The British Cheese Renaissance

Walk into Willow on the Green, a quaint shop located in the Inner Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco across from the Golden Gate Park, and you’ll find 40 or more types of cheese made in the United Kingdom. There are Scottish favorites like Anster, a firm, crumbly, slightly tangy farmhouse cheese based on a Cheshire recipe.

From Wales, find Snowdonia’s Black Bomber, a mature cheddar known for its creamy texture and depth of flavor. It’s one of the shop’s best sellers.

Then from England, selections include both Port Wine and Sage Derby, marbled cheeses made in Derbyshire that take the flavors of their infusions. It’s hard to find this volume and variety of U.K. cheeses anywhere in the U.S., and that’s what owner Alex J. Sinclair has worked hard to offer.

“My interest is to go really off the beaten path. That’s a challenge because the U.K. produces over 800 cheeses,” says Sinclair, a graduate of The Butlers Wharf Chef School in London, and later personal chef for the general at the Copthorne Barracks in Shropshire, before moving to the U.S. eight years ago. “In the last 20 years, between shows like the Great British Bake Off and chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Mary Berry and Delia Smith, I think Americans have become intrigued with British foods.”

From Stonehenge to a Swinging ’60s Renaissance

Great Britain can trace its cheese-making roots back to Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England, notable for its huge standing stones.

“It was at the neolithic settlement at the Durrington Walls site, built around 3000 B.C., that archeologists found fat residue in ancient pottery fragments. It showed the builders of Stonehenge were keen cheesemakers. That first was likely a low-tech soft fresh goat or cow’s milk cheese,” says Ned Palmer, who is based in London, recognized as the U.K.’s leading cheese expert and author of two books, A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles, and A Cheesemonger’s Compendium of British and Irish Cheese.

The Romans brought large-scale sheep farming and cheese making to Britain in the first century A.D. Their legionnaires, which numbered in the thousands, received an ounce of cheese a day in their rations. Palmer says it was likely a hard Romano-style that could easily be cut.

Fragments of Roman cheese molds are common in small-town museums across the British countryside. The landscape changed in the 1100s and through the Middle Ages when monks in monasteries advanced the art and science of cheesemaking, including using rennet.

This cheese, says Palmer, would have been a hard cheese capable of being stored and sold, albeit a low-fat variety as the monks would have skimmed the cream to churn butter.

A switch from sheep’s to cow’s milk began with the 100 Year’s War era in the 14th century, fueled by cheesemakers in East Anglia using milk from Suffolk cows. Their nearness to the major market in London meant cow’s milk cheeses caught on and have stayed strong today.

“In France, the large Manor farms broke up into smaller land holdings. That’s one reason you have loads of different cheeses in France. We kept that system much longer. The Manor cheeses were made for markets, and they developed the technology to make bigger harder cheeses that they could sell to a more distant market. These are the ancestors of all our big hard cheeses like cheddars. The British, apart from Stilton, don’t make soft cheese as a tradition,” says Palmer.

The 19th century Industrial Revolution saw railways make it easier for rural farms to ship milk to the cities rather than preserving it as cheese at home. This led to central large-scale factory cheese production, with local and regional styles of farmhouse-produced cheeses dying out.

Two world wars also delivered blows to the U.K. dairy industry. During World War II, for example, the Ministry of Agriculture declared that only hard cheeses could be made as part of the country’s rationing efforts. This further reduced the number of styles produced. In essence, making cheese was just something to do with extra milk.

“The current Renaissance of cheese making in the U.K. started in the 1960s and 1970s. It was set up within the social activism and social entrepreneurialism that was part of the counterculture at the time. I think some people were also uncomfortable with the industrialization of food. The result is that cheesemakers have sought to rediscover some of these lost cheeses, as well as introduce new and novel cheeses to the world,” says Palmer.

Popular Pond-Jumpers

British cheese ranks eighth in the 15 most imported cheeses in America. This is according to information compiled and published by Yahoo Finance in August 2023, based on data analyzed from the Boston, MA-headquartered Observatory of Economic Complexity. It’s only a sliver though, making up only 4.29% of America’s imported cheeses. Italian, French, Swiss, Dutch, Spanish, Greek and Irish are the leaders.

Among the U.K. cheese imports, cheddar, Stilton and Red Leicester rule, as they are synonymous with classic dishes like “ploughman’s lunch,” a cold meal of bread, cheese, and fresh or pickled onions, and shepherd’s pie, topped with cheesy mashed potatoes.

“Montgomery’s Cheddar is one of the few traditional clothbound cheddars to have been made through both world wars and is a superb example of how delicious and complex a cheddar can be. One hallmark feature of this cheese is the rustic blue cracking found near the rind that lends itself to flavors of horseradish and mustard. It is a perfect partner to a hard salami or a solid base for preparing a ploughman’s lunch,” says Josh Windsor, senior caves manager at Murray’s Cheese, headquartered in New York, NY, with 800 locations nationwide.

One of the newest cheddar exports to the U.S. from Coombe Castle International, based in Wiltshire, U.K., is Guinness Cheddar. It’s the world’s only official Guinness cheese, made with premium cheddar and infused with the distinct taste of this famous brew.

“It’s delicious sliced on a burger, or with crackers and chili chutney, or makes a great cheesy nacho dip,” recommends Georgia Streeter, marketing executive for The Creamery at Coombe Castle. The company sells to U.S. retailers such as Wakefern and Publix, as well as distributors like KeHE Foods, US Foods, Ben E. Keith and Carmela Foods.

Stilton, nicknamed the King of British Cheese, is the most popular U.K. cheese sold by Murrays, says Windsor. “There are only a handful of Stilton producers left in the U.K., and we are proud to offer both our Murray’s Stilton and Colston Bassett Stilton. The Colston Bassett-produced Stilton has a velvety texture with fruitier and more crackery aromas as you approach the rind, while our Murray’s Stilton veers toward the spicier side of the style. For pairing ideas, look to complement these aromas. Try pear butter and oat cakes for the Colston Bassett, while the Murray’s Stilton makes an excellent foil for a dark chocolate bar.”

Like cheddar, but crumbly in texture, Red Leicester is a traditional English cheese. The cheesemakers at Belton Farm, in Whitchurch, Shropshire, have created a more modern version of Red Fox, an intense and complex blend of sweet, savory, and distinctively nutty cheese that stands out from the crowd. Another of Coombe Castle International’s newest U.S. exports is Belton Farm’s Smoked Red Fox.

“Enjoy this with sourdough crackers, incorporated into macaroni and cheese, or grated over soups. A glass of Alsace Gewurztraminer is a perfect pairing,” says Streeter.

What’s New

The U.K.’s cheese renaissance and evolution continues. Companies such as Neal’s Yard Dairy, a well-respected London-based artisanal cheese retailer and wholesaler, has had as its mission to champion British cheese since its founding in 1979. Some of these include Appleby’s Cheshire, one of a few raw milk, clothbound, farmhouse Cheshires made in England, and Kirkham’s Lancashire, the last remaining maker of raw milk Lancashire cheese, where production involves combining curds from several days’ milkings. Both are available in the U.S. from retailers like Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, MI, and Greenwich Cheese Company, in Greenwich, CT.

“At the same time, we’re seeing British cheesemakers who are making European-style cheeses. For example, David Jowett of King Stone Dairy in Oxfordshire is making Rollright, a French-inspired washed rind cheese wrapped in spruce bark that’s mellow and buttery. Is this good for British cheesemaking? Absolutely! Because it’s a high-quality cheese made in partnership on a regenerative farm where the milk comes seasonally from a small herd. So, it’s not a traditional British style, but it does serve our mission which is to improve British cheese,” says Yvonne Yeoh, sales director for Neal’s Yard Dairy, who also has an office in New York City.

Rollright spreads wonderfully over a hunk of crusty bread and holds up nicely to more piquant preserves like rhubarb or lemon marmalade.

Due to several factors, including recent changes to exports caused by Brexit, many of the new U.K. cheeses are difficult to find in the U.S. However, like Rollright, Baron Bigod is another in this new wave to make its way across the pond, according to Murray’s Windsor. “Hailing from Suffolk, this cheese took its inspiration from the French Brie de Meaux. Looking to similar climates and ecosystems in continental Europe for ideas, the cheesemakers, Dulcie and Jonathan Crickmore, imported the Montbeliarde cows to make their nutty bloomy rind cheese. It’s delicious sliced over warm roasted vegetables.”

Looking ahead, Palmer is optimistic about what consumers on both sides of the Atlantic can look forward to in U.K. cheese. “I think that since the Stonehenge cheesemakers were able to craft cheese over an open fire in pottery containers, and cheese in the U.K. has weathered everything from the Black Death to the Industrial Revolution, two world wars, and now Brexit, that it’s something that’s going to continue to survive. I think we’ll see farmhouse artisan-style cheeses rise again.”

Sinclair is counting on this too, with a second Willow on the Green location in the works.

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Make Cheese a Part of Your UK Holiday

Visiting the U.K. is the best way to try its cheeses, especially those crafted by small producers.

If you only have an hour or two: Visit Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. The artisan cheese retailer has three locations in the city. These are Covent Garden Market, Borough Market Shop and the Islington Shop. “When you walk into one of our shops, a cheesemonger will greet you with a piece of cheese to sample on the tip of their knife,” says Yvonne Yeoh, sales director.

The company works with about 40 cheesemakers from around the British Isles. Employees are well-educated in the story behind each cheese, its maker, and how to buy, store and enjoy it. When purchased, cheeses are cut and wrapped to order in-store.

If you have a day or two: Plan a holiday in May for the Artisan Cheese Fair at the Melton Festivals. Located at the livestock market on Scalford Road in Melton Mowbray, a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of London, this is the U.K.’s largest fair of its kind. There are some 50 to 60 cheesemakers and nearly 300 cheeses. Tutored tastings, workshops, and food theater add to the fun. The next one is May 18-19, 2024.

If you have a week: Embark on Cheese Journeys’ annual British Cheese Odyssey, a tour to renowned cheesemakers in London, Somerset and Bath, all while staying in a beautifully restored Downton Abbey-style English manor. Set next for Oct. 6-13, 2024, a highlight of the tour is its grand gala event called “A Celebration of Cheese: An Evening with British Cheesemakers.”

“We have over 15 of Britain’s best producers annually gather at our accommodations, North Cadbury Court, for a day and evening of fun and education with our guests tasting and pairing cheese, enjoying a chef-prepared dinner, and fun activities the following day,” invites Anna Juhl, chief executive, curator and lead tour host.

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Breakfast Ham and Egg Pots

Courtesy Neal’s Yard Dairy

1 ounce slice of ham
4 fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoon crème fraiche
1 large egg
1 tablespoon grated Red Leicester cheese
Salt and black pepper to taste

Cheese Connoisseur Courtesy Neal’s Yard Dairy

Preheat oven to 325 Fahrenheit. Arrange ham in the bottom of an individual ramekin dish so that it forms a cup. Place the basil inside. Spoon in the crème fraiche and crack in the egg. Sprinkle over the Red Leicester. Season with salt and pepper. Place the ramekin on a baking tray. Bake for 15 minutes, or until cooked, but the yolk is still a little runny. Serve.

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