Thought to be introduced to France by the Romans – themselves master cheesemakers – cheese has been made in the region for thousands of years. The art of crafting cheese was taken on in earnest by the Catholic monasteries, beginning an evolving art that has developed across the country over many centuries. The reverence for and protection of these artisan cheeses has a history in France that stretches back to 1411, when the production of Roquefort was first regulated by Parliament. There have traditionally been between 350 and 400 types of cheese made in France, but modern varieties probably bring today's number closer to 1000. However, French cheesemakers are ageing and retiring, and the next generation is reluctant to take up this labour-intensive work. Although there are many hundreds more cheesemakers in France than in the UK, the production of single-farm cheeses, made by the farmer with their own high-quality milk, is now less common in France.
Cheesemaking in Britain has also been practised for the past 2000 years, with cheddar being made in Somerset since the twelfth century. When the First World War started in 1914, Britain had 3500 independent cheesemakers. Even up to the Second World War, there were 514 farms producing cheddar alone. But the Second World War saw new laws come into effect – all milk had to be sold to The Milk Board for rationing and the only cheese it was legal to produce was a young, generic cheddar, known as Government Cheddar. This situation prevailed until rationing ended in 1954, by which time the number of cheesemakers in the country had plummeted to less than 100. Many, many traditional recipes for cheese, as well as the insight and accumulated knowledge of a life dedicated to curdling milk, was lost forever.
But the 1980s saw the beginning of a renaissance, sparked by pioneers like James Aldridge and Patrick Rance. This revival of specialist farmhouse cheeses saw cheesemaking in Britain blossom; even the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, which resulted in the culling of more than ten million cows and sheep, did not halt these developments. There are now several hundred specialist cheesemakers in the UK, producing anywhere up to 1000 varieties of cheese (depending on whose estimate you go with); an array remarkably similar to that found in France.
Where the state of cheese production in France is one born of respected tradition – with fifty-one European protected cheeses to show for it – in Britain modern cheese is born of innovation, ingenuity and personal passion. In tandem with the developments in farmhouse cheeses, the quality of cheddar, Red Leicester and Gloucester has improved enormously in the past two decades. Cheddar remains Britain's most popular cheese – one of the most consumed types in the world – with customers now demanding tastier, longer-aged cheeses; two thirds of the cheddar sold in the UK is now mature.