar village).
The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company are the only company still producing cheese within the village of Cheddar itself. If you want to be sure your slab of Cheddar was made in or near the town of Cheddar, then you need to watch out for the EU designation ‘West Country Farmhouse Cheddar’. This tells you that your cheese has been manufactured on a farm in either Somerset, or the nearby counties of Devon, Cornwall or Dorset. To be eligible to use the designation ‘West Country Farmhouse Cheddar’, the cheese must be from one of these four counties, and made using traditional hand cheddaring techniques from locally sourced milk.
Some producers argue that the ‘West Country Farmhouse Cheddar’ designation isn’t strict enough. Keen’s, Montgomery’s and Westcombe, three traditional Cheddar makers based in Somerset, were concerned that unique regional characteristics of Cheddar were disappearing. So they created a Slow Food Presidium designed to protect the unique characteristics of Somerset Cheddar by specifying stricter criteria including fresh, raw (unpasteurised) milk from the farm’s own herd.
Is English Cheddar always English?
According to the British Cheese Board, Cheddar is now made all over the world. But confusing labelling regulations can make it difficult to tell if English Cheddar is English or not. The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) calculate that 33,770 tonnes of Cheddar were imported between January and July 2016. By law, the labelling of all dairy products must specify where the last stage of processing took place. But processing could simply mean that a product such as Cheddar, which has actually been made overseas, is simply cut into smaller slices and packaged in the UK.
(Incidentally, in the same period between January and July 2016, the AHDB calculate that the UK exported 65,391 tonnes of Cheddar, nearly twice as much as we imported, which raises some interesting questions about global food miles . . . . ).
The British Cheese Board has been lobbying for a number of year for changes in the law to make it easier for consumers to understand where cheese is really from. They point out that, even where packaging makes reference to England or Britain, ‘unless the packaging on the cheese tells you that it came from a named UK dairy, farm, region or country within the UK, it is likely that the Cheddar is imported’. Alternatively, the Red Tractor logo gives reassurance that food has been produced in the UK, but not all suppliers are signed up to this scheme.
Does it matter? Why should we care where cheese comes from?
For some of us, preserving local food traditions and culinary heritage is important. And this may be linked to concerns about environmental issues and animal welfare. Neal’s Yard Dairy emphasise that: ‘Our suppliers often use milk from their own farms, thereby ensuring that they have total control over the quality of their raw materials . . . We have found that there’s a very close link between the best cheeses and respectful, non-intensive farming. Cheesemakers who produce cheese with the greatest of care demand the very best milk. Intensive production, on the other hand, is geared toward quantity over quality’.
For others it’s about supporting British farmers. The difficulties for dairy farmers in getting a fair price for their milk have been well-documented. Supermarket price wars have resulted in large corporations paying dairy suppliers less for their milk than it actually costs to produce it. Some beleaguered dairy farmers have diversified into artisanal cheese-making as a way of making their family business viable.
The last word goes to the Ed Billins, Manager of the Fromagerie in Islington:
The word ‘Cheddar’ is used to describe so many different cheeses, the meaning has become diluted. But when you buy artisan Cheddar from La Fromagerie, or other specialist cheese shops, you’re buying a product that helps to preserve regional traditions and heritage that stretch back over generations. Most importantly for us you’ll be buying a cheese that tastes hugely superior to mass-produced cheeses that are often made purely for profit without any love given to the final product.
- Most good cheesemongers will be keen to tell you about the different cheeses they stock, and will encourage you to try samples. Check the directory for details of cheesemongers near you.
- Experiment! Try out different regional cheeses. And remember to check the labelling if you shop in supermarkets or similar shops to make sure your ‘English’ or ‘British’ cheese was actually made here and not just processed or packaged in the UK.
- If you want a more intensive experience try a cheese tasting class such as those offered by Neal’s Yard Dairy.
- If you live in London buy ‘The London Cheese & Wine Guide: The Definitive Guide to the Best Places for Cheese & Wine in London’ for more ideas about where to buy and eat cheese (and drink wine).